Funny, how years after Kellam had died, sometimes Tess couldn't remember his face—but she always remembered his voice.
"Look alive," he'd whisper, when they heard a clicking in the distance. Or he'd say the same thing just to get her attention, jab her in the side to make sure she was listening. He liked hearing himself talk: "Look alive. Heads up." As if that was going to protect them from whatever was lurking around the next street corner.
She'd been fifteen and she hadn't known shit. Kellam hadn't known shit, either, but he was tough and relentless, and that plus some dumb luck was enough to get them through the first year, before the QZ got set up. For maybe a month Tess thought that was when things would get better, except then the food shortages and the military crackdowns started, and Kellam fell in with a smuggling crew and Tess fell in, too. "Not gonna have a sister people think they can mess with," he'd said, and started teaching her how to fight. Not that she hadn't known how to fight before, just—only against those infected things, not other people. Turned out it was different with people. Turned out she was good at it.
"Them or us." When Tess had started shaking, after the first time she killed an infected, Kellam had said that and spat on the ground. She'd been fifteen and she hadn't known shit. She still whispered it to herself, sometimes—though the words were hollow, though Kellam had been dead for years, she'd whisper: "Them or us."
"Shit," Tess hisses as they round the corner onto Union. She holds out an arm to stop Joel, ducks behind some rubble—there is something, she'd sensed some motion. She edges out again, trying to get a glimpse—and there, down the street, on the tired old ridge of Bunker Hill, stands a cluster of furred silhouettes. Wolves.
A sorry-looking bunch of wolves, at that. Half of them are covered in mange so bad that they look more like sick alley-dogs than anything else. But the biggest of them, he looks like a wolf—huge and thick-furred and proud, stalking between them with a weighty arrogance.
Tess edges a little closer. The wolves aren't paying her any mind; they're circled around some kind of carcass. After a few steps she can tell what the carcass is—she sees the bloodied fabric laying beside it and the color of the skin.
Poor bastards. Had been a bunch smugglers, probably, or maybe refugees—caught by clickers, and then the critters had come out to gnaw at whatever was left. It wasn't uncommon.
"They keep gettin' closer to the city," Joel mutters behind her. Last time they'd seen a pack around, they'd been way south of Chinatown; now they're within a mile of the wall. Have wolves always moved so damn fast?
Tess shifts her weight, but she missteps and crunches her heel on some thin glass, snapping it with a ringing crack. The big wolf hears it and tips his head toward them. Fixes them with his yellow glare. Tess breathes in quick, braces herself—but then the wolf grunts and turns back to the carcass.
"Had a cousin who worked on one of those nature preserves," Joel says, "back when they thought those things were endangered."
Tess laughs coldly. The bullshit people used to worry about.
"Yeah, I know. Long time ago, huh."
"Your cousin ever give you any tips on how to deal with 'em?" Tess asks, resting her hand lightly on the pistol at her belt, eyes fixed on the pack ahead. There are a lot of them—six that she can see—and she's a good shot, but maybe not that good, and besides, she doesn't much care for the risk.
"Told me it's a damn good thing they're scared of people."
Tess laughs again. "Well, don't you hold your breath on that lasting much longer." Closer and closer. Nature wasn't stupid; sooner or later they'd figure out that the humans were hurting in a bad way, and start stalking the stragglers outside the wall, and that'd just be the icing on the damn cordyceps cupcake, wouldn't it?
The big one turns again, sniffing the air, and takes a few steps in their general direction. The way it walks, it reminds her of someone—heavy and lazy, with a wolf-grin to match—and she frowns. "Let's find another way around. Don't like the way the big guy's eying us."
The summer Tess was fifteen smelled of melted rubber and machine oil. She had gotten a job at one of the shoe factories north of Boston, and though the pay wasn't great and she'd had to lie about her age to work at all, it beat just doing nothing. Which was what her mom was doing—in between boyfriends, sloughing around, waiting for some other deadbeat to pick her off her feet. Tess didn't see her much.
When her older brother Kellam got wind of the factory job, he'd demanded to know how much she made, and when she told him, he laughed and said he could get twice that in one afternoon selling drugs down in Mattapan. Tess didn't really believe that but was too tired to argue. No point; Kellam got loud and dogged and stupid when he argued.
Later that summer, her younger brother got jumped. He'd been eleven, walking home one evening after playing basketball near the park. He tried to hide it but Tess had been home, and she saw the bruises splotched on the side of his face before he could duck away.
"Who did this?" Tess asked as she'd dragged him into the kitchen and pulled out the neosporin. He bit his lip and wouldn't say, looking down and to the side. Tess scowled but didn't press the question.
Once she'd finished bandaging him up, in a very small voice, he asked, "Don't tell Kellam, okay?" As if Kellam was even around much anymore. Ever since he'd dropped out he only came back to the apartment if he was drunk or needed a place to crash. Otherwise he was out with the other dropouts who had too much time and not enough sense, running a couple corners and tagging shit for kicks.
Only, this summer Tess had seen Kellam starting to hang out with Zelacor and that made her nervous, because Zelacor was big-time, from one of the New York gangs, and people around him tended to wind up dead.
No, she wouldn't tell Kellam.
So it was Tess and her little brother, mostly, and whatever money she scrounged from the factory job. She liked the work, in a way—she liked working with her hands, liked the other guys on the line. She wondered if she should drop out, sometimes, because she was making money now and the shit they taught her in school was just so damn pointless. And sometimes she thought about joining the military, when she got old enough, because it seemed like the fastest way out of this shitty spot south of Boston.
But then, that same summer, the first infected showed up in the city, on a crowded rush-hour subway train, and then the spores started flying, and the factory shut down, and the world went all to shit.
"Ross!" Tess shouts, banging on the roll-up door of the warehouse; the thin metal reverberates with every strike. "Ross, it's me. Tess and Joel. Come out."
A pause. They listen. No reply.
"Think they're inside?" Joel asks.
Tess frowns. Normally Ross has his guys meet her out front. Normally the roll-up door's open, too, and she can hear them chatting as she approaches. But Ross had also said things were tight; maybe he's trying to avoid attracting attention. Not that there's much attention to attract, out here. Chinatown fell ten years back, and now the place is a no-man's-land two miles south of the QZ—far enough to avoid attracting any military attention, and even far enough to keep other gangs or smugglers from coming around and meddling. Not worth the effort—most of the time, anyway.
Probably, Ross's guys are just waiting inside. But Tess can't shake a bad feeling. "Get out your gun," she says, and edges toward the side door.
But Ross isn't inside, either. At least, not anywhere she and Joel can find—and it's not like there's many hiding places in here, just one giant two-story open room. Anything useful got cleared out of here ages ago; all that's left on the floor are some smashed-up shipping crates. Joel's about to ask if maybe the deal's fallen through, when from a far corner of the warehouse, a corner Joel swears he'd already checked, someone calls out: "Tessa."
Joel's never heard anyone call her that before. He whirls and there's some guy standing there. A lanky man with sallow skin and dark circles under his eyes. When he offers a shaky smile and a wave, Joel can see that he's missing two teeth, one front and one bottom.
Joel shoots a side glance at Tess—but Tess is just standing there, gawping, and Joel feels a twinge of unease. If this is Ross's guy, then Tess should be smiling and chatting him up; if he's someone else, she should be drilling him for info. He's never seen her just stand there.
At last, Tess speaks: "…Andy?"
"It's—yeah, it's me."
Silence again. Tess is still gawping.
The stranger—Andy—coughs and scratches the back of his neck, looking at the ground. "I know it's been a while, but I'm real glad to see you again—"
Tess cuts him off: "Bullshit."
Her voice is flat and cold, and for Joel, it's like seeing her come alive again.
She takes a step toward Andy and he quails visibly. His voice, though earnest, is very tiny when he insists, "H-Honest. I'm bein' honest."
"Why are you here?"
"I—I wanted to see you—" Tess shoots him a glare so sharp that he actually chokes on his words, breaking into a coughing fit mid-sentence. "And Ross, Ross sent me."
"Ross sent you?" Tess laughs again, grabbing the pistol from her belt. "I haven't got time for this. You were never a good liar."
Joel takes the hint. He edges closer to Andy; Andy's blubbering too much to notice: "But—but he did! He sent me—"
Wordlessly, Joel lunges, knocking Andy over from behind—doesn't take much, the kid's built like he's made of toothpicks—and digs his boot heel into Andy's back. Andy doesn't even struggle, just lays there, cringing.
Tess crouches in front of Andy, cocking her pistol, holding it lightly on her knee. "I'm only asking nicely once."
"Ross sent me." Joel digs his heel in harder; the kid winces and wheezes but keeps talking. "He told you he'd have someone meet you here, yeah? That's me, I'm supposed to take you to 'im."
Tess scowls. Considers. Then: "I don't believe you."
On cue, Joel lifts his foot and kicks the kid in the side, hard—Andy's head hits the wall with an uncomfortably loud crack. For a moment he looks dazed, and Joel crouches down to grab the kid by the arm—he knows just how to twist it to make someone scream, how to break it half, if he wants. He doesn't have to do either, though; the kid starts blathering again on his own, his voice thin and pleading: "I-I… I don't know what to say, it's the truth, I haven't got nothin' else—Christ, Tessa, can you at least drop the gun? Or are you gonna fuckin' kill me, too?"
Silence. Joel side-eyes Tess, and she's doing that gawping thing again. Then, she says, "Joel, let him go."
Her tone is annoyed. As if it hadn't been her damn idea. Joel resents that, but he lets it go, dropping the kid and backing up a few steps. Andy doesn't stand, just stares up at Tess from the floor, plaintive, wide-eyed.
"Suppose we play along," Tess asks. "How far are we going?"
Tentatively, Andy sits up a little. "Not too far. About two miles south."
"Sounds like the old streetcar depot."
"No, no—it's uh, a little different place. This time."
For a moment, Tess and Andy are just staring at each other. Andy licks his lips, anxious. They look chapped raw. Tess rolls her eyes and sighs. "Whatever, we should get a move on. Let's go."
Joel grunts and glares at Tess.
"Oh, right." Tess turns and gestures vaguely between the two of them. "Andy, this is Joel. Joel, Andy. My little brother."
They've been here before, Tess thinks. Big empty warehouse, the two of them standing on opposite sides, her gun loaded and Andy quailing. Hell, even Joel had been there, last time.
It'd been, what, six years ago, now? Six sounded about right. Tess had lost count.
Except last time Joel had had no clue who the guy was, and neither of them had expected to see the other, and Andy had left running, not leading—he was leading them now, picking his way over a pile of discarded metal crates to clamber out a second-story window. Tess lagged behind; Andy paused to give Joel a hand up onto the ledge.
Crazy. For a moment, when no one was looking, Tess closed her eyes. Breathed deep. Then opened them again. And Andy still wasn't running.
He held out a hand to pull her up.
It had been just Tess and Andy, at first. And it started out quiet. The red line and the green line both shut down early in the morning—for a "medical emergency," and they weren't saying much more than that. Andy shrank into the lounge chair and watched the news, wide-eyed, though details were scarce. Tess's boss called and told her not to come in. Tess went to the supermarket and bought up a pile of canned foods because she had a bad feeling.
By the time Tess got back people were flooding the streets. So much that the cars were having trouble getting through all the people. She asked a few what the hell was going on but all she could make out was, things are bad in Boston. She clawed through the foot traffic and pushed her way back up to the apartment, where Andy was waiting. He rushed to hug her, then asked: "What about mom and Kellam?"
Tess tried calling them but the phone lines were down.
The news had details, now. Or, at least, they had footage—no one knew what it was, but they could watch what it did—made people go crazy, lunging like damn animals, using fingernails like claws, biting and tearing with slobbery screams. First a few, then—dozens, hundreds. Tess saw an explosion in the background of the newscast; she turned to go look out a window, but it was too far away for her to see. At some point the feed cut out completely for half a minute, and when it came back, it was a different reporter, in a different place, and no one said what had happened. And then the screams weren't only on the TV; they could hear them in the streets, just outside.
Tess and Andy had been just about to shove some furniture in front of the door when Kellam came bursting in—Andy screamed because he was scared shitless, and Tess screamed because where the hell have you been.
"World's goin' to hell," Kellam shouted, eyes feverish, hair wild. "World's all goin' to hell but I ain't goin' with it. We ain't," he added, as an afterthought. He had a giant bag slung over his back; when he emptied it out, it was nothing but guns and liquor. Serious guns, too—a rifle, a shotgun, a whole mess of handguns.
Kellam snapped at them to bar the door, to shut the windows, to stop crying, Andy. "We ain't runnin', not like those chumps in the street," Kellam said. "Everyone's out there, now. Good way to get fucking killed."
So it went like this: Kellam, crouched in one corner, crouched over the pile of guns and the whiskey bottles and the canned food. Snapping at them if any of them got too close—he was calling shots, here, he was trying to keep them all from from being fucking dead, didn't they get it? He decided who got what, when. Always with one hand on the rifle he'd gotten from God-knows-where. They didn't argue with him much.
One hand on the rifle even when he drank. He drank solely to get drunk, and he never spared a drop for any of them—not like they asked—one hand wrapped around the bottle and other around the gun, swearing under his breath the whole time about how shitty it tasted; all the good stuff had already been looted by the time he'd nicked it. When he got drunk enough he'd start on rambling. "World's ending," he said one night. That was when the televisions had long gone dark, but the radios still broadcast for two hours each night. "Y'hear that shit? World's ending but I ain't intending to end with it. Fuckin'… just stay rooted up here forever, just like this." Another night, blubbering: "Tessa, you were always my favorite sister, you know?" Which was a stupid thing to say; she was his only sister.
Once, he finished a whole bottle in a handful of hours, and it was like he got so drunk he started acting sober again; instead of ranting and grumbling and cussing he was just quiet, drinking the last of the bottle away sip by sip, watching the shadows on the wall. When he spoke, the only way Tess could tell that he'd been drinking was the way he tripped over the ends of his sentences. "You wanna hear what happened when I tried to get Zelacor?" he asked Tess. Andy'd fallen asleep on her shoulder.
Tess said yes.
"I went to Zelacor's, we were gonna… gonna get the whole gang together, 'cause, fuck it, we used to run the streets before all the shit started, so who was gonna stop us runnin' things now? And, well I showed at the place, but I was kinda late, got held up when—well, you know, some of those infected things were on the bus I was on, and I had to—had to run, I swear, Tess, that's the closest call I had—"
He paused. After a moment he shuddered. Tess shuddered, too.
"So I show up at the place late," Kellam went on, "an' Zelacor was already dead, and—bout half of the gang was dead on the floor, there. At first I thought, shit, infected must've got someone or something—but nah, it was all bullet wounds. Rick showed up and tried to blast my damn head off, just for bein' there.
"Y'wanna know what they'd gotten in a fight over? Who was gonna get which guns, or some petty bullshit thing like that, is what James told me later, when I ran into him on the way out… They couldn't work shit out and tempers were runnin' and some idiot pulled a gun and then half of 'em were dead. Fuckin' killin' each other off, and things hadn't even gotten bad yet." Kellam blinked hard, then took a big swig of his whiskey before continuing: "Only one thing you can trust in this world, Tessa, an' that's blood."
He never told the story again but sometimes he'd mutter that last bit to himself when he was drinking: "Only thing you can trust…"
So he'd ramble and rave and sometimes vomit in the corner of the bathroom—too damn lazy to even make it to the toilet—then at last he'd pass out right where he'd been sitting, in the bathroom or on the floor or slung over the couch. When he was asleep on the couch, all huddled and quiet, he almost looked like a kid again, sometimes. Like he'd fallen asleep in front of the TV with the remote in his hand.
The tension is thick when Tess and Joel and Andy leave the warehouse, thick over a mile later, when they've finished picking and pulling their way over the rubble of the South End. No one says anything at all until they hear one of the military patrols passing by, and then it's just what's necessary—get down, quiet, over here, are we clear? At one point Andy trips and nearly wrecks the whole damn operation; Tess has to drag him out of sight, just seconds before one of the soldiers rounded the corner.
At least it wasn't clickers.
They walk on and they're silent again. Joel expects Andy to talk first. He's got a look on his face like he wants to say something. His eyes are all moony and wanting. But every time he opens his mouth he holds it open like he's trying to catch flies—then he stumbles a bit, or loses his nerve, and he's back to trudging ahead of them.
So Tess ends up breaking the silence first, speaking stiff and clear and pointedly looking right past Andy: "So, how long you been runnin' with Ross's boys for?"
There's an awkward pause, like maybe Andy hadn't heard the question. Then: "Not long. Lil' over a month, maybe."
Tess shoots Andy a sidelong glance. On his belt, all he's got is a knife—and a pretty flimsy-looking one at that. "You still afraid of guns?"
"I, ah—I don't carry one, no." Tess gives him a look—the kind of look she gives when someone's trying to short her on a deal—and he sighs. "Tessa, I'm just a runner for him, really, I'm not a killer—"
"Which is why I'm having an awful hard time believing that you're with him."
Andy licks his lips and shoves his hands in his pocket, looking distinctly uncomfortable. He looks over his back, back at Joel, like he's afraid the man will tackle him again.
Tess sighs and rolls her eyes. She's not interested in another damn interrogation; if she thought she could get anything else from him that way, she would've done it by now. "It's dangerous," she says, tone dogged. "Not carrying a weapon. If you're gonna be doing this work, you have to be smart about it."
Andy says nothing, just looks away, down at the ground. Tess makes a tsking noise with her tongue. "I can't believe you're still alive."
"Yeah, don't sound too happy about it, Tessa, really," Andy says, finally indignant—when he's not slouching he's actually taller than Tess.
"I thought you were dead, Andy!" Tess snarls, whirling on him. They've stopped walking. "And I did try to find you, and you did know how to find me, and the first time you show up it's for some shitty shipment hand-off? Yeah, you don't act snippy with me."
Just as quick as Andy'd gotten himself worked up, he's looking penitent—slouching again, looking down at his feet. "Well, I'm here now," he manages, in a very small voice.
Tess snorts. "Yeah, I noticed. C'mon." She turns south and starts walking again. "Keep up the pace. We can't be out here past dark."
Andy hated guns. He always had, even back then, when they were boarded up in the apartment— the only arguments they ever had were about them. "Can't you put that thing away," he'd say, in the most unfortunate, cracky-squeaky voice; he was still getting through puberty.
When Kellam was sober he'd explode—snarl about how all that stood between us and them was the fucking guns, and he was the one running things here, and sometimes even wave his rifle around in the air just to drive the point home. If Kellam was drunk he'd just laugh, and say Andy was a stupid little shit and how the hell he'd grown up on this block so soft he'd never understand.
They had that same fight over and over; it drove Tess crazy but she never said anything, because then Kellam would just snap at her, and Andy would sulk at her, and it'd be the same damn thing but with her in the middle.
And anyway, as much as she hated hearing them bicker, it at least beat what she could overhear in the streets at night—the low and steady groans of infected people, or the weird clicking from she didn't know what, and sometimes shouts, cursing, and scattered gunfire—and Tess would lie there sleepless and try and guess whether or not someone had just died. She kept a count, for a while; she stopped counting when it reached over a hundred.
They'd been shut up in that apartment for three weeks before anyone came to look for them—well, came looking for shelter, rather. There were two of them, staggering up the stairs—Kellam got a foul look on his face when he heard them coming—and they must've figured out someone was in there, because they knocked.
"If anyone's in there, this place—it's surrounded—we barred the door on the ground floor, but we don't know how long it'll hold, and we just—" The voice cracked. Some woman's voice. There was a long pause before she was able to continue. "—it's been so hard out there, and we don't want to take your stuff or anything, we just need a way out, because it's not going to hold forever. Maybe there's a fire escape or something. Just let us out that way. Please. Anyone? Please."
"We should help them," Andy whispered.
This was one of the rare times when Kellam was perfectly sober. He arched one cool eyebrow at Andy, but otherwise remained motionless. "We're not helpin' them."
The people outside the door must've heard that. The banging on the door intensified. "Please, whoever you are. We've got nowhere else to go." Both of them. Two women. They sounded young.
Andy licked his lips and his expression hardened. It was almost comical, seeing him scowl like that; his face was too soft for it. "We've got to," he announced, and pushed himself shakily from the ground onto his feet.
Kellam's eyes widened. From where he sat, he yanked the gun up in front of him, leaning back against the wall, aiming it roughly in Andy's direction: "Andy, you take one step toward that door and I will fucking shoot."
For a moment Andy froze. For a moment Tess thought he would back down. But he unfroze, and he didn't back down, and he scowled that earnest scowl, and, quite slowly, quite deliberately, marched one foot in front of the other. In hindsight that was probably the only brave thing Andy ever did, was trying to help those women.
Kellam was a lot of things, but he wasn't a bluffer. He grunted as he pulled the AK out from under his arm. "Why didn't you try 'n' stop him?" Andy asked Tess later, someplace where Kellam couldn't overhear. "What?" Tess asked, because Andy only asked it months later, when she'd nearly forgotten about it, when they'd been running and scavenging and looting for months, and when Tess and Kellam had both started doing things far worse than ignoring those two women.
But why didn't she stop him? she wondered later. Tackle him, yell at him, plead with him, even—
But she didn't do any of that. She shouted, "Kellam, for Christ's sake," more tired than angry, when he pulled out the gun and balanced it sloppily on his leg, but she didn't move to stop him. Maybe she thought he wouldn't really—he'd been keeping them safe so far, hadn't he?—wasn't any good reason to—
But he did. Tess had heard gunshots outside the apartment before, but not like this—not so close, not from a damned rifle—the bullets soaring by two inches in front of Andy and splattering all the dry wall into a white-smoke haze. Andy staggered back like he'd been hit—Tess jumped up, then, falling just short of catching him—and he wound up falling on his back, hard. But he wasn't hit; Kellam had missed. Just barely.
"Next time I'll shoot your fucking face." Kellam turned and spat and glared at Andy. The AK was tucked under his left arm again. He wasn't a bluffer.
Andy sat, gawping at himself—but there was no wound, no blood, just his own pulse racing wild. He stared at Kellam and Kellam stared right back, and he shuddered. And he stayed put.
A few hours later they heard something crashing at the bottom of the stairwell, heard the inhuman groans. The women—who had been silent for a long while, by now—started frantically clawing at their door, a door that remained firmly shut, no matter how much they jiggled the lock and threw themselves against it. They shouted, "Please, please, please," to no avail. Then there was a flurry of footsteps, echoing up the stairwell, and they could hear the women panicking and then the infected were there—
Andy sobbed and ducked his head under Tess's arm; Tess consoled him only halfheartedly, because she could hear them—those infected people—clawing at their door, could hear the wood groaning as they slammed themselves against it, and Tess wasn't sure if Kellam had nailed the boards over it well enough, wasn't sure if it would hold, so Tess's eyes were on the window behind her, on the pile of guns next to Kellam, on the fastest way out.
Kellam snorted when Andy began to cry. "For your own good," he muttered, his left hand holding the rifle still, stroking it, even, the way you might pet a dog. He didn't flinch, didn't wince, not even when they heard one of the women trip and fall and scream, not even when they could hear the slushy sound of guts and intestines and the whimpering. When the screaming stopped—when the feeding stopped, when the infected got bored with the door and started ambling back down the stairs—Kellam spat on the carpet beside him. "Them or us. Them or us."
They've gotten quiet again, the three of them—Tess and Andy and Joel. Andy's a lot less eager to talk, and Tess doesn't seem so wound up anymore, just weary.
Joel's lagging. Not so much that Andy would notice, but Tess shoots him a questioning look. Joel shrugs. This morning, they had talked about just having Tess do this run on her own—it wouldn't have been the first job she'd run solo—but decided against it. More muscle made sense if they were having to meet outside the wall.
But now there's three of them and Joel wonders if maybe he should've stayed back, partly because whatever's going on between her and her brother is none of his business, and mostly because Tess is making him edgy—the way she is around this Andy kid—tense and soft and furious all at once. She's acting like herself but she isn't, and Joel doesn't like it.
But they keep moving.
They round a corner, and suddenly there's sun, sun in his eyes, glaringly bright—Joel squints, shades his eyes, and sees a battered street sign, HAMILTON, above him, and a little park in front of him—the grass all overgrown, a two-foot-tall snarl of weeds and shrubs and shoots. They startle away a few deer as they approach. Must mean they're getting close, if they've made it out to Dorchester already. Tess looks up at the sign, too—and scowls. "Andy," she calls—her brother is suddenly twenty paces ahead of her. "What are you trying to pull?"
"What?" Andy says, without even looking over his shoulder.
Tess jogs to catch up with him, grabbing him by the shoulder and turning him around. "You're taking us straight to the apartment. We haven't got time for detours."
Andy juts out his chin a bit, stubborn. "The drop point, it's right past here. It's just, the apartment's on the way to it."
Tess gives him that look again, the one that sent him into a coughing fit before.
"Mostly on the way," he confesses. "I just—I haven't been back here in a while, and I just wanted to see it again."
Andy fidgets. What's with him and staring at his feet? "I mean, you know. It's home."
For a moment the two of them just glare at each other—Andy stubborn, Tess incensed. If they were in a bar Joel'd half-expect a fight to break out. But Tess looks away first, and mutters, "Fine," and takes the lead.
But she was right before, Joel thinks. They don't have time for detours. The hell's gotten into her? "Tess—"
"It's fine," Tess repeats, in a stiff voice that doesn't brook much room for argument.
In the end they spent forty days boarded up in that apartment. Maybe they would've stayed longer, except the food was running out and, more important to Kellam, the liquor was running out. For a little while—near the end—Tess was worried that maybe Kellam wouldn't leave, worried that maybe Kellam intended to sit here until he either drank himself to death or starved—because he never talked about going out there, until one day he did. "Alright," he said, staggering to his feet one morning just as the sun was slitting through the windows, "help me get these boards off the door. We're heading out."
The three of them pulled the boards off together, and when they left, they had to step over the half-eaten, rotten corpses of the two women. The women Andy had wanted to save. Andy cried and Kellam hit him with the butt of his gun. Tess didn't cry, but then, she didn't look at the bodies, either—not more than she had to—and she felt a little sick from the smell, and threw up a little in her mouth, but she managed to keep moving.
When they went down the stairs and staggered onto Hamilton Street, it occurred to Tess that she could run, then. She didn't know where she'd run to—didn't know why she'd run, exactly—well, she did. Because she felt like she'd been caged for a month. Because Kellam scared her, the way he whispered, them or us.
Andy was tugging on her sleeve. He was too old for that sort of thing, but he did it anyway. The street was empty and stank of rot and she didn't know what else was out there but at least she knew Kellam.
Only one thing you can trust. She didn't run.
Tess doesn't go in the apartment. Andy asks why not, holding the door open for her, looking hurt. She bites her tongue on some choice words, and instead simply tells him that she and Joel will be waiting outside whenever he's done.
It's a good excuse for a smoke break. And God, Tess could use that right now. She pulls a beaten-up carton from her backpack and shakes two cigs out, passing one to Joel. For a few minutes it's just him, and it's the nicotine, and they're leaning back against the alley wall and Tess closes her eyes and breathes, head tilted back and shoulders loose. Funny, how sometimes she feels like she can only breathe with smoke in her lungs.
They stand in silence. The sky's getting awfully red in the west. They're not going to make it back before dark, but neither of them bother mentioning it. They know. Tess pulls out a second cigarette. She knows she should be more sparing with them—they're hard to come by nowadays—but hell, maybe she gets bit tomorrow and then wouldn't that be a waste? So she lights the second cigarette.
At last, Joel asks, "What're you thinkin', Tess?"
Tess knows what he's asking. She's been stiff ever since Andy showed up, even though Joel's probably the only person who would notice—you work with someone long enough, in these shit conditions, day-in and day-out, you start noticing things. Like the muscle spams Kellam got in his shoulders when he'd been awake for too long. Like the way Joel's back locks up sometimes after a day of hauling cargo, and Tess never says anything but it makes her anxious.
Tess sighs. "Ross did say there'd be someone to met us."
Joel gives a look that asks, "him?"
"I don't know. Maybe Ross just has a shitty sense of humor."
Silence. Tess takes another long drag on her cigarette. Joel's jaw is set hard like he's thinking. "Tess, if you don't like the feel of this—"
"You know we haven't got much of a choice. This is the first shipment we've heard word of in, what, a month? Maybe longer?"
"We can get by."
He fixes her with a steady stare. He's got that stubborn chin—kind of like Andy—and she rolls her eyes. Damn good thing she's practical about this shit; if they flaked out every time Joel had a bad feeling, they wouldn't have two ration cards to rub together. "Just keep on your toes, okay? We've got this."
"Joel. He's my brother. I know how to handle him, alright?"
They meet each other's eyes. Joel looks away, first, giving that hard, smug little laugh of his that she hates, but he doesn't say anything else, so she lets it lie.
Tess hadn't even known about Tommy until she'd been running jobs with Joel for nearly a year. And how she found out had been an accident—they'd been doing smuggling runs for the Fireflies here and there, just business. The Fireflies had been a lot bigger, back then, a lot stronger, and they made good clients.
At some point the Fireflies had some guns they wanted off their hands, and Tess and Joel were eager to help. They met in the West End—only, they showed up there, and Joel and this other guy—a scrappy-looking guy with sharp features and long hair—soon as Joel and that guy caught sight of each other, both of them tensed up. They greeted each other by name, "Hello, Joel," and "Hey, Tommy," but the names were curses in their mouths.
Tess steadfastly ignored it. Whatever it was. She didn't give a damn who Joel had pissed off or what the score was between them; she just wanted those guns. Tommy wasn't talking much, so she haggled with the Firefly that Tommy had brought along with him, bargaining down from a thousand ration cards to eight hundred, seven hundred fifty, seven hundred.
They'd just been about to settle on a price when all of a sudden that Tommy guy grimaced and sloppily shoved all the goods back into his pack. "Deal's off."
"I'm sorry?" Tess asked. Better damn well be some kind of joke.
"What I said." Tommy was already walking off; the other Firefly glanced anxiously between them, deciding whether or not to follow.
"Hey, we had a deal here!" Tess shouted—but that spooked the Firefly into tailing after Tommy, and Tommy wasn't stopping, and it wouldn't do any good to get violent with the two of them but what the hell.
Once they'd disappeared, Tess turned and saw that same stupid hard grimace on Joel's face. She jabbed him in the shoulder, brow furrowed. "The hell was that?"
Joel didn't even seem to notice her, for a moment; he was still staring after Tommy. She had to say his name a few times before he finally shook his head and muttered, "That Tommy, he's ah, he's my brother. Hadn't known he was gonna be there."
A brother. Tess had been expecting some old grudge of his, had been expecting that Joel had said something stupid to one of the Fireflies, had been expecting anything but—that. "Your brother's a damn firefly?" And for some reason that struck her—that stupid sudden fact—and she started laughing so hard and so suddenly that Joel was actually alarmed for a moment. Then he realized what was happening and he just looked peeved: "Somethin' funny?"
She had to pause and catch her breath before she could talk. "Just, y'know. I'm expecting it's some guy you used to have a hit out on, and it's your damn brother?"
Joel was still nonplussed, and Tess gave up explaining. It wasn't anything about him, it was just—people like Joel didn't have brothers. She sure as hell didn't have brothers anymore. Her and Joel and Blakely and Melendez and Cranson, they were all the same. Survivors. It was absurd to think otherwise; it was funny.
Later on, Tess would think, how in all those stray stories Joel had told her about his past—the little tricks he'd picked up from the hunters in Saint Louis, the winter he'd spent half-starved up in the Smokies—he'd never once mentioned anything about Tommy. They must've been together back then. But then, she didn't really spare many words for Andy or Kellam, either. She guessed they both had things they didn't want to talk about.
When Tess goes to get Andy from the old apartment, she throws open the door and raps on the doorframe, impatient: "Are we going or not?"
"Hey, come on in."
Tess hesitates a second—but they do need to get a move on. She steps inside and the place is somehow even smaller than she remembered. By accident she walks into the edge of the kitchen counter—stupid thing had always jutted too far. Andy's sitting in the dingy living room to the right—the beat-up old lounge chair's still there, with stuffing coming out of a tear on one of the arms, and the giant boxy old TV in the corner. And the carpetstains—she's surprised by how familiar those are. She remembers the spilled grape juice here, the hastily mopped-up vomit there.
Besides that the living room is mostly bare. They hadn't had much to begin with and looters took the rest, from the look of it. She's heard of people going back for photos, sometimes, but they hadn't really had anything like that.
She takes a few steps into the living room, nearly hits her head on a cracked-in portion of the already too-low ceiling. The place is claustrophobic. That'd be reason enough to dislike it all on its own. But Andy's not bothered; he's walking along the far edge of the living room, running his fingers over the peeling, yellowing paint on the walls, staring at the spaces between the cracks. His every step is soft, like he doesn't want to scatter the dust, even.
After a moment he turns to Tess and says, "It wasn't all bad, was it?" As soft as when he'd whispered that they should've helped those women. "I mean, we were all together, then."
What a stupid fucking statement.
Yeah, they were all together, and the world was going to hell and Kellam damn near blew Andy's leg off and they got to listen to two women die. It's so stupid Tess doesn't even have a scathing comeback, she just stands there a little dumbstruck. There are people who look at an empty apartment full of shattered glass and bullet casings and think there is something worth saving there. Tess had known there were people like that, but she thought they'd all died years ago.
Fucking Andy. There's an uncomfortable sensation in her chest, like something bound up tight, and she doesn't know why, but she doesn't like it. She closes her eyes and sighs. "Andy, this is stupid. Can we go, please?"
By the time Tess was twenty-four she knew the business better than Kellam, better than almost anyone. That was when the arguments began.
"You fuckin' let them screw us."
Tess sighed. How many times did she and Kellam have to fight the same fight? "They didn't screw us out of anything, okay? That shipment was too hot to just sit on, and no one else would be willing to risk takin' 'em, and the price was fair."
"Blakely wouldn't have fuckin' settled for just two hundred cards."
Tess snorted. "Blakely's a hothead and an idiot. I wouldn't be surprised if he winds up dead in an alley next week."
"You been sayin' that for months now, but his gang just keeps getting bigger, don't it?" Kellam paused, and a funny look flashed over his face, like he'd just smelled something unpleasant. "Since fuckin' when do you call the shots, anyway?"
Since Kellam's drinking had gotten so bad that he was drunk more often than he was sober. Since Tess was always the one who struck deals and Kellam was always the one who lost them. Since he'd gotten his leg fucked up so bad in an alley-fight that Tess had had to start lending most of the muscle for their little operation, and since she'd started thinking of him as less of a brother and more of a liability.
Tess could've said all that. It would've been true. But true didn't count for much. She glanced to the side, where Andy sat, silent, his face pulled tight with worry. Then she sighed and said stiffly, "I'm not calling anything. We'll work out a better deal next time, alright?"
She'd thought of running but she hadn't. For thirteen damn years she'd thought of running—though, less and less, as the years went by. Used to be, she was afraid of what Kellam might do to her or Andy in the middle of some bender, or what kind of shady market he'd get them wrapped up in. But she grew up, and as she learned more—how to fire a gun, how to stab a clicker, how to bribe a soldier and street-fight against someone twice her size—the less afraid she became.
So she stayed. Because she was the one keeping them alive, and keeping them fed, and making sure they didn't piss off anyone likely to kill them, and she wouldn't run from that. And in the end it was the two of them who ran from her.
Kellam, well, she'd seen that coming; when she saw the guns and the liquor had gone missing she knew in an instant who had taken them, and where, and all she felt was a sort of resigned annoyance.
But Andy? He'd left a note. One word—sorry—scrawled on a scrap of paper and tucked into her backpack. His handwriting looked like it belonged to a damn third grader.
She wadded the thing up and threw it against the wall like a grenade. It pissed her off, how the thrown paper hardly made a sound but the floorboards creaked under her as she moved. She looked around her, around the entryway of house they'd had staked out for years now, which all at once seemed idiotically large, too large for just her, and too large even for three. Which they weren't, anymore.
The hell had Kellam said to Andy, to make him run? The hell had she done to him?
Only one thing you can trust, Tess remembered, and snorted. So much for all that.
"So, before this gig with Ross, what were you doing?"
Andy looks a little surprised at the question. Tess hasn't said anything since they left the apartment together. "Same as everyone," Andy says, "survivin'. I got a job in one of the factories."
Tess waits a moment. "What, and that's it?" Andy nods, and Tess scowls. "No wonder you're so skinny. You can't just live off the ration cards they give you there."
"Well, I did. It's honest work, at least, and I did fine—"
"This Ross thing, it's new, right? You're still living in one of the factory-houses?"
Tess purses her lips. They're getting close to the drop point, just a few blocks away. And—then what? Andy's still a stupid shit but that's not all he is, and it wouldn't seem right, just walking off and never seeing him again, especially since Andy's likely to get himself killed at this rate—
"After this is done. I have a place." Tess says it offhanded as she can, not even looking at Andy, but the offer's anything but offhanded. "You're welcome to come there."
"What, like—join you two?" It's funny how both Andy and Joel are giving her the same stunned look. "I'm not, um—I mean, I can't do the kind of work you do, I'm not, not like—"
"We'll figure something out."
Andy's still staring at her like she's just been bit, and she's about to tell him to just forget about it when, suddenly, he breaks into a warm, nervous smile: "I'd like that."
Joel is giving her a hard look and she can feel it but she is very pointedly not looking at him; they can argue about it later but she won't budge and they both know it. It'd be the same if Tommy showed up again.
Andy steps into the lead again, and the street narrows. There's piles of rubbish everywhere here; it's one of the districts that got bombed out. Andy turns sideways to squeeze through the last part of the pass: "It's a bit tight, sorry, quickest way—"
Joel squeezes through next, and Tess is about to follow him, except then someone jumps out of nowhere—clobbers Joel upside the head and he collapses.
Tess whirls—she hears someone behind her—but she's not fast enough, the alleyway's too tight, and someone grabs her from behind. She struggles, but it's no good—whoever it is, it's not some street-chump, they've got her arms pinned behind her and she can't break free.
They drag her through the rest of the alleyway, into the open, and she hears someone ask, "Andy, this is all of 'em?"
Andy. Andy, who comes strolling in front of her without a hair out of place on his precious little head. He rubs the back of his neck and shoots a wary glance at Tess before answering. "Yeah. Just the two." Whoever's holding Tess shoves her onto the ground, hard, and Andy yelps, "Remember what we agreed on—!"
"Yeah, yeah. Just keep her out of the way."
Tess starts to push herself off the ground, but she's only halfway up when something shoves into her back, hard—gun muzzle, it feels like—then she hears the bolt click and she knows. "Stay on your knees. Hands on your head," someone says behind her.
Tess cranes her neck just enough to get a look at the gun—hunting rifle, from the look of it, a nice piece—then does as he says. There's not much of a choice.
"What agreement, Andy?" she hisses, glaring sideways at her brother. But Andy's not looking at her; he's staring straight ahead, and she feels something hard and old and bitter boil in the back of her throat. Like that fucking sorry note he'd left. He never wanted to explain.
"Now, for you." Tess turns to the guy who's talking—the leader, she's guessing, from the way everyone's clustered around him—a lean guy with long greasy hair and ashy-pale skin. Joel's kneeling, some goon's got a rifle against his back, and the greasy-haired leader is crouched in front of him, with a weird smile that's hooked like a scythe. "Joel Miller."
"What do you want?" Tess snaps, impatient. If they want their fucking ration cards they can just have them—
Greasy-hair twitches and stiffens like a dog hearing some irksome sound. "Andy, deal's off if you can't keep her shut up," he calls over his shoulder. Andy stammers out an apology. Tess rolls her eyes.
Greasy-hair's turned back to Joel now: "Do you remember me?"
Joel doesn't answer.
"I'll take that as a no." Tess can't see greasy-hair's face from here, but she hears his voice tighten, hears something coiling. "Think harder. Back when you were in Philly. Think about what you did."
Oh, hell. Some punk nursing an old grudge. This could get messy. And she sure doesn't like the way the guy's holding that knife, rubbing the handle between his hands like he's trying to make a fire with it, holding it right in front of Joel. Tess has been watching them keenly since the second she got caught, figuring out how to break away, but there's a lot of them; she has to be smart about this. By her there's Andy, and the punk with the gun to her back; over by Joel there's five more, and greasy-hair.
Joel still doesn't answer and greasy-hair makes a tsking noise with his tongue. "We'll have a real nice little chat, I think, Joel. Let's step inside, shall we?"
Shit. She doesn't like the sound of that. Greasy-hair presses the flat end of the knife against Joel's face, draws it down like a caress, like a promise. Then a couple guys grab Joel, tie his hands behind his back, and push him into the nearest building. Tess watches greasy-hair and his guys until they all disappear into that building, until she can't hear their footsteps anymore, and then she keeps staring at where they were, because she knows if she looks at Andy she will jump and try and kill him right there, God damn the consequences.
After Kellam and Andy left her, Tess knew they were running with Blakely, of course. Word started circling back to her after a couple of days, people whispering about how Tess was probably mad as hell, or about how Blakely was going to crush her out of the business for good, or how Kellam had always been a bit of an idiot. Then a couple clients stopped talking to her, lost to Blakely's newest idiots, no doubt. Malick offered to knock in Kellam's skull in for her, in an endearing fit of bravado, and she laughed and told him to take it easy.
She was just going to let it lie—no point in picking a fight with some fuckhead for no reason—except a month later she got a tip-off about Blakely sending someone to set a goddamn explosive under her mattress, and sure enough when she got back she found the wad of metal there and had to spend an hour disarming it by hand, and this was after she'd lost three more clients to Blakely's crew, and well, Tess wasn't one to cause trouble but she wasn't going to just sit around and do nothing while Blakely tried to snuff her out.
She only needed two. That's when she hired Joel, because she heard he was mean and hard and didn't ask questions.
They snuck into the warehouse past midnight, one of the places where Blakely's crew stockpiled goods. The plan was simple—you go around back, I'll take the front, kill as many as you can. They'd scoped it out and figured there were twelve in there, max—a small enough group that she and Joel could take them all out, if they were smart about it, but big enough to send a message: back the hell off.
Went smoothly enough, at first. Tess strangled a couple chumps standing guard outside, slipped inside, downed a couple more. Someone caught sight of her—a shame, but it was bound to happen—she ducked behind a shipping crate and took them out, one by one. It was almost too easy, all of them were young guns, so reckless that all Tess had to do was wait for them to run out of cover and she'd pick them off like clay pigeons.
Except, right when she thought she'd taken the last of them out, when she was about to edge out and loot some of the bodies, one more showed up: "Nice to see you, Tessa."
He walked out from behind one of the shipping crates. For a moment they just stared at each other. Kellam was smirking. When she didn't shoot he walked closer.
"Kellam," she said slowly, still holding her pistol with both hands but pointing it down at the ground, "I'm not here for you. Back off and I won't shoot."
"I ain't runnin'," Kellam grunted, taking a few bold steps toward Tess. Tess backed up—she didn't want this—but pulled her gun out in front of her, aimed at Kellam's heart.
He just smirked. "You really think you're gonna shoot me?"
Tess's grip tightened on the pistol. "Don't make this difficult, Kellam—"
"All those years I kept you alive and now see what I get for it." Kellam's face is close enough that she can smell his breath. "If it isn't tonight, Tessa, it'll be the next. Or the next night after that. How long do you think you can keep this up on your own, huh? Without me? I fucking made you."
Tess strained to keep her voice level. "Leave now and tell Blakely to back the hell off. He goes his way, I'll go mine. No fuss."
"Blakely's not really the backing-off type," Kellam said, his voice cool as his hand moved toward his pocket. "I'm not, either."
There was a pistol tucked in his belt. His eyes lit, like she'd seen so many times before. Like the muzzle-flash before the bullet. Tess's chest seized up, her arms tightened, she felt the adrenaline rush to her head, and her only thought in that moment was, I'm not going to die here like a dog.
So she shot first. And she'd always been the better shot.
A few minutes after greasy-hair and his boys disappear, Tess can hear Joel. It's not a pretty sound.
If she were Andy, this is when she'd ask, what are they doing to him, like she didn't already know. Instead she grits her teeth and stares straight ahead and squints in the harsh sunset light. And she waits.
Andy's standing a little ways off to the side, very pointedly looking at anything except Tess. The guy behind her is getting bored, she can tell. He keeps fidgeting, pushing the gravel beneath his feet this way, then that way. After a bit she feels the gun at her back start to slacken. Good. She counts to sixty.
Then she mutters, "Shit," like she's talking to herself—she isn't.
She cranes her neck and looks at the guy like he's an idiot. "Fuckin' military's on their way. Can't you hear it?"
"You serious?" The punk leans forward, tilting his head to listen around, and she feels him pull the gun back—and that's when she moves. It's almost too easy—it's the oldest damn trick in the book, she wasn't expecting it to actually work—but she twists around and socks the guy in the jaw, all in one motion, then grabs his rifle and belts him upside the head.
Then she turns on Andy—the little shithead hasn't got a gun, at least he wasn't lying about that—and he's holding a knife in front of him like a damn crucifix. "Tessa—Tessa, I can explain—"
She belts him upside the head, too, and he crumples. Grabs Andy's knife, slashes the other punk in the throat, just to make sure he stays down. She pauses over Andy's body—then decides she'll worry about him later; he can't do much without his buddy or the knife, anyway.
Joel screams again, just as she's running through the doors of the old building. They haven't gone far, at least. The place is a mess, like everything on this edge of town—some old office building with half the walls already collapsed—Tess stays low, holding the rifle under her arm as she moves through the hallways, stopping every so often to listen for breathing or footsteps. She knows she's getting close when she can hear greasy-hair's voice, a low, feverish whisper: "…just like what you did to my sister, you piece of shit, you feel that…?"
There's a cracking sound and then another muffled, pained groan from Joel. Tess bares her teeth and presses on.
When she finally rounds a corner and sees him, it's only for a second—an old conference room, big and round, with some office furniture knocked around. Joel tied up to a chair and looking like murder. Greasy hair hovering, still holding that knife the way she doesn't like.
Tess ducks back. After five seconds she decides they didn't see her, thank Christ, and she ducks around to the other side, where there's a wall knocked out, and some waist-high rubble she can fire from.
She's crouched and she's steadying the rifle, stealing half-second glimpses from over the little wall—there's one guy she's got a clear shot at, one of the four guards, all while greasy-hair's babbling—
"…once I'm done with you're fingers, I'll break your fuckin' arms, and then…"
Tess pulls the trigger. And, funny thing, turns out greasy-hair's gang is like a bunch of damn pigeons. Shoot one of them and they all scatter.
The goon she shot crumples right away, of course. Two of his buddies start running right off—stupid—Tess gets both of them with one shot apiece, they aren't even trying for cover—two of the others duck behind some crates. Greasy-hair whirls around and just gawks, like some toddler who can't believe his sandcastle's just gotten knocked over—the guy hasn't even got the good sense to grab for the pistol that's right there at his belt. She'd shoot him but he's too close to Joel and she doesn't trust her aim with a gun she only picked up five minutes ago.
So she waits for the two others to run from their cover, picks them off too. At some point greasy hair develops some goddamn sense and starts shooting, but he's panicky and stupid, firing shot after shot at her cover—as if his damn nine millimeter's gonna break through concrete somehow.
When the chamber clicks empty he finally tries to rush her, but she's waiting; as he rounds the corner, she shatters a glass bottle on his stupid head, and then while he's knocked out she stabs him in the neck with the jagged bottle handle until he gurgles out his last bloodied breath. When she finally comes for Joel, she hacks off the ropes around his wrists and ankles with that same handle, every stroke angry and terse.
He stands up slow, and for a second they just stare at each other—assessing the damage. Joel's got three fingers broken in his left hand, Tess notices right off, and a real ugly swollen jaw, and probably he's been knocked around enough that he'll have bruises for a month—but he'll make it. Tess lets out a shaky breath she hadn't known she was holding. It's the closest call they've had in years, and she laughs, tinny and a little delirious: "Hell'd you do to that guy, Joel?"
It's a joke, but Joel shoots her a glare so cold it could freeze water. "Hell'd you do to your brother, Tess?"
Tess flinches. It's a low blow and Joel knows that. But she was an idiot and she knows that, too.
So she sucks in a cool breath and tosses her hair back. "Good question. Let's go find out."
The first night they had tried to make us—them—this thing, whatever—the first night they tried to make that work, it was the same night Joel told her about Sarah.
Joel was a good six glasses into the bourbon, the bottle they'd set aside for themselves from the last shipment; Tess had only had three. And Tess could tell the whole time that something was off; Joel was drinking too quickly, too stiffly—like he was working himself up for something he couldn't do sober. So she nursed a glass and watched and waited, and bit by bit he started to talk. About little things, at first—a stupid prank he and Tommy pulled on the neighbors as kids, involving a dozen packages of bottle rockets; the beat-up Ford his father owned, which he used to sneak out and drive to his girlfriend's place, before he'd gotten his license. Tommy had never liked that girl, and later on Joel figured he'd been right all along, what with the way things turned out between them. And then he told her about Sarah, and what happened to her, and fell silent.
After a second Tess realized that she ought to say something. "Shit," she said, because it was. And, "You would've been a good father," even though that was a lie, because though she didn't know a damn about the Joel he was back in Texas, she knew this Joel, the one she'd been working alongside for the past three years, and this Joel she couldn't even start to imagine as a father. The Joel she knew—too good at killing, so good it scared even Tess sometimes, when he'd stomp someone's face in until it was a bloody mash, and then look up at her with fish-dead eyes. Not that she'd ever blamed him—she was good at it, too, they all were, and they all had to be—
But Joel wasn't a father. Maybe no one was, anymore. She knew she sure as hell wasn't a mother.
But the story was told, and there was silence. Tess thought maybe that was when she was supposed to tell her story. She didn't. Instead she just swirled the last bit of bourbon in the bottom of her glass, watching it slosh around, and finished it in one gulp. And when they both stood to pour themselves another round, instead of reaching for the bottle, Joel reached for her shoulder and pulled her in to kiss.
It had been too long for both of them—since they'd been touched, or held, or—and suddenly all Tess could think of was, not Malick or Colton or any of the others in-between, but her fumbling first kiss two months before the world went to shit. She'd been fifteen and she'd slipped into a side-alley with one of the neighborhood boys, holding his hand and playing with his fingers until he finally worked up the nerve to kiss her. She thought of it because, like back then, the mere touch was electric—she'd forgotten this, she hadn't been with anyone since Malick—electric, but also hurried and hungry and they both knew how this went. She was smiling into a kiss and he was fumbling with the buttons down the front of her shirt and she stepped forward, until his back was pressed against the wall, and he sighed heavy against her skin as she pressed her lips against his neck—
Except then, all at once, something broke the moment—she didn't know if it was a touch or a feeling or what—because he's got some look in his eyes and he just told her about his daughter for chrissake and it's just too close, too sudden, like dumping a ice-numb limb in hot water—
"Joel—no. I mean, yes, but—not like this."
The words were breathed, more than spoken, breathed into the crook between his neck and his shoulder, but he heard every word. She knew he heard, because his grip around her waist and the back of her neck just fell, all at once, like a taut rope sliced in half. She closed her eyes and took one step backwards, and when she opened them again he looked so confused, like it never occurred to him she might turn away, he had his his hands just hanging sort of stiff in front of him like he didn't know where to put them now—and that confused Tess, because he knew how to shoot a rifle and how to strangle a man and how to skin a deer and how to survive and he was so good at all of it, so how could he not know this? And Tess swore she'd seen this look before—like in another life—she remembered Andy trying to hold a gun at age ten, for the first time, and how his fingers looked so fat and his hands held it all wrong and he kept dropping it while trying to aim. And he never got any better at it.
And the thought was so pitiful that she almost stepped forward again, almost hooked her arms under his and traced his shoulder blades with her fingers through his shirt to smother him with the longest kiss she could manage—it still would have been wrong, still wouldn't have worked, but maybe it would've been better than seeing him like that. Maybe. But the impulse passed, and Tess was standing apart from him, frowning apologetically. He said nothing. When she finally turned to leave, Joel was still standing in the same place, but his hands were at his side, limp, and his shoulders were tired and his eyes looked almost sober.
When Andy wakes up, he's sprawled face-first on cracked asphalt with a hell of a headache and the last thing he remembers is Tess clocking him. He cranes his neck around and the first thing he sees is Joel, hovering over him with a rusted machete in his hand. The next thing he sees is Joel's boot-heel, smashing his head against the asphalt again.
"Stay down," Andy hears Tess hiss. Achingly, he tilts his head to see her—she's hovering, too, with a pistol in her right hand, aimed between his eyes. The implication's clear: move and I'll blow your fucking brains out right now.
"Was this Ross's fucking idea?"
Andy clenches his eyes shut. This is all wrong. His head is aching and dizzy and his thoughts feel like spaghetti and all he can think is maybe he can fall back asleep and things'll be right, things'll go back—
He feels someone jerk his face around; he's staring up at Tess, now. "Fucking pay attention. Did Ross set us up or not?"
The hell's he supposed to say? What's left to say? What's anything? He stammers uselessly: "T-T-Tessa, I…"
Tess stares back, then taps her foot, waiting for him to spit it out. But he doesn't even know what he's trying to stay, and finally Tess gets impatient—she tilts her head, makes a weird, stiff little gesture, and out of the corner of his eye Andy sees Joel move toward him, Joel's got the machete out and—
"Marshall!" Andy screams, but he's a half-second too late; Joel's already plunged the blade right into his fucking arm, he turns for half a second to look at it and he feels like he could vomit only he's too tired and his head aches too much to even do that, so he just turns away again. He's crying. He keeps babbling, anything, anything, to keep Joel from going any further: "It was Marshall, an' I—and he—I didn't have much choice, they were threatenin' to—" Joel finally pulls the blade out, but it hurts just as much on the way out and Andy screams again. "Threatenin' to kill me if I didn't—an' they just wanted Joel, not you, just Joel. I made 'em promise they wouldn't hurt you. One of—they overheard your deal with Ross, that's how they knew where to meet you, an' they figured you wouldn't trust any of 'em but me, so—so I got roped in."
Tess's face is dark but stoic. Evaluative. Like a CEO or something. Tess always was the smart one, Andy thinks, thinking even though his thoughts are scattered all to hell, she could've been a lawyer, or anything, if the world had been different—
"Not a killer, that what you said, Andy?" Tess asks, voice barbed. "Doesn't count if you're letting other people do the killing for you, is that it?"
"Tessa, I-I, please, please don't—I meant what I said about wantin' to see you again, I'm sorry I ever ran off. I thought we could start again, I know you never wanted this life, it was just—it was Kellam and then this Joel pushin' you into it—we can live honest now, none of this scuttlin' outside the wall—just, please, let me go, if it was a dumb idea then just let me go and I swear I'll never come after you or 'im again. Please."
Tess scowls. Considers. Then: "I don't believe you." And she shoots.
Tess stands over the corpse for a long moment, eyes cold as she watches the blood pool out into the cracks in the asphalt, keeps watching until his body has stopped twitching. Then, wordlessly, she and Joel both turn and walk away.
They get back a couple hours after sunset. When they pass by Bunker Hill again, the wolves are gone but the dead smugglers' bones have been picked clean.
Tess tries to help Joel splint his broken fingers, but he gets all touchy about it, and she's not in a mood to argue, so she backs off. She is so tired, but her nerves feel frayed and jittery and she's got a tremor in her hands that only she notices, and she's already used the last of the sleeping pills from the last shipment, so instead she steps outside for a smoke.
It takes a few tries before she can get her lighter to light. Click, click, click. She curses and the thing finally flickers to life, and she lights up and takes a long drag.
She had to kill him, she thinks to herself forcefully. If the little shit had gotten them cornered this time, he could do it again, would do it again. But it nags at her, the way Andy had pleaded in the end—you never wanted this life. The way he'd looked around their old empty apartment.
This cigarette is not doing shit for her. Maybe they got a stale batch. She tosses it to the ground and grinds it under her foot.
Maybe that was what had happened to Andy—gone stale, somehow. He'd always been a little pitiful, but she'd never thought he would do something like—that. She'd believed him when he said he wasn't a killer, didn't think he was just too scared to do it himself—
Maybe he'd used it up. What goodness he had, when he tried to help those women. But even if that had been all there was of him—well, Tess had never done much courageous at all, and maybe she'd never had it, and if even Andy had become like that, then what was the fucking point, the hell was she doing all this shit work for—
"Tess? You alright?"
She realizes she's been shaking and glaring in Joel's direction for the past few minutes. She hadn't even known he was there, hadn't noticed him step out here. She is so tired. For a moment she wants to scream at him, or punch him, just, something, because—fuck, she doesn't know why. But she remembers that look he gave her once, uncomprehending, almost sober, and she sighs. "I'm fine, Joel. Just fine."
He shrugs agreeably, but he's still watching her. Tess sighs and starts to walk back inside, but before she does, she glances at the stamped-out cigarette on the ground. She wishes she still had it. It's going to be a dark night.