Decades after Daryl Dixon was murdered a small fleet of construction equipment shows up on the ridge just over his grave. Bright yellow backhoes and bulldozers rip down the trees, level the earth, and a few weeks later a construction crew is swarming all over this patch of Daryl’s woods. They start in the spring, Daryl finds out the exact date when he spots an open newspaper with March 2, 2010 under the headline. Boyd Guthrie and the rest of the Savage Sons beat Daryl to death behind Willie’s Bar in the early hours of October 14, 1979. Over thirty years ago now.
They buried him out here in this remote corner of the Chattahoochee Forest the same day they killed him, and Daryl waits for the construction crew to uncover his bones. Much to his relief they haven’t yet; despite trampling and dragging their equipment directly over the spot. Daryl hopes his luck holds; he’s not interested in finding out what will happen if his bones are discovered and given a “proper burial” by these men. Death taught Daryl from the first instant to be grateful things aren’t worse. The crossover from life into death had started with the world fading out as Boyd stomped the back of Daryl’s head with his steel-toed boots. The very next instant everything snapped back into bright, hellish clarity. He could see and hear everything just fine, could feel his own blood cooling against his skin, could feel the hard-packed earth that was the parking lot of Willie’s. Daryl couldn’t move or speak, and for the briefest of moments thought he’d just been paralyzed.
Then Ace Morrow stared into Daryl’s open eyes and said, “Aw geez, Boyd. You done kill’t him.”
“Fucking queer deserved it,” Boyd said.
“Merle ain’t gonna be happy,” Danny Fontane grumbled just outside of Daryl’s vision. He’d been the one who held Daryl’s arms behind his back while Boyd waded in with fists wrapped in bicycle chains.
“Merle’ll get over it,” Boyd said, “Shit, we did him a favor.”
Boyd made Danny and Ace wrap Daryl’s body up in a tarp and lug it of a pickup truck. They drove for a bit, the rattle of the engine identifying the truck as Ace’s old Dodge. The truck stopped, there was the slam of the Dodge’s doors, then a terrifying black silence that lasted for hours before hearing a voice scream out,“I wanna see him! I wanna fucking SEE him!” The tarp vanished and Daryl found himself looking into his brother’s tear-streaked face.
Daryl couldn’t remember ever see him cry before.
“Oh my sweet Jesus,” Merle whispered, more tears leaking from his eyes. Merle laid a shaking hand on Daryl’s cheek, and much to his surprise he could feel it. And he could feel the whiskery kiss that Merle pressed against his forehead. Somewhere in the background Boyd was jabbering away, saying he was sorry but did Merle expect him to do? What the fuck was any man supposed to do when some queer tried to suck his his dick?
Daryl could see from Merle’s eyes that his brother didn’t believe the bullshit spewing out of Boyd’s mouth. Could see that even though Merle said, “I understand. Tried so hard my own self to beat it out of ‘im when he was a kid” that Boyd was not forgiven. Merle was not going to let this go, and despite everything Daryl loved him fiercely in that moment. Merle leaned down and kissed him again before he tenderly replaced the tarp over Daryl’s face.
Blackness again, slightly less terrifying because he knew Merle was somewhere nearby. Then hours of driving over bumped and pitted backroads god knew where. The truck stopped, the doors slammed shut, and he was dragged out. Daryl was carried slung between the two men for another fifteen minutes or so; they said nothing but Daryl could tell that the one who had him by the top part was Merle. Especially when whoever had a hold of his feet just let go and while Merle lowered him gently to the ground.
An unknown amount of time passed where Daryl heard nothing but the rhythmic scrape of metal against earth. His panic started to grow, and it peaked when he felt the first weight of the wet each thrown on his remains.
No Bubba don’t let them, Daryl screamed in his mind, reverting to his childhood name for his big brother in the midst of his panic. More weight, the noises from the outside world fading until he could hear nothing. He was imprisoned in darkness and silence and could do nothing but scream helplessly and pray for madness oh god this was hell, worse than any fire or demons or—
The world shifted. Daryl was standing outside, above ground, the change so sudden and relief so overwhelming he spent a long time just staring up at the sky without registering where he was. When Daryl came back to himself he noted vaguely they were just beneath a ridge overlooking a wooded valley. The night was black as Satan’s asshole but Daryl could see. The night had an eerie glow to it, the weak moonlight illuminating the entire forest like a spot light.
The next thing he registered was Merle kneeling down right in front of him, palm flat against the disturbed earth and breathing raggedly.
“Merle?” Boyd’s voice, “We best be on our way.”
“Need a minute,” Merle said in a thick voice, “He was my brother even if he was a queer.”
“Fine,” Boyd muttered, “I’ll be in the truck.”
Daryl was too relieved to be free from the earth to be angry. He could move, he could turn around, and when he looked down he saw he was dressed in the simple black t-shirt and jeans he’d worn to Willie’s that evening.
“Thank you fucking Jesus,” Daryl muttered. He heard the door to the truck slam shut, “If that prick didn’t want to waste his evenin’ up here he shouldn’t’ve bashed my head in.”
Merle let out a choked sob, hand going to his face. Daryl reached down and squeezed his shoulder, surprised that he could do it, surprised that he could feel the leather of Merle’s jacket beneath his hand. It didn’t go both ways; Merle took no notice of his brother’s comforting gesture. Merle’s fists balled up into the earth and he growled out, “Fuckers will pay for this, baby brother. I swear to you on everything.” Then he was getting to his feet and walking back to the truck.
Daryl never saw him again.
The taillights of the truck faded into the night. Daryl was too disoriented by what had happened to follow. In the distance he could hear the distinct “Who looks for you?” cry of a barred owl, and the chattering noise of katydids from all around. Daryl stared down at his grave and saw a bit of metal flashing in the moonlight. He bent down and saw it was the army issued Zippo lighter Merle’d brought back from ‘Nam. On one side was a hand-engraved skull and the words:
IF YOU ARE RECOVERING MY BODY
Merle had stuck the Zippo lighter straight into the earth like the world’s smallest tombstone. Later Daryl will wonder if this simple act of marking his grave was what freed him from the ground. He supposes he’ll never know one way or another.
It sure feels right.
Three decades later Daryl watches the construction crew trample over his grave again and a-fucking-gain. He wonders if his bones were discovered and unearthed what would happen. Wonders if he’d pass over into the Great Beyond or start haunting whatever pauper’s grave is his new resting place. Given these options Daryl is perfectly content to stay where he is. He’s not exactly happy—he’s fucking dead, after all—but he’s at peace. Daryl spent most of his life in woods like these, hunting and just enjoying the outdoors. The area of his haunt is beautiful, and Daryl can think of worse places to spend eternity. If he crosses over into the next life he definitely ain’t going to the place with the harps and angels floating on fluffy clouds. Haunting a cemetery is even worse—if his remains are identified they’ll probably shove him into the graveyard of Mountain View Baptist right next to his Daddy. Daryl doesn’t know if graveyards are full of ghosts that he can see and be seen by. Doesn’t know if he’ll actually talk to Will Dixon and has absolutely no interest in finding out.
He’d rather spend the rest of eternity the same way he’s spent the past thirty years—roaming through the boundaries of his haunt cataloging the flora and fauna. There’s an endless variety of life that teems in this corner of the Southern Appalachians and his death just makes it all the more amazing. He can spend hours watching a spider spin its web, days following a black bear until it crosses out of Daryl’s range, years watching a small family of foxes grow from rambunctious kits to full-fledged hunters. Daryl doesn’t even find himself wanting for human company. Just inside the boundary is a stretch of the Appalachian Trail complete with an overnight shelter. Certain times of the year things can get downright lively. Groups of hikers sit around a campfire talking and Daryl drifts among them stopping to listen to any interesting conversations.
Daryl’s favorite conversations are when the hikers tell each other ghost stories.
During these visits Daryl learns that—with a great deal of effort for pitiful results—he can affect the physical world. It works best when he tries to help things along rather than do something brand new. Knock an unsteady backpack over. Loosen shoelaces that are on their way to coming undone. Use a gentle summer breeze to blow icy cold down a guy’s neck. Daryl usually only fucks with groups of people this way. Solitary hikers he just watches, sometimes looking over their shoulders if they start reading a book. He only gets a chapter or a two at a time this way, random glimpses at a larger story he’s cut off from. A too-apt symbol for his entire existence these days.
It doesn’t happen often, but when Daryl gets bored or depressed enough he just switches off. When he comes back to the world days or years later he’s as refreshed as he remembers being after a good night’s sleep; even if switching off itself is nothing at all like sleep. Switching off is something that Daryl desperately wishes he could do for the duration of construction but he can’t. He doesn’t know why—no one gave him a fucking handbook explaining where he goes when he switches off or what exactly makes him come back or why he can only go a certain distance from his grave before looping back to it or why fucking any of it. What he does have are few theories and observations made over the past three decades. The big one is that living people within the boundaries of his haunt does something to him; calls out to him and pulls him into their orbit. The hikers on the Trail are just far enough away he can tune them out until they pass out of range but he’s still aware of them, a prickling at the back of his neck and a tug in his gut. The construction crew is something else entirely—they’re so close to his grave they may as well be up his ass. Tromping over the ground tearing down his trees and scaring off his animals, exerting a fucking pull over him that makes just high-tailing it to some other part of his haunt extremely difficult. Spring melts into summer and things get even worse; Daryl doesn’t get a moment’s fucking peace from dawn until dusk most days.
The silver lining to the fact that the living screw up his undead rhythm is that affecting the physical world becomes much easier. It’s still fucking difficult and he can’t do anything spectacular but since he’s fucking stuck and has to deal with this bullshit it’s worth the effort. Workers are locked out of their vehicles, equipment breaks down, electrical cords become tangled, wood piles get knocked over, tools malfunction. Daryl follows the most obnoxious workers around the site for hours, placing his hands on the back of their necks and concentrating. It’s the hardest thing to do but if Daryl focuses he can make them stop in their tracks and shiver. One guy almost passes out when Daryl breaks out the big guns and remembers the night he was murdered. Every thrown punch and desperate attempt to survive packed down like a crushed beer can and hurled at the guy with all the strength Daryl has.
The workers start whispering—correctly—that this place is haunted. Two men quit. Daryl overhears the foreman say they’re behind schedule and feels savage triumph. Daryl does know he’s hurting himself in the long run—dragging this out for longer than it needs to be—but he doesn’t give a shit. He can’t fucking rest, is tethered to this corner of the world, and misery loves company.
He might have kept it up all the way until the end of construction—or all the men quit, whichever came first—if Aaron hadn’t come to visit the site.
It’s mid-June when a strange little foreign car unlike anything Daryl ever saw pulls into the site. The car is the type of shiny and clean that screams it’s brand new and just off the lot. Daryl recognizes the Toyota logo but nothing else about the make of the car; to him it looks weird and futuristic. All this drives home just how long he’s been dead, and how much the world has moved without the slightest hiccup without Daryl in it.
The driver steps out of the car and all of Daryl’s brooding thoughts about his death vanish. The owner of the Toyota is tall—few inches taller than Daryl was in life—and lithe with a pair of legs that go on for miles. He’s handsome as all fucking hell—a full lower lip, deep set blue eyes, a straight nose, curly hair and scruff on his cheeks. His good looks are only amplified by the way he’s looking around at the construction site—eyes sparkling and a smile that refuses to go away. The shirt he’s wearing is is fitted enough that Daryl can get a good look at his body—-he’s all lean, wiry muscle and far more graceful than a man with that much arm and leg should be.
Jesus. It ain’t fair, Daryl’s dead and he doesn’t have a dick anymore or an actual body with actual hormones to get turned on but it still fucking happens. He still involuntarily starts thinking about what it’d be like to slide his hands over this man’s chest, how his scruff would feel scraping against his own as they kissed. What it would be like to have this man’s dick in his mouth. It's all speculation, he has no idea what any of this would be like and never will; he’d never so much as touched another man that way. Something he bitterly regrets—if he was going to be killed for being a fag anyways he might as well’ve enjoyed himself a bit beforehand. Although a guy like this wouldn’t have ever looked twice at Daryl in life; too handsome for one, with a new car that spoke to having a lot of money for two, and just something about him that screamed “college boy.”
“Mr. Raleigh,” a voice calls out, and Daryl sees the foreman coming with a hand outstretched.
“Tobin,” the apparent Mr. Raleigh says as he takes the beefy guy’s hand, “I keep asking you to call me Aaron. ‘Mr. Raleigh’ was my father,” he pauses for a beat, “Actually it was Colonel Raleigh and if you called him ‘Mister’ you’d regret it. But. Uh. Sentiment’s the same.”
“Gotcha. Sorry, we weren’t expecting you, if I’d’ve known you were coming—“
Mr. Raleigh—Aaron—waves him off, “No, no. We’re just in Blue Ridge to pick up the Jeep and wanted to stop by.”
“Oh, is your fella coming too? If you want to wait until he gets here I can show you both around.”
“Yeah, that’d be great. He’s just behind me.”
Wait, Daryl thinks, then “fella?” Before he can truly puzzle this out a massive Jeep that is as shiny and new as the Toyota pulls up and a young man gets out. He’s thin, with auburn hair, warm brown eyes, and a smile that rivals Aaron’s.
“Eric!” Aaron says, grinning and waving him over. When they meet Eric’s hand goes very clearly to Aaron’s waist, one hand around his hip. It’s discrete but the gesture so obviously intimate as is the way Aaron smiles at him that Daryl realizes that yes, these two are a together. Together, and the big, beefy redneck construction foreman doesn’t bat an eye.
Daryl is so stunned if he weren’t already dead he’d probably have a heart attack.
Hard hats are provided for the two men and Tobin leads them through the site, pointing out different places and explaining what they’ll eventually be. Daryl drifts along after them in a stunned haze, staring at the expressions of excitement on Aaron and Eric’s faces.
“We’re behind schedule,” Tobin admits, “We’ve had the damnedest luck up here. Some of the guys think the place is haunted.”
“Haunted?” Eric says, “It’s a new construction.”
“Well,” Aaron says, “this entire country is on an Indian burial ground, so that might have something to do with it.”
Daryl snorts, Eric rolls his eyes, and Tobin gives a blank look and says, “Well, anyhow. The place should be ready to go by Christmas, God willing and no more delays.”
“Well, we won’t be coming out here until spring,” Eric says, “So if the ghosts give you any more trouble we can roll with it.”
“I’m sure there are no ghosts,” Aaron says, “And I’m sure everything will be done when you say. Anyway, Eric and I were going to just take a hike in the valley for a bit, then we’ll be on our way. Good talking to you, Tobin.”
“Y’all got a compass?” Tobin says fretfully, “It don’t look like much but this valley’s easy to get turned around in.”
“Gosh, is it really?” Eric says, eyes wide, “Aaron, do you have our compass?”
Tobin doesn’t see the pinch Aaron gives his companion but Daryl does. “We’ll be careful.”
The two men return their hard hats, grab a backpack from the Jeep, and head down toward the valley, past the greatest part of construction. Daryl follows and shivers all over when they stop and look up at the wooden frame rising up on the ridge above them. They’re standing right on top of Daryl’s bones.
“Babe, did you remember our compass?” Eric asks after a moment of silence. Daryl notices for the first time there’s a bit of a mountain twang in his accent.
Aaron gives him another pinch, “Ass. He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Eric replies, “The Trail’s northeast of here, right?”
“Right,” Aaron affirms, “I don’t think we can make it today, unless you want to really rough it tonight.”
“Let’s see how far we get,” Eric says, and the two set out through the woods in the exact direction, weaving through the trees and always correcting themselves when they have to go around something. They’re quiet for a long time before Eric meditatively says, “It’s too bad that the Andersons wouldn’t sell us their place, we could’ve moved in already. No ghosts that I know of. Do they hurt the resale value, you think?”
“We could’ve kept looking—“ Aaron says.
“I’m just teasing,” Eric says with a smile, “I’m glad we’re doing it this way. It’ll be perfect, ghosts and all. I’m so excited, babe.”
“Wait until next winter when I’m working on the second draft and losing my mind and you go for the axe,” Aaron replies.
“If I haven’t killed you by the second draft you’re safe,” Eric says archly, “Research mode is when you have to worry. ‘Eric, what type of pens did people use in 1940? Does it matter if I just say pen and don’t specify what kind? Do you think people will care if I make this house blue instead of yellow? It’s yellow now but in 1950 it was probably blue—‘“
Aaron gives his shoulder an affectionate nudge, his cheeks a little pink, “I get it. Just. Nervous is all.”
“About the book?”
“The book, blowing half my advance building a haunted Indian Burial Ground Cabin…”
“Babe, it’s gonna be fine,” Eric says, “We went through this with the first one. Look how well things turned out. We can afford a few Indian Burial Ground Cabins.”
“Yeah, but with a second book you have expectations to live up to—“
“Aaron,” Eric says, voice filled with exasperated fondness, “you’ll live up to any expectations. Even if you don’t you won’t suck so bad you can’t make it up with book three.”
“So I’ve got two chances to screw up instead of one,” Aaron replies.
Eric takes Aaron’s hand in his own and squeezes, “Just think, babe. Most people only get one .”
“Well, if I screw up both books then I’ll still have you.”
“Oh no, I’m definitely gonna leave you if your second and third book are shit. I can’t be seen in public with a failed novelist. Even one who gives blowjobs as good as you.”
Aaron grins, leans down, and kisses him right there in the open. Daryl holds a breath he no longer needs, eyes wide and heart that’s long turned to dust pounding. It’s a short, sweet kiss and they’re blocked from the construction site by the trees but Daryl still starts looking around frantically. Daryl wants to scream at them, don’t they know what they’re doing, what will happen to them if they just…let it all out like this? Kiss outside where someone could walk by? Talk about blowjobs…and…They’re planning on living out here with people knowing what they are? Fuck, are they just going to go into Blue Ridge on the weekends, have dinner at the Lodge across the street from Willie’s? There’s bashed in skulls and lonely graves in the woods waiting for guys who…guys who…
To Daryl’s relief the two men pull apart, smile at each other, and Eric suggests they cut their hike short and head back to Atlanta. They don’t get turned around once as they amble back to the construction site and their vehicles. They stop to shake Tobin’s hand and the foreman promises that the cabin will be ready by Christmas even if they have to call in exorcist to chase away any ghosts or demons haunting this site. All three have a good laugh.
When they’re gone Daryl sees a few workers make swishy gestures with their wrists, make comments about “big city fudge packers”. To Tobin’s credit he tells them to keep shit like that to themselves and get the fuck back to work. There’s been too many delays as it is, and at the end of the day money is money no matter where it comes from.
Daryl barely hears him, he’s staring off down the dirt road where Aaron and Eric had driven their respective vehicles, some emotion he can’t name fluttering in his chest.
Spring, Daryl thinks, they’re coming back in the spring. If there are no more delays.
“There ain’t gonna be,” Daryl mutters to himself. He wants the two men to come back as soon as possible.