Ellen feels like she's chased her daughter to the very ends of the earth by the time she catches up with her just outside Virginia City. The desolation of Nevada’s jagged, rough mountains does nothing to mitigate the notion. It’s a state that seems post-apocalyptic even as near to the capitol as she is. There’s snow on the ground, just enough to make the brown earth and rocks and brush look that much more barren. Booted footprints cut through the nearest patch of dirty snow. It’s been five months and sixteen states since she’s caught more than a glimpse of her daughter, but she can see Jo in these sure-footed and cautious footsteps as clearly as if she’d watched her make them.
The footprints head directly towards the rusted hatch of a long-abandoned silver mine, and Ellen can see her approaching it, confident but wary, pausing at the entrance to double-check her gun before ducking into the dark. Driven and clever and brave, that’s her girl. Too brave. Ellen’s heart sinks as she gets closer to the entrance. It’s an old, old mine - probably dangerous as shit when it was operational, and only more risky after a hundred years of neglect. More dangerous than any ten monsters, but Jo’s still young enough to feel invincible, to think that facing so many unnatural dangers grants her immunity from the mundane ones.
Ellen’s got no such illusions as she steps down into the shaft. She can feel the weight of the mountain above her, pressing down, as if the dark itself has been granted shape and form. She clicks on her lamp, holding it out in front of her, searching for some sign of her daughter. Jo’s footsteps still lead the way in the light dusting of snow that’s blown in. Further down, just within the reach of Ellen’s lamp, there’s a crude mark scratched in the wall. Good girl. Ellen didn’t raise a fool, at least. Ellen trails her daughter’s fading footprints into the mine, running her hand across every carved mark as she does so.
She’s following Jo’s lead, same as she has been, even as it leads into places angels'd fear to tread.
No one to blame for herself for that, she supposes. Ellen had been too stubborn to leave the business Bill had built. It’d felt too much like losing some last part of him. But look where it’d gotten her. No home at all, and a daughter who had spent entirely too much time soaking up the tales of hunters. If it wasn’t stories of near escapes and lucky breaks, it was epic sagas of good men taken too early, going out in a blaze of glory. Grim faced hunters laughing at death and a little girl wouldn’t see the cracks in their hearts, their flat, lifeless eyes. Jo knows about grief and revenge, or at least she thinks she does. Ellen’s heard her say that you can’t ignore what’s hiding in the dark more often than she cares to count. It’s practically the girl’s motto. Sometimes Ellen wonders if Jo thinks she’s a coward, refusing to go chasing after it. But there’s no nobility in hunting, and blazes of glory are for the already-dead.
You can’t ignore it, Jo always heard, thinking it was a call to action, not the madness and torment of those forced to stare too long into the abyss: there’s no peace for them. Not after that. Hunting’s nothing but a game of Russian roulette, played by people too angry or too afraid to put a gun in their mouths and eat a bullet. Her daughter doesn’t get it, and deep in her heart, Ellen hopes she never does. Even when that means Jo’ll keep charging down derelict mine shafts, trying to live up to the standards of the brave heroes who never were.
There’s no sense of time in the mine, just corridor after corridor filled with debris and fallen timbers. Jo’s path doesn’t go deeper, for which Ellen’s grateful. The upper reaches of the mine might still be stable, but the pumps that kept the groundwater out have long since stopped running, and Ellen doesn’t want to find out what moves in the still waters of flooded shafts.
If it’s been minutes or hours, Ellen can’t tell. It might as well be eternity when she finds the last mark- all those denied minutes and hours come crashing down, as if they’d been waiting patiently for their chance to all come roaring down and knock her flat. There’s a dead flashlight on the floor. Half a mark on the wall. And the knife that made it lying forgotten among the rubble. Her vision tunnels, and her pulse thunders in her ears. She grits her teeth against it. Ellen bends down and grabs the knife, squeezing it in her hand until her practical, short nails bite into her palm. She’s iron. She won’t break. This is nothing she didn’t expect.
There’s a hole in this wall, half hidden by a rock and the rusted remains of a mine cart. It’s new, and cut crudely, more a barrow than a passageway. Steeling herself, Ellen pushes through, the knife still biting into her hand. It’s somehow colder here, in this narrow, hallowed-out passage, as if she’s passed into a world that’s never known warmth. She is forced to shuffle down it, stooped over in a position that sets her back to screaming. Ellen’s own mother once told her children brought nothing but pain, and though she meant it viciously, Ellen’s come to see the truth in it. Only the dead feel no pain.
Bill couldn’t stop chasing the slow bullet. Once upon a time, she’d been young enough to think that love and a home and a child could fill the holes in that man’s heart. That she could keep him from breaking; that he could just... stop. But time soon gave lie to that, and he left her alone with a child and a business that catered to thieves and madmen. She didn’t want it, didn’t want any of it. Ellen had wondered what she was supposed to do then. She’d never play the widow to the son-of-a-bitch who’d gotten himself killed, who’d left only a few days ago, laughing as he went. Laura had talked to her over an uneaten breakfast about ‘the arrangements’. It was useless. Bill had already had a hunter’s funeral, and would get no more than that. Ellen had walked away without saying a word, just walked into another room and locked the door. Bill had kept his weapons in there. His books. It still smelled like him, like sweat and stale cigarettes and gunpowder. She sat in his chair and cleaned his weapons and watched the sun chase shadows across the floor. She sharpened his knives to fine edges, hands steady and strong and full of purpose. Laura had spoken to her through the door, her tone first soft and understanding, then worried and demanding. She left eventually. Gone off to deal with the goddamn ‘arrangements’ and taking Jo with her. Ellen began to see the beauty of the slow bullet, waiting for her somewhere out in the future. Burn out or burn up: no peace, no justice, but something.
The passage narrows and Ellen is forced to squeeze through, suddenly grateful for all the meals she’d missed chasing Jo down. For a while, there’s nothing but the tight press of the earth, her slow shallow breaths, and the useless and muted illumination of her lamp. And then it opens up, as suddenly as it narrowed, and she’s looking out over a cavern, seemingly infinite beyond the circle of light cast by her lantern.
It doesn’t matter. There’s something lighter just visible from where she’s standing, some barely-visible blob that she knows is her daughter with a certainty that goes beyond reason. She nearly drops the lantern in her haste, but of all the things she’s been called over her life, stupid ain’t one of them. She tightens her grip on Jo’s knife as she hurries forward, careless of the noise she’s making. The light she’s carrying has already announced her presence to anything that would care to know.
As Ellen draws nearer, she can finally see Jo clearly: her complexion is wan, but her chest rises and falls with heartening regularity. Ellen could almost think she was simply asleep if she weren't bound hand and foot. Ellen slows, her steps more wary now. The figure she'd earlier taken for yet another rock is actually someone- something- crouching possessively over Jo. Its head is bowed, and it's humming something that sets Ellen's teeth on edge and makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
It looks up and smiles, and its teeth are all jagged edges. It's wearing Ellen’s face, though one not seen in her mirror for over a decade: younger, unmarked by time or grief. It runs a possessive hand down the line of Jo's jaw, then stands. It's taller than she is, and there's something serpentine in the way it moves. You're too late, the thing says. She's mine now. It tastes the word, relishes it, Mine.
“My daughter,” Ellen spits at the thing. All the fear of the past hours boils away and leaves nothing but bitter, hard rage. “You have no right to her.”
The thing's face ripples until it becomes something new; there's something vague about the face it now wears, something undefined and familiar. Runaways, it says, glancing at Jo. They all belong to me. It looks back up at Ellen, and smiles a ghastly smile. You belong to me. Will you run again, girl? Its features solidify, running clear into the harsh lines of her own mother's face. Children bring nothing but pain, it says, and it grins viciously. Oh my daughter, it says to Ellen, I will eat your heart.
Ellen's heart had been cut out and turned to ashes too long ago for the threat to move her. She didn't know and wouldn't guess how long she'd sat in Bill's chair and cleaning Bill's weapons before she'd given in and gone back out to the bar and had done her best to drink her way through Bill's booze. That was half the point of drinking. She had passed out with her head on the table, and that's where she awoke, with her cheek in a cold, sticky puddle that smelled like cheap liquor. She had blinked. Her eyes felt glued together, but eventually, against the stabbing spears of sunlight, she managed to pry her eyes open long enough to take in the disassembled gun lying inches from the end of her nose. She had been about to shut them again, planning on simply ignoring the sticky puddle and the screaming discomfort in her neck for awhile longer when a voice as hard and as pointed as an ice pick cut through her hangover and threatened to split open her skull.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” The question was flat and clipped: a statement, not an inquiry. Ellen knew it well. There was never an arctic winter that was as cold or as harsh as her mother in a rage. She never screamed, never yelled. Just flayed the skin off you and let you freeze to death.
“I don't remember asking your opinion, Mama. Or for your company.” Ellen put her hands on the table and after a moment, succeeded in pushing herself up and back into her chair. She kept her eyes closed, and held one hand against her head.
“Laura called me.” A reproach. “She was worried you were going to do something stupid.” The contempt just rolled off her tongue, thick and heavy as always.
“It wouldn't be the first time,” Ellen said. “You should be used to that by now.”
“Don't play dumb with me, girl. You think I can't see what you're doing?” Her mother swept a hand across the table, sending the empty bottles crashing to the floor. One of them shattered. Her mother had always liked dramatic gestures. “You think you're the only person to have ever lost someone?”
Ellen swiped a hand across her eyes, then opened them to glare across the table. “Did you come all this way just to lecture me on grief? You, of all people?” She pushed her chair back across the floor, then moved to get up.
Her mother reached across and grabbed Ellen's wrist in a bruising grip. “Oh no. You're going to listen to me. I know what you're thinking, and you don't get to run away this time. You don't get to break.”
“Jo,” Ellen said, looking her mother straight in the face. “That’s what this is about? My daughter is none of your damn business.”
“The hell it is. You think you get a free pass just because your husband is dead? Those days are done, Ellen. You're in it for the long haul now.”
Ellen flinched. Jo, always Jo. She had hoped their child would have been enough to anchor Bill, to hold him back, for nothing could be stronger than love. But in the end, it was Ellen who was bound, hopelessly and willingly, and it was all the more terrible for it. “I just- it's not fair. I wish she'd never been born,” Ellen said, with a bitterness that scalded her tongue.
Her mother nodded, and her gaze was steady. “Children bring you nothing but pain.” She let the irony linger, then released Ellen's wrist, letting it fall to the table. “But she’s all you have.”
It was a burn out of another kind. No peace. No justice. But something.
Ellen stares coolly at the creature across the circle of feeble light. She can feel the pull of its power break over her like a wave. It looks at her, seemingly confused. “I stopped running from my mama a long time ago,” Ellen says, and there's iron in her spine to match the steel in her hand. She brings her arm up and drives the knife straight into the creature's heart.
The creature stares at her, but the shape of its eyes are no longer familiar, and Ellen has no time for it. She wrenches the knife free as the thing falls back. Ellen falls to her knees and cuts Jo free. She cradles her daughter to her, and gently shakes her awake. “C'mon, baby girl. Time to get up.”Jo blinks groggy eyes at Ellen, and Ellen smiles down at her. “Mama?”
“The one and only. Can you walk?”
Jo struggles to sit up. “What are you doing here?” she asks, still sounding groggy and confused. Ellen helps her to her feet.
“Pulling your ass out of the fire, what else? Let's go.” She guides Jo out of the cavern and back into the mine. As she does, all the dread she'd been pushing away sneaks back into her heart.
Jo's steps grow more steady, and she starts throwing Ellen guilty, stubborn looks. After a while, Ellen finds she is no longer willing nor able to hold her tongue. “Just what the hell did you think you were doing down there?”
Jo frowns. “There were kids-” she starts, her tone defensive.
“And you just went down, without back up?” Ellen's not able to keep the sharpness out of her voice.
“What was I suppose to do?” Jo demands, and Ellen can feel them slipping back into the old argument. Ellen whirls around and grabs her daughter, shaking her by the shoulders.
“You don't get to go out in blazes of glory,” Ellen says. Jo's eyes are wide and startled. “Not you. And you don't go without back up, you hear me? Not ever.”
“Mom, it's not always possible-”
But Ellen's still staring at her, deadly serious. This isn't some new iteration in the old argument.
“Joanna Beth, you listen to me. You've got me and I've got you and that means we're in this for the long haul, you get that?”
Jo's eyes are still startled and wide when she nods. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”
Ellen searches deeply in Jo's face, then steps back. She lets her daughter go. “Alright,” she says. “Just so long as that's clear.” Jo steps away, then rounds the last corner to the first passageway.
Ellen follows her daughter out into the daylight. There’s a slow bullet waiting out there, somewhere in the future. It’s still got her name on it.
She intends to keep it waiting.