It’s getting late, but the ocean is forgiving tonight. Their boat carves through its rippling surface like silk, barely a whisper of spray and salt through the putter of the engine. They’ll have to stop soon, once it gets too dark, for food and water and something to fix up their wounds. Somewhere to rest. But for now Abby stares unseeing through the fog and lets the boat power forward, as far away as they can get.
After a while Lev shifts, a flicker of movement. His brow furrows. A half-formed cough seems stuck in his throat.
“Abby?” he rasps.
Abby automatically lifts a hand; only once it’s in the air does she realize it has no purpose to serve. She settles for laying her palm open on Lev’s shoulder, as lightly as she can bear. She can feel the jut of the bone under skin.
“I’m here,” she says. The first time she’s spoken since she arose from the water and choked, gasping, on air. The words chafe against her throat. Her voice sounds frayed. A rope wrung of blood. Unfamiliar even to herself.
Lev opens his eyes, slow and unfocused. He blinks.
“There are no stars,” he says.
Abby’s hand tightens around his shoulder. “What?”
Lev makes a nodding motion with his head, chin jerking up. Abby follows his gaze skyward to the veil of fog that lays itself cold and heavy over their shoulders. Through it, she can barely make out the blackness of the night beyond.
“They’re there,” Abby says. “We just can’t see them. Not now. But when we get to shore—when we make it to the island, we’ll have so many nights to see them.” She swallows. “We’re almost there.”
The raw earnestness of it sounds like she’s trying to compensate for something. The promises of the Fireflies; the commands of the Wolves; the conviction of the Scars. The way Owen’s voice had sounded when it was softened by hope. She’s no different from any of them, however hard she had always pretended otherwise. Chasing proof of purpose, every last lead. Dog after a bone. Moth to a flame. The flicker of fluorescent light down the end of a long hospital hallway.
All of it’s led her here, this far. Past her prime, her innocence, anything she once deserved. But she remembers, after the weight let off her chest and she clawed her way back up to the surface, how her whole body shook from the exhaustion and hunger and pain. Only her hands were steady as she started the engine of the boat and steered the two of them out to sea.
If all of it was for this. Just this and nothing more.
She thinks she can live with that.
Lev licks at his lips. He swallows.
“We’ll really be there soon?” he asks.
He sounds astonished. Abby remembers there was a time when the faith seemed unshakeable from his eyes. But after all they’ve suffered and all they’ve lost, it seems cruel to say they’ll make it, when the ground’s crumbled beneath their feet so many times. When they both know the fragility of a single moment can bring it all crashing down again. She has no more promises she can make, other than this one.
“We’re on our way,” she says. “Together.”
Lev doesn’t say anything. Just lets out a little sigh as his eyes slip closed again, like that’s all he needed to hear. Really, there isn’t much Abby can tell him that he doesn’t already know. For just a child, he seems so much wiser than she ever was, leaping nimbly through the skeletons of hollow towers, leading her onward through the sky. He understands himself at an age when Abby had still been shooting at painted targets and training herself for a life of following after others in uniform. But for some reason it’s her he’s chosen to believe, out of all the other things in the world. Nothing else she’s ever held in her hands has taken on this much value; this much weight.
Lev’s arm stirs. His hand comes up, finds Abby’s, still braced on his shoulder. He grasps onto her fingers.
The cuts on Abby’s arms, legs, chest are still bleeding. Though desperate and sloppy, the knife had cut deep. It’s what it was made for, after all. She feels something almost like surprise: that it still hurts. That she can still feel the hurt of it. That it means she’s still alive.
She opens her fist, curls her fingers around Lev’s hand, and she doesn’t let go.
Joel shifts, beside her. He laces his fingers together, then unlaces them. Lays his palms flat and facing up on the porch railing. He opens his mouth, pauses, coughs.
“You do like her,” he says.
Ellie wants to die. She wants to be anywhere but here. Anyone but her. Someone who isn’t being questioned about her love life by the awkward father figure who ruined her life by saving it. Someone who can kiss the girl she’s been crushing on for years without her own fear poisoning the moment from the inside out. Someone who can want without feeling guilty about it, like it’s just another thing she stole and shouldn’t have, just another thing she got away with, scot-free.
Joel’s face is tilted towards her, patient and waiting in the dim lamplight.
Ellie breathes out in a sigh. To herself, in a quiet huff of air, she mutters: “I’m so stupid.”
Joel straightens up slightly.
“Look,” he says. “I have no idea what that girl’s intentions are, but I do know that she would be lucky to have you.”
His voice is firm. His gaze unyielding. In that steadfast, no-nonsense way of his, like when he taught Ellie how to swim, how to play guitar, how to shoot someone in the heart with a hunting rifle. When he looked her in the eyes and swore that he was telling the truth.
“You’re such an asshole,” Ellie says. It sounds childish even as she says it, all of it. She says it anyway. So what? There’s time yet, to grow up. All this life and she doesn’t know what to do with it. Survive long unbroken years until the wrinkles set deep around her hardened eyes? Go out with a bang as the infected tear apart her immune flesh with rotting teeth? Sway in place to the music under the lights and let herself be kissed tender and fleeting in front of everyone who knows her name? No matter what, it seems wasted. Never good enough for what it was supposed to be. What she was supposed to be.
Joel lets out a breath. Ellie hears it, rather than sees it; neither of them are looking at the other. Maybe they should. Maybe they don’t know each other as well as they thought they did; maybe they never have. Maybe they should really take the time to look at each other in this light and see each other for who they really are. Who they’ve made each other into.
Go on, Ellie, she thinks to herself. Look at him.
But she keeps her eyes down.
“If somehow the Lord gave me a second chance at that moment,” Joel says, voice low, “I would do it all over again.”
Ellie looks up, almost involuntarily, and sees it, what she hadn’t then: the truth.
She doesn’t look away. After a while, the longer she recognizes it for what it is, this thing in the air seems almost knowable. Even bearable. Gathering form and shape in the darkness between them. This weight, given a name at last.
A love so simple it terrifies her.
“I don’t think I can ever forgive you for that,” she says.
Joel lowers his head, halfway between a nod and a sag. He leans back down over the porch railing. Something almost helpless about the movement. His back bowed, as though giving himself up to gravity; to mercy.
Joel is getting older. His shoulders hunch; his face is lined with shadows; his hands are coarse and calloused, though they were already that way long before she knew him. His hands, at least, are one thing she is not responsible for. Still, he is no longer the stranger who barked at her to shut up, stay put, and follow like a stray dog he didn’t have the heart to put down. The man who would have sooner let himself be swarmed by bloaters than talk about the past, or the future, or anything other than a series of grunts and muttered orders. He is trying to be honest. He is trying to be gentle. He is offering himself up, all that’s left, and he is trying not to flinch.
Joel is getting older. So is she.
For better, or for worse.
Ellie balls her hands into fists, knuckles clenched tight. Her nails dig into her palms.
“But I would like to try,” she says.
Joel doesn’t say anything for so long that Ellie’s skin starts to itch. What else is there to say? Without you I wouldn’t have any of this. I shouldn’t have any of this. I have all of this, so tell me, Joel, what am I supposed to do with it? What am I supposed to do with all of this, other than to hold onto it? To hold onto you?
Joel clears his throat. He looks at her, a slantwise glance.
“I’d like that,” he says.
She looks at him.
“Okay,” she says.
Time passes, moments or minutes. The night deepens around them. Over their heads, a moth flutters its wings by the lamp, by the light.
“I’ll see you around,” Ellie says.
But she doesn’t.
“Don’t you do it, Ellie,” shouts the one who killed Manny, and now Abby has a name, and she doesn’t want it. She doesn’t care. She fires and he falls still and the girl who shot Owen in the chest and stabbed Mel through the throat fires at her, a flash of the muzzle blast, and she’s through the doors and gone, and so is Abby.
The auditorium is lit in gold; Abby sees none of it, nothing but red. She hurtles down the aisle and vaults over the stage and tears the curtains apart. It’s showtime, she thinks, blood roaring in her ears, dizzy with the familiar crashing tide of fury and hatred and anticipation. This is what it was all for.
Abby circles; the girl hides. Abby shoots; the girl takes cover. The girl shoots; Abby takes cover. The girl circles; Abby hides. They are each hunting the other. They are each other’s prey. Opposite ends of a rope pulling taut, binding one to the other in a knot that won’t unravel, that can only be cut through. She can hear the both of them breathing. See the shadow that slants across the wall. She doesn’t know which of them it belongs to, only that it doesn’t matter—or won’t, in a very short amount of time.
She lunges. She slugs the girl in the face, feels her knuckles strike bone. The girl clings onto her arm as she hooks it around her neck, opens her mouth and bites down. They yell and wrestle and fall through the floor, then they pick their aching bodies off the floor to continue the fight. Blow for blow. Underhanded jabs of the knife, clawing at hair and eyes and teeth; anything to give them an edge, to survive, to win. They’re here to finish it, once and for all.
She thought she already had. Back in Wyoming, in the lodge, she had thought she was ending it. Had looked this girl in the eyes and thought nothing of her but good; now you know how it feels. Now live with it, like I did. All without considering that that was exactly what she would do.
She wants to say to her now: somebody chose you over the whole rest of the world, and paid the price for it in full. Have you inherited this as a debt, or a promise?
The twang of a bowstring. An arrow buries itself into her shoulder. She howls, not from pain but from rage; nothing hurts, not anymore. She’s beyond that, now. She grips the shaft and yanks the slender arrow from her body, snaps it over her knee, tosses the broken pieces away. She thunders across the room and grabs the girl by the neck. Knees her in the gut, throws her to the ground, and comes down upon her like lightning.
Cartilage snaps beneath her fists. Green eyes well up with blood, then start to roll backward, revealing white.
Something comes screaming out of the shadows, knocking her to the ground. A clicker, she thinks automatically, but the face hovering over hers is very much human, as is the flash of her knife. Snick of an arrow and a scream and she’s wrestling her down, slamming her face into the ground, again and again and again—
“Stop,” the girl says, wheezing from the floor, her face almost unrecognizable under all the blood. “Stop, please, she had nothing to do with this, she’s pregnant,” and she wrenches her eyes shut, like she already knows none of it is worth anything at all, and like she already knows what it will cost her.
You stupid girl, she thinks, both despairing and triumphant. How could you be so shortsighted? How could you just ruin everything like this? You thought you lost everything? You hadn’t. You never even came close. But now you’re going to, just like me. Now you’re just like me.
She twists up, angles the blade against the soft unbroken skin of the throat, steadies her arm to drive it straight through to the pulse.
Abby stills. Her chest heaves. Lev is standing there, watching them, watching her. Eyes wide—shocked, even. He has reason to be. He hasn’t seen her like this yet, hadn’t known this existed inside of her. This creature hunched on the floor with blood in her mouth and under her nails and dried in the lines of her palms. This is me, it roars inside her head, in beat with her frenzied pumping heart: this is what I’ve always been, the disease lurking beneath, the rot inside, and this is what’s going to infect you, too—
Ellie. It sounds like the name of a child. Owen and Mel—they had never discussed possible names, or at least not with her. Why would they have? It would have been something private for the two of them to share. Bobby, maybe, for Owen’s father, or Alexandra, for his mother. Alex for short. What about Mel’s parents? Abby was never close enough to know their names. Are those the only options—what came before? Can they never get anywhere but back where they started?
This body she’s holding. This girl. Will her child bear Ellie’s name, too? Or Jesse, the one she’d shot outside? Tommy, the one she left for dead?
Or will they name him Joel?
Abby lets her fall limply to the floor. She gets up from her knees. Stands over Ellie, her shadow falling over her, her bloodied, choking face. She looks her in the eyes for a long time, and she can’t see anything in them at all.
“Don’t ever let me see you again,” she says.
Outside, it’s still raining. She tilts her face up, feels it fall wet over the slope of her nose, her eyelashes, her throat bared to the sky. Until it’s all she can hear. Pouring down, crashing into her ears, muffling the thump in her chest.
After a while she realizes she’s still holding the knife, clenched tight in her hand. She stares down at it.
She opens her fist. The knife clatters against the asphalt. Drops of rain scatter across the gleaming blade, washing away red.
Abby starts to walk. She doesn’t know where she’s going.
But Lev follows after her, anyway.
It’s beautiful in Seattle, which only makes everything so much worse. Not just the woods growing green and lush, the shafts of sunlight piercing through the treetops and turning the air to gold. Not just the overgrowth that has overtaken the city, vines of ivy crawling patient over street signs and buildings, cars set adrift in oceans of tall grass. But also the remnants themselves: what still stands. All that is still, somehow, standing.
There was the synagogue, back on the first day, and the music shop. It seems like so long ago now, when she had wandered that empty hall, listening spellbound as Dina’s voice filled the room with echoes. When Ellie had sat down and ran her fingers over the strings of the guitar and sang, and Dina had looked at her like she’d done something impossible. Something good.
Now Dina and Jesse are in the theatre, back where Ellie had left them together, and she’s alone with this city and everything in it. This isn’t her home, none of it belongs to her, but she’s the one left to discover what has outlived it: the notes on desks and pinned to fridges and folded safe in the pockets of corpses, all the last words they left behind.
And they have many. Pleas, confessions, wonderings. My name is... I’m so sorry... Please tell her... But it’s only Ellie who receives them, and she has no one to tell, no one to pass these messages onto. Still, she can’t keep herself from seeking them out, misplaced as they are in her hands; after all, who is left to read and remember, but her?
Ellie’s never had much reverence for what remains. She was born to a new world growing from the bones of the old, and as a child, trespassing through its skeleton with Riley and later with Joel, she had felt only curiosity. Sometimes sadness, but only in the sense of knowing the fact of something broken and not what shape it had taken before. She has nothing to miss and no stories to tell, not like Joel, who would pick up an old magazine or see a billboard or pass by a coffee shop and get a faraway gleam in his eye. It wasn’t fair, she always thought; he had the advantage of history, of years, of a secret Ellie would never get to see, only unearth in pieces from its grave.
Now Joel, too, is lost to her, surviving only in parts. His gun, his watch cracked in, the photographs on his desk. All the small animals he crafted out of wood with the flat blade of his chisel, with his hands. His patient toil.
And her, of course. And her.
Ellie will never get infected; she’ll die with her face intact, free from bloated fungi and rotting spores. It’ll be violence that overtakes her, though clumsiness isn’t out of the picture, either—a bad fall, a careless accident. Hunger and sickness and cold; all the things that take their time to kill. After she goes, what will be left of her? She can’t help but already imagine: the bracelet wound around her wrist. Sketches in a journal, lyrics of a song. A name.
If the surgery had been successful, she would’ve been more than that. She would be a martyr, and it would be from her remains that they would have made a new world, one rebuilt in the image of what came before. Now, instead, it’s her life that will have to be her legacy. That, and her own two hands, coiled into fists.
She shatters windows, sets fire to a room full of stalkers, crawls belly-deep through the grass to slit the throats of soldiers and cultists alike. These bodies in her way, the battles that don’t belong to her. She’s here for only one reason. For only one person.
“Where is she,” Ellie says, in a hospital hallway flooded with red, spores thick as snow in the air. An iron pipe clenched firmly in her hands.
Nora looks up at her, and Ellie can see the disbelief clear in her eyes, struggling to make sense of her. Between what she was promised to be, and what she is. A miracle. A kid. What they could have made, out of her; instead, what they’ve made her into.
“Think about what he did,” Nora says, through heaving breaths. A last plea.
Ellie thinks about it.
She raises the pipe.
She raises the club.
“No,” the girl’s crying, “no, god dammit, get up Joel, please don’t do this, please don’t—”
If Abby had been there, when her father had died; if she’d trained to be a medic instead of a soldier, if she’d only followed in her father’s footsteps, she could have been in the surgical room with him. She could have been the assistant by his side, handing over the scalpel, the scissors. She could have been there when Joel Miller burst open the room with his gun in hand, and maybe it would have made all the difference, whether she could have protected her father, or pleaded mercy, or even taken the bullet in his stead.
Then again, Joel would probably have just shot them both. And then they’d both be bleeding out on the ground, and nobody would ever have made him pay for it.
She brings the club down.
Joel doesn’t make a noise when he dies, nothing so much as a sigh. Not one plea for his life. He must know what it’s worth. Only the girl screams, her voice stretching thin and ragged, breaking off into choking sobs.
The others are arguing over what to do with her. Abby pays them no attention. She stares down at the body slowly drenching itself in blood and lets the club drop from her grasp. Feels her fist uncurl itself, finger by finger, until the clenched thing at her side resembles something like a hand once more. She looks down at it. She’d taken off her gloves for this, and she’d been gripping the club so tightly that the grooves of the rubber handle have indented themselves into her palms, the skin ground red and raw. They ache, a dull soreness worn rough into the bones.
“—stupid bitch fuckin’ cut up my face—”
“—we did what we came for, we’re done, she has nothing to do with it—”
“—kill you, I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna kill every last one of you, I swear—”
Abby looks up, then. Looks at the girl pinned to the floor, her face pale against a mess of blood and tears; watches her watch her right back.
“Leave her,” Abby says.
It’s only much later, when they’ve left the lodge far behind them on their long ride back to Seattle, that Owen nudges Abby’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he says. “You okay?”
There isn’t much room for privacy crammed in the back of the truck, but Manny’s engaged in conversation with Leah and Nora, and Mel looks like she’s fallen asleep. Nick and Jordan are up in the front. Abby and Owen are sitting at the very end, knee-to-knee, and nobody’s listening to the murmur of Owen’s voice amid the crunch of tires over snow.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Abby says.
Owen looks at her. He’s been looking at her for the better part of the whole ride, ever since they left the lodge, left the girl and Tommy and the body that used to be Joel. Abby stares back at him, not budging an inch.
Owen flicks his gaze away. Then back.
“You did the right thing back there,” he says.
“Letting that girl go, I mean.”
His voice is soft. He sounds like there’s something left to salvage from all of this. Like there’s some light he can see, and if Abby would just let him show her, she’d be able to see it, too. Listening to him, you’d almost believe it. He can’t help it—that’s the way he’s always been. It’s what she always found so attractive in him when she was younger, that natural magnetism that was easy to admire, to want. Only later did it start to grate—that he would never look upon something and see it for all it really was.
The girl’s eyes had been alight with shock, horror, hatred. Seeing it had been proof enough that somebody would suffer for this. Would pay the same bitter price that Abby had, too. If she had let her die, then Abby would have been alone in it. This way, there was someone else, one other person in the whole world who understood.
Her father’s hands had been for fixing things; hers were not. When it came down to the wire, he had known it, too. “I’ll hold onto it,” he said, the frightened zebra struggling in his firm, gentle hold. “You cut.” And she did. So close, the blades had grazed the tender skin, and yet her hands did not shake. Not once.
Nor had they when the club struck skull and split the bone.
“You said it,” Abby says. “We already got what we came for. What all of it was for.”
Owen looks at her.
He looks away.
“Yeah,” he says.
They don’t talk for the rest of the ride.
After Tommy leaves they don’t talk about it, or him. Dina puts on a record and starts cleaning up the rabbit Ellie’d brought back, and out on the porch Ellie bounces JJ in her arms, the two of them watching the sun set over the fields. The slightest breeze stirring the tall grass, the wind chimes.
“It’s real peaceful tonight, isn’t it,” she says to JJ, who makes a gurgling noise in response. Ellie ruffles his hair, smooths it out from his forehead. His eyes crinkle up at her, so she does it again, wonders at the fact that such a simple gesture could make him so happy. A thought crosses her mind—if only it could always be this easy. An arm hooked around Dina’s waist, swaying together to the music. If only.
Sometimes Ellie thinks there’s too much space out here, space to just be. No purpose other than to eat and work and sleep and wake in the morning to do it all over again. She could just stand in a field of wheat, everything around her growing for no reason except the sun in the sky, the rain coming down, the earth underneath. She’ll never tell this to Dina, but sometimes it even reminds her of the infected: even after death, after the skin splits ripe and the blood salts the soil, after the fungi sprout from the sockets of their eyes and eat all through their insides, they still roam and feed and live like they never forgot how.
These days, when she spots them out by the old gas station or in the woods, she can’t help but think as she clears them out that they’ve come to look natural. They’re starting to seem like they belong here, with everything else, the trees and the moss and all the other wild creatures. More than she does, even, haunting the farmhouse like a strange ghost, unsure of what to do with her hands.
She leans forward slightly, against the porch railing, and shifts JJ in her arms.
“Oof, you really are getting heavy, aren’t you, Potato?” She tickles his tummy with her finger. “That’s good. You have to eat and grow strong and healthy. You’re gonna outgrow us all, after all. Aren’t you?”
JJ giggles, grabs onto her finger with eager hands. They’re so small, still, clumsy with baby fat, but Ellie remembers the first time he’d done it, how she’d been surprised by the strength of his grip. How tightly he holds onto her now, like she’s the centre of his entire world, where it ends and begins.
She thinks of how Dina talks to him, voice low and clear, enough to hear the smile on her face. All the stories she tells him about how he got here, who came before. Her face bent low to his. The looks on both their faces like they’re sharing a secret, creating something new in the air between them, every time. A spell never spoken to life before. Watching them, it kind of reminds Ellie of what it’s like, to sing a song.
She lets out a breath, thin and hollow.
“I told your dad once that we were born in the wrong time.” She tucks a bit of JJ’s hair behind his ear. He’ll need it cut again soon. How fast it grows; everything grows. “I meant it as a joke—well, kind of. Way to state the obvious, right? But it still holds true, you know, and it does for you, too. You should be growing up with, I don’t know, stupid stuff like video games, and ice cream, and a whole neighbourhood block of other kids to play with.” She strokes his hair absently. “But then again, I always think. How lucky you were born at all, right? How lucky we are.”
The sun’s setting, slow but sure; a chill’s picking up. Her voice sounds dry, rusty even to herself.
“If Joel could have met you,” Ellie says. “He’d play you songs on the guitar, better than I ever could. He’d make up real stupid ones, too, just for you. He’d tell terrible jokes and laugh like they were funny, and you’d grow up with a real warped sense of humour. So maybe we dodged a bullet, hmm?” Her voice cracks. She clears her throat, continues. “He’d carve you all sorts of wooden toys and act all aghast when you tried to chew on them. I mean, he’s probably good with babies, right? He raised one himself. Apparently. Not that he ever told me how. Things like how to hold a baby properly, how to clean and feed and care for one, you know, useful things like that. Those are all things I’ve had to figure out myself.”
She pinches one of JJ’s pudgy cheeks, and he bats at her fingers. It turns out gentleness is something you have to learn, just like anything else. Like watching over JJ as he reached out to pat the top of the lamb’s pale-furred head. Careful, Ellie had said; firm, but not too hard, not too rough. Like this. Yes, like that. There, you’ve got it. You’ve got it, now.
From inside comes the sound of running water; Dina’s turned on the sink. Faint strains of music. Ellie presses her lips to the soft crown of JJ’s head.
“Who’s gonna tell you the stories about me?” she murmurs into his hair. Would Dina be able to bear it, the weight of her absence, as surely as she’s taken on Jesse’s? Or would the hurt be different—more pointed, more personal? Would it be Tommy, if he could ever stand to return, to say her name without anger running cold through the cracks of his voice? Would he talk about how he once took her into the mountains and let her shoot from his sniper rifle, the sight pressed close against her eye, her finger steady on the trigger; would he say it with pride, or with contempt?
Or would it be the people who come for her, years and years later, to collect?
Behind them, the door creaks open.
“Dinner’s ready,” Dina says.
Ellie doesn’t move. She’s still watching the sun, dipped low over the horizon, almost all gone.
“Be right there,” she says.
There’s no response. Ellie turns around. Dina’s still standing there, door propped open against her hip. It’s beautiful, right, Ellie means to say, before she realizes Dina isn’t looking at the sunset at all. She’s looking at the two of them. She’s looking at her.
From inside the house, the record comes dwindling to its end. The scratch of the needle fading into silence.
“Come on in, and put another record on,” Dina says softly, her eyes never leaving Ellie’s. “Come home.”
“Yeah,” Ellie says. Her voice gentle. Gentleness is different from softness. She’s learned this, too. “I’m coming.”
Over their heads, the wind chimes turn slowly, in the air.
There’s a knock on the door. Abby doesn’t move, or say anything. After a while it opens anyway; it’s Owen. Of course it’s Owen. He has a tray of food in his hands and an expression on his face Abby can’t bear to look at. She forces herself to look at it anyway.
“Hey,” he says, soft. “You didn’t come down for dinner, so I brought you your share.”
Abby doesn’t respond. She’s sitting at her desk. On top of it is a box that contains everything that’s left of her father: files upon files of notes, folded-up clothes, a coin from 1978. Virginia.
There’s a tape recorder in her hand. Her finger is on the play button. She presses it now.
“—a miracle, this kid, I’ve never seen anything like it. She could be what changes everything. What saves us all.” A pause. “Abby told me earlier that she thinks I’m doing the right thing. I know I am, but it still feels awful to have to do it this way. She said—if it were her, she’d want me to do the surgery.” A wry, wondering laugh. “That girl. Can you believe... If everything works—and it will, of course—we’ll be saving thousands, millions of lives. The whole future of this world. This is the most important thing I’ll ever do. But all the same, it feels like the best thing I’ve ever done, I’ll ever do, is bring Abby into it.”
Click. Rewind. Play.
“—a miracle, this kid, I’ve never seen anything like it. She could be what changes everything. What saves us all—”
“Hey,” Owen says. He sets the tray down on the table, next to the box, and carefully puts his hand over Abby’s, stilling it. “Stop. It’s just going to make it worse. You need to rest, Abby. You need to eat.”
They’d buried him, earlier tonight. Him and Marlene and all the rest. The ordeal had taken them the whole day; there were so many bodies to recover, after all. The halls of St. Mary’s streaked with blood. Abby’s fought off hordes of clickers, dealt with rogue hunters and bandits, helped out with attacks on QZ military camps. But she hadn’t been prepared for a one-man massacre like this. Hadn’t known there was somebody in this world was capable of doing something like this.
And for what?
“The others are talking,” Owen says. He snorts. “Arguing, more like. About what to do with ourselves now.” He shakes his head. “Some of ’em are even talking about disbanding, can you believe that? Just because Marlene’s gone, just because the cure—”
“Good,” says Abby.
Abby squeezes the rewind button of the tape recorder like a trigger. “I said good.”
“Abby,” Owen says, his voice so careful, like she’s some spooked animal caught in a trap, bleeding and kicking and blinded with pain. Something that doesn’t know what’s good for itself. “Abby, I know it’s—look, you have to think clearly about this. What good does it do us, to break up the Fireflies? We have to stay strong. Keep moving. Keep sight of what we’re looking at. Our goals haven’t changed, right? The world’s still here. We’re still here.”
Abby starts to laugh.
Owen’s eyes widen. He jerks back, like she’s hit him.
“Don’t tell me that we can move on from this,” Abby says. Her voice is a cold, hard thing. She’s never heard it like this before. “That we’re just gonna mop up the blood from the walls and cover it up like it never happened. Like nothing happened. Like we didn’t just have the cure for the whole world ripped out of our hands and stamped out because we were so stupid to believe it in the first place. God, we were so stupid—”
“This was what it was all supposed to be for,” Abby says. After a moment: “He took everything from me.” Then, quieter: “There’s nothing—there’s nothing left. I have nothing left.”
Owen looks tired. The hollowed bone around his eyes, set deep, sinking in.
“You have me,” he says.
Abby turns her face away.
A long while passes before either of them speak again.
“Joel,” Abby says. As conversationally as if she were asking about the weather. “That was his name, right?”
She can hear Owen rubbing a hand over his face. “Yeah.”
“Do we have a last name?”
“I’m not sure. I’d have to ask the others—”
“I’ll do it.” She sets the tape recorder very gently back into the box. Then she gets up, the legs of her chair scraping backward against the ground.
She turns to look at him, his face shadowed in the angle of the lamplight. She can’t make out anything of his expression at all, anything but for the faint gleam in his eyes, watching her back.
He closes them.
Abby leaves him there, silent and still in the darkness. She closes the door behind her.
The fog of the evening gives everything a dreamlike sort of air, like none of this is real. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe she’s still asleep, sprawled under the covers next to Dina with JJ safely tucked in between them. Maybe she’s still hanging upside-down from the trap by the tree, and no one’s coming for her as she bleeds out, bit by bit. Maybe she died on an operating table in a surgical room and all of this has been one last feverish flare in her brain, long deformed by the mutated fungi, nothing more than a dying burst of neurological activity burning red and orange on the scans.
She follows Abby as though in a trance, through the beach and over the hills of grass and sand. Watches her every move. How she stumbles her way barefoot with no hesitation, the boy cradled in her arms like a child. Ellie feels something like amazement at the sight of it, that her hands can shelter and protect as much as they can fire a bullet between the eyes and bash in a skull with a club. Careful, she wants to croak out to him, through the strain of her own voice; don’t you know what she’s done? Don’t you know what she’s capable of?
She looks down at her own hands, streaked with dirt, with blood. It strikes her with some irony that for once, most of it is probably her own.
Slowly, the horizon appears. The shoreline. The boats. Again, Ellie watches Abby wade through the water with something like purpose in her forward pace, and finds it foreign as a language that belongs far away from here. She cannot understand it. Where are you going, she wants to ask, a child’s plaintive, puzzled voice. Where is there left in the world for you to go? What is there left in the world for you?
Ellie follows into the rippling tide, seeping cold, so cold around her waist, her legs, her ankles. Wearing canvas sneakers in the snow, Dina had joked to her once, you’ll die of hypothermia. She barely feels it now. She approaches one of the boats floating on the water. Here, Joel had said, treading filthy water as he maneuvered the makeshift wooden raft into position. Get on, we’ll use this to get you across. Hold on tight. And she did. She takes off her pack, feeling the ache in her weary shoulders, her spine, and sets it down into the boat. Presses a hand to her abdomen.
It comes away red.
She takes in a breath. Then another.
She turns around.
Abby is untying the mooring rope, her hands making quick work of the knots. She’s lost so much weight she’s almost unrecognizable, the jut of her shoulders bony, unfamiliar, strange. Her fishtail braid is gone, hair shorn against the scalp. It doesn’t change anything, Ellie thinks. It’s still you, inside. I know you. I’ll prove it.
She grabs her by the hair on the back of her head, where the braid would have been, and throws her into the water.
Hunched small and staring up at her, Abby still looks so different from how Ellie remembers her. Standing tall over Joel with a golf club clenched firmly in her hands. Gun pointed down at Tommy on the ground as Jesse bled out, already empty behind the eyes. Hulking over Dina’s unconscious body like she was about to break it, and nothing and nobody could stop her. Now the roles are reversed. She’s the one looking up at Ellie, warily, because Ellie’s the one holding her whole world in her hands.
What was it she had said, that time—?
The boy’s lashes flutter. His brow furrows, cracked lips moving slightly as Ellie presses the rusted blade against his throat. Like he’s having a bad dream. They all are, aren’t they? And none of them get to wake up. None of them get to leave.
“Okay,” Abby says. She stands up, slow, until they’re looking each other in the eyes. That’s right, Ellie thinks distantly. I know you. And you know me.
It’s Abby who makes the first move, like she has something to lose. Ellie lets her. Tackling her into the shallows and struggling. Hand clamped around Ellie’s chin, weight pressing her into the water, knees kicking as though trying to use every part of her body to bring her down. When Ellie lashes out with her knife Abby screams high-pitched like something animal. No sound Ellie’s ever heard her make before. She does it again. And again. And again.
This is beyond life and death now, Ellie knows; the crack of a bone, slash of the knife. This is all that’s left. Everything else fading away into the misty quality of the air: the boy, the boats, the ocean they’re both standing in. Dina, a smile crinkling her eyes, JJ balanced on her hip. Tommy and the scar he has for an eye, the promise broken between them. Even Joel, his face a raw pulp, beaten crumpled and unmoving in his own blood. They’re past all of them, now. Everything in the world narrowing down to only the two of them and what they can do to each other. What there is still left to do to each other.
Either way, it ends here. That’s what she’s come for. The end.
Abby lets out a guttural roar, fist raised; Ellie dodges the blow and returns it for one of her own. They’re both heaving for air at this point, bodies battered past the breaking point, movements sluggish and clumsy and desperate. They’re growing weak. Like a pair of infected, Ellie thinks, clickers blind in the eyes; they can’t even tell that they’re both already gone. Each circling, clawing, feeding off the other in the last survival instinct they have left.
She knocks Abby into the water, wrestles her until she stays there. Clings to her and doesn’t let go, even after her fingers are bitten off at the knuckle and bleeding. Her hands still pressing her down, into the water, below the surface. Her hands unrelenting, choking her by the throat, the frame of her shoulders.
Like this, Joel said, arranging her elbows slightly, tugging them into proper position. Keep your hands relaxed, fingers slightly apart. You gotta push the water with your whole arm, remember. No flailing about. Like this, he said, nudging her fingers into place over the guitar strings; there, you’ve got it. Go on, give it a whirl, it’s not gonna bite you. Like this, he said, demonstrating his own hold on the trigger, then handing the rifle over. Now it’s your turn. Go on and pull the bolt back—there, just like that, there you go. Listen to me—I get in trouble down there, you make every shot count. Yeah?
Ellie lets go like she’s been burned. She falls into the water, gasping, and the splash is almost sharp against her skin, how cold it suddenly feels, all at once. Abby shoots up from the surface choking on air, drinking it in like she can’t get enough of it, all there is to breathe. Their bodies stay slumped in the water for a moment, as though struggling to remember what they’re for. That they’re still here.
“Go,” Ellie says; she doesn’t look up at her, doesn’t have eyes for anything other than her left hand clenched firmly in the other, the stumps dripping blood into the water. “Just take him.”
Ellie holds her hands in her lap, all she’s got left, and watches as Abby pushes the boat out to sea, into the fog. Look back, she wills. Turn around and look back. Look at me. Look me in the eye as you leave, and look at everything you’ve left behind. Look at what we made.
But her eyes are facing forward.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.
There Is A Gold Light In Certain Old Paintings, Donald Justice