The Illusion of Permanence

The tall grass, thigh-high and slick with dew, bent around and compressed beneath him, leaving a trail in his wake. Early morning light peered at him over the treetops which swayed lazily in the breeze. It had been a while since he had strayed from the rest of the group, but of late he found himself yearning for solitude—for time to be alone with his thoughts. Since the arrival of the Woodbury survivors, the prison had become a sea of unfamiliar faces. They banded together and kept to themselves, but it was clear that their continued presence was the result of choosing the lesser of two evils. When they were alone, they voiced their discontent in near-whispers, failing to realize that the walls of concrete and steel amplified every utterance. He knew they felt caged. He knew they longed for the way things were at Woodbury; to live in blissful ignorance as the world around them descended to the depths of hell. Most importantly, though, he knew that he made them uncomfortable. In passing, they spoke sweetly and smiled politely, but behind the pleasantries he sensed everything from mistrust to a tension that bordered on disdain. It charged the atmosphere and made him feel claustrophobic—like the air was too heavy to breathe.

He continued down the side of the hill. The ground was uneven, pockmarked by indentations and riddled with loose stone; he stepped gingerly so as not to lose his footing. At the base of the hill, the land leveled off significantly, opening into an expansive field surrounded by a chain-link fence crowned with razor-wire. He made his way there. When he was sure he was out of sight, he sat down amid the brush, took off his hat, and allowed his mind to wander.

They all had coping mechanisms. When things got bad, his Dad took watch; Daryl worked on his bike; Glenn and Maggie went off to be alone; Carol kept her hands busy—either sharpening her knife or cleaning her gun; Hershel read from the Bible; and Beth sang. He preferred to think about what life was like before the dead started walking.

He thought about Friday nights in the summertime. His Dad got off work late, but he would stay up and wait for him. As soon as he heard the car pull into the driveway, he and his Mom would rush out the door to greet him. Sometimes, they would drive into town and get ice cream at the King County Café; they would sit at the same picnic bench and watch the sun dip below the horizon as the sky filled with stars.

He thought about school, the normalcy of it—the comfort of routine. If he concentrated hard enough, he could envision his classroom—room 112—with its rows of desks, each adorned with the nametags that they made on the first day. He could still see the colorful posters lining the walls, each emblazoned with an uplifting or inspirational message—he most clearly recalled one that read: "Mistakes are starting points, not stumbling blocks."

And then there were little things: watching football with his Dad on Sunday afternoons, his Mom singing along with songs on the radio, the taste of a freshly-made cheeseburger, the games he and his friends would play, and on and on and on. The beauty of these moments was their simplicity; that a time existed when happiness trumped fear and death was but a hooded figure that preyed on the old and infirm.

He sighed deeply. The cruelty of life lay in the illusion of permanence. It was easy to take good times for granted because they seemed like they would last forever. He thought he would always have those Friday nights and days at school, and so he never cherished them. But now that they were gone and never to return, their remembrance was bittersweet—haunting and comforting all at once.

Rattling and clanging snapped him from his thoughts. Reflexively, he glanced in the direction of the noise. At the fence, three walkers had gathered: The first looked like a roast that had been left on a spit for too long; its skin sagged and hung, pulled away from the rest of its musculature which wobbled noticeably on short, knobby legs. The end-trails of the second dragged behind it. It's gut was slashed open; the wound was jagged and irregular, likely inflicted by the screwdriver sticking out of its shoulder. The third was a younger man, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, freshly killed and recently turned. Bone-deep bite wounds covered his arms and neck. Collectively, they hurtled themselves at the fence, clawing at it until the flesh from their fingers peeled back and ripped away.

He placed his hat back on his head, got to his feet, and pulled his gun from its holster. The walkers pushed ever more forcefully into the fence, their guttural groans and snarls growing in frequency and volume. He aimed his pistol at the nearest walker—the mangled young man—and prepared to fire, but he couldn't follow through. It was as though all of the air had been forced from his lungs; his limbs were rigid and would not heed him. His surroundings became hazy and obscure, like he was viewing the world through waves of heat radiating off asphalt. He had spent countless hours compartmentalizing his heart and mind, sealing away every raw emotion—all of the fear, pain, and regret that fueled weakness and vulnerability. In a moment's time, everything he'd neglected and sealed away—everything he couldn't bear to face—came rushing forth:

It was like looking through a series of still-life photographs. He could see the kid from the woods: how quickly his eyes widened and features flooded with fear; how slowly he approached in measured steps, shotgun still in hand and eyes darting furtively back and forth.

And then there was a flash of light.

An arterial red burst filled the air, radiating outward and disappearing like a firework against the night sky. The body, lying crumpled and twisted where it fell. It happened. It was real. It couldn't be undone.

He could see Hershel and Beth, their features suffused with shock. Everything had changed. In an instant, he had devolved from survivor to savage; from a harbinger of hope to unredeemable wretch. He wanted to tell them that it had to be done, that he was being cautious. He wanted to tell them that he wasn't a monster, that he took no pleasure in killing another. But the words died on his lips. An explanation wouldn't have made everything better, but it would have been a start. Instead, he kept quiet—and silence breeds suspicion.

His stomach twisted into knots when visions of his Mom appeared. Guilt and regret dredged the depths of his mind and stirred up every painful recollection: every caustic word, self-righteous condemnation, and rebuffed reconciliation was his to endure once again. He'd been using forgiveness as leverage over her; he'd wanted her to suffer for all of the wrong she had done. If he had known how abruptly things would come to an end, he would have done differently. He would have told her how sorry he was. He would have made sure she knew that she was loved. He would have been a better son. Instead, he reached for his pistol.

He could see her lying on the floor: her skin ashen; her hair slick with sweat, clinging to her face and shoulders; her stomach slit open—blood spilling forth without relent.

"Carl?" It sounded distant, a whisper of an echo.

He could feel her in his arms. She was still breathing—barely—and she was cold to the touch. With his free hand, he brushed the hair away from her face. She looked peaceful, almost like she was asleep. He kissed her gently on the cheek.

"Carl?"

Tears obscured his vision as he took aim; he had to use both hands to steady himself. His breaths were short and shallow. As he placed his finger on the trigger, he filled his lungs and refused to exhale, hoping to suffocate his apprehension. He was out of his depth. He wasn't ready for this. Yet he squeezed the trigger all the same.

"Carl!" Slowly, the fog in his mind started to lift; he could hear things happening in real-time, but couldn't put the pieces together intelligibly.

"M-mom?" The word fell from his lips as his senses returned and the world as he knew it came back into focus. Michonne stood in front of him, her brow furrowed and expression blank. Without a word, she drew her sword, turned to the fence, and dispatched the walkers. After they fell, silence prevailed.

"Wh-what happened?" He managed. He remembered his gun was still in his hand and re-holstered it. "What's going on?"

"Rick wanted to talk to you. When he couldn't find you, we started looking." She re-sheathed her sword. "You alright?"

Words failed him. After all, what could he say? He couldn't explain what happened because he didn't entirely understand it himself. He knew, though, that she wouldn't allow him to leave the question unanswered, so he nodded in reply.

"Let's head back." She turned in the direction of the prison; he followed her without pause or protest. To Carl, the walk back seemed much longer than the initial journey, in part because he had no desire to go back. It no longer felt like home. There were moments, particularly when morale was low and tensions high, when he toyed with the idea of leaving. He knew deep-down, though, that he would never follow through. He had promised his Mom that he would take care of his Dad and Judith no matter what—he'd given her his word. What would he be if he didn't keep his word?

With every step they took, the grass crackled and crunched beneath them; cicadas warbled their off-key melodies from the trees outside the perimeter. As they approached the interior gate, the monolithic walls of the prison seemed embossed against the cloudless sky, making them appear considerably more drab and lifeless.

"Hey," Michonne said casually. "Wanna talk about it?"

He hesitated, paralyzed by ambivalence.

"Look, I can tell something is bothering you. I want to help if I can…"

He stopped walking and she followed suit. He wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously, to prove that he was an indispensible member of the group. He felt he had to be a pillar of strength to accomplish this goal: it meant taking everything in stride, even things that troubled him; it meant holding back his tears when he wanted to cry; it meant never showing a chink in his armor or a crack in his resolve.

"I…um…" He willed himself to speak, but faltered. Sheepishly, he averted his eyes and studied the ground at his feet.

"Forget it." Michonne snorted. She shook her head and started walking away. "If you want to suffer in silence, that's your deal."

As the distance between them mounted, so did Carl's uncertainty. In order to survive, there were times when trust was necessary; the group was at its best when everyone trusted everybody else. Michonne trusted him when they were in King County; she put herself in danger to help him retrieve the family photo from the café. How, then, could he refuse her help when she extended an olive branch to him?

"W-wait!" He yelled, voice quavering. "Don't go…"

She returned to his side and gestured for him to sit. He did.

"One thing," He looked her in the eye to convey the gravity of what he was about to say. "Everything that we talk about… I want it to stay between you and me. No one else needs to know. Ok?"

She nodded in agreement. "Ok, then. Why don't you start by telling me why you're out here?"

"I had to get away." He said, "I can't take it in there. I don't trust those people and I don't think they trust me, either. I've heard them talking…"

"What about?"

He took a deep breath. He knew this part wouldn't be easy. "Me. They know what I am… What I've done. They know I killed that kid in the woods. I think they heard Hershel arguing with Dad about it a couple nights back."

"Yeah. I heard them getting into it. Hell, everyone probably heard it." She took pause. "Does it bother you that they know?"

"I… I dunno." He shrugged his shoulders. "Part of me doesn't care. But I'm worried about what it could mean down the road. I killed someone they knew, someone they lived with. They won't forget that."

"They'll come to terms with it."

"I'm not so sure. It's been weeks now and Hershel's still mad about it. He won't even look at me."

Michonne was silent. He could tell, though, by the look in her eyes that she was deep in thought.

"The kid in the woods… Was he handing over his gun?"

Carl looked away. The scene had replayed in his mind countless times. He had pulled the trigger before, but only as an act of survival or mercy; in his heart, he didn't know if he could classify the killing as either.

"It all happened so fast. He came running through the woods. He had a shotgun. When I saw him, I drew. Hershel drew, too. We told him to drop the gun. He didn't, though. He moved to hand it to me. It didn't feel right. He kept looking around between me, Hershel, and Beth. And Beth was holding Judith. I was nervous… and I had to make a choice…"

He trailed off. He could feel his emotions catching up with him. His throat became tight and his eyes misty.

"You chose right." Michonne said. "You gave him a chance. You didn't owe him any more than that. He could have dropped the gun and walked away, but he didn't. It's easy to look back on things and think about how they could have been done differently. But when you're in the moment and it's life or death and you have to act, you can't hesitate…"

"I know." Carl said. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "But I keep seeing him… The look on his face. I can't get it out of my head."

She tried to think of something reassuring to say but nothing that came to mind seemed remotely adequate.

"Does it ever get any easier?" He asked, his voice a mere whisper.

"I'd love to tell you it does, but I'd be lying. Killing is never easy…and it shouldn't be. After a while, you come to a place of peace with the lives you've taken, but you never forget. You carry them with you all your life 'cause their blood is on your hands."

He allowed her words to resonate.

They sat together for a while, the passage of time only evident by the position of the sun in the sky. The breeze picked up. The grass around them swayed; collectively, the bending blades both resembled and sounded like the tide lapping at the shore. An unspoken solidarity bound them together; companionship, it seemed, was the remedy for trauma.

"The day I showed up here. What made you decide to help me?" She asked. "You could have just as easily let me die… But you didn't…"

Her question provoked immediate thought. He recalled the day she showed up at the gates of the prison: wounded, exhausted, and on the verge of collapse. The dead were on her tail—the scent of blood calling to them like a siren's song.

"I helped you because you looked like you needed it…" He drew a breath as if to add something more, but decided against it.

A ghost of a smile appeared on her lips. "You didn't know me. You didn't owe me anything. Why risk your life and the safety of your group?"

"I dunno…" His voice was barely audible. "I couldn't just stand there and watch you die. I figured I could get to you in time… I had to try, anyway…"

She put her hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Not many people would've done that, especially with the way things are now. I know you're feeling bad about what happened in the woods—and you have your reasons—but don't be too hard on yourself. All of us—even your Dad—we're learning as we go. The decisions we make aren't always going to be right. All we can do is hope we are making them for the right reasons."

He looked to the ground; the brim of his Stetson cast a shadow over his face. Life would never be easy. Decisions would never be simple matters of black and white. The lines separating good and evil had been marginalized and blurred; right and wrong seemed to be little more than different shades of the same color.

"We should probably head back." Michonne said as she got to her feet. "Best not to keep them waiting too long…"

Carl followed her lead. They took a few steps toward the interior gate before something made him stop in his tracks. It wasn't long before she took note.

"What's wrong? What is it?" Her brow was knitted.

"There's something I have to do first." His voice was dry and hoarse. "Can you cover for me?"

Every part of him, from his expression to his body language, pleaded with her. She acquiesced.

"Yeah. I'll think of something." She took a few steps away before adding: "Don't be too long, alright?"

He acknowledged her with a nod before turning away and descending the hill once again. He traversed the field in the opposite direction until he came across a plot of ground covered with sparse vegetation—little more than crab grass and scrub-brush. Three mounds of compacted soil jutted from the earth; they were similar in length and width— a lopsided cross on the furthest to the right was the only distinguishing feature.

He had never stood there before; he'd never had a reason to. In truth, he didn't see the point. Death had become so commonplace that he no longer mourned his losses. But there, by the side of her grave, he couldn't help but feel her presence—like she was reaching out to him.

Tears slid down his cheeks. And all the words that he'd withheld—everything he meant to say—finally escaped him.

A/N: I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading. This is my first attempt at a Walking Dead story and I hope it was adequate! Please let me know what you thought!