So what are you scared of, Ellie asks, and you pause to glance back at her. She's trailing a few feet behind, dragging her fingers absently over the side of a bus half-covered in green undergrowth. You wonder if she's looking for a weakness, probing your defenses lightly for a fleshy spot unprotected by steel or bone. You want to snort because every weakness has been burnt out of you after the infection. It's in the way Tess used to look at you, eyes narrowed, like maybe you were closer to the clickers you put down than to your fellow man. Hell, maybe she would've been right. You still can't make a convincing case for humanity, but you told Tess that you would deliver the girl and you want to be a man of your word.
So here you are, broken highway underfoot and a vague idea of forward in your head. You don't want to calculate the odds of finding one man in a state as big as Wyoming, so you don't try. You never really had a head for math and figuring will get you nowhere. It's just one foot followed by the other, again and again and again. This is how you live your life. How you survive.
Keep moving, you say gruffly.
Ellie rolls her eyes and makes a face when she thinks you aren't looking. You don't mind. The important part is she follows.
Your heart stops beating when you see the stalker a split second too late and barely have time to shout Ellie when she drops to the ground, one arm slashing upwards, and you see blood and you think oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck no not again fuck.
You waste an extra bullet on the runner scrabbling for your head, one shot messy and too high, but you can't make yourself care as you run towards Ellie and the body collapsed on top of her. You kick it aside, barely noticing the blue track suit and platinum blond hair and the fact that it used to be somebody, once - you only have eyes for Ellie. She coughs, pushes herself up and shoots you a nervous grin like she is waiting for your approval. You feel sick. You turn away abruptly and wonder if it is too late to walk away, pass her along to somebody who knows what to do with that look.
So you should really just give me a gun, Ellie says, twirling her knife in one hand and smiling wider as adrenaline starts to kick in. She thinks she's proven something and you want to take her by the shoulders and shake until she understands. This isn't a game. You are not heroes. What you are trying to do here, Marlene's goddamn cause, it might not even be worth fighting for. This is just one big fucked up situation and the most you can do is survive.
You want her to learn this. You do.
No gun, you say, and tug her forward, making sure to keep her in sight. You can shoot well enough to cover the both of you, and there's nothing worse than an amateur with an itchy trigger finger. True, you know she can handle that knife, maybe even better than you can, but.
A gun's different. Impersonal in a way that's hard to match with her wide eyes.
You tell yourself it's better this way.
The sewer smells mostly like wet vegetation, damp mineral, nothing like the horrific stench they used to show in movies, actors gagging and covering their noses and stumbling along blindly with eyes streaming. Years of disuse would do that, you think. A few cockroaches scurry away from your flashlight, but no rats. You wonder where they went. If they miss people at all. But why would they.
Ellie whistles something slightly off-tune and you hear it echoed back, magnified and strangely eerie. You give her a look and she stops immediately, looking down at her shoes for a moment before staring back at you with a challenge burning in her eyes.
There's nothing here, she says. I know you already checked ahead this morning when you thought I was sleeping.
Doesn't mean it's safe, you say. Doesn't mean you can act stupid.
Fuck off, Joel, she snaps, and you don't think you are imagining the hurt in her voice. She shoves past you and you let her, pushing yourself against the wall to give her space on the catwalk. She doesn't have a bedroom door to slam, but you can let her have this.
She moves without slowing and you have to remind yourself, fourteen, she's just fourteen. You think she's probably trying to annoy you, worry you, barging on ahead and seeing how far she can go before you call her back.
Ellie, you start to say, but stop when you hear metal creaking and see her frozen in her steps. You stride to her in half a dozen precise steps and catch her by the elbow just as the rusty platform gives out. You pull her up and ignore the ache in your stomach from another near miss. At the very beginning, you used to feel relief after every brush with death, but all you feel now is anticipation. It is only a matter of time before you lose to chance - a stray bullet, an arm around your neck, one lucky bite. There are a million ways to leave this hell hole and you don't know why they haven't happened to you yet. You are living on borrowed time and you tell yourself that is the only reason why you wear a broken watch on your wrist.
Christ, Ellie says, a little breathless, and she leans against you the way Sarah used to when she was too distracted to be embarrassed.
Don't wander ahead, you say, but the words are unnecessary. You know Ellie will stick closer now.
This fucking place is a shithole, she says, glaring at the broken walkway like somebody built it fifty years ago solely to offend her. You don't know how she can still take things so personally.
Well, we're almost out, you say. You can feel the current in the air growing stronger, hear the chatter of birdsong up ahead. Your pace quickens unconsciously and you catch yourself, force your legs to slow down. You've made it this far. You'd never forgive yourself if you dropped your guard now.
You motion for her to wait and crouch down low, making your way towards the exit. It opens into a small clearing, and you relax a little when you see no signs of people, the biggest indicator of life just old rabbit tracks.
It's clear, you call out, and hear her coming towards you from further inside the tunnel. She slips past your shoulder and jumps out into the sunlight, landing softly. She stays kneeled down and you see her examining a fallen bird's nest. You slide out more slowly, one finger ready to flip the safety off your gun. You're not expecting trouble, but you're not one to tempt fate either. You keep your gaze on the forest around you, trusting your instincts to jump in if needed.
She looks triumphant standing there in the sunlight, a small egg gently cradled in one hand, smiling big enough to hurt.
You have to squint it's so bright.
In the outskirts of Grand Junction, Ellie asks you what you remember about the past few months and you almost drop the rabbit you are skinning. You glance over but she is flipping through an old comic book, pretending like she's bored and your answer doesn't really matter. You know better.
Your stomach aches, but it's nothing like the pain you felt before. You never asked about the penicillin. You won't ever ask. You don't consider yourself a very smart man - you never went to college, like Tommy - but even you can fill in the gaps.
It's pretty hazy, you say. That's mostly true.
(You remember the scent of burning flesh, kicking down the restaurant door to see a knife plunging in and realizing in that moment that nothing could ever be whole again.)
Good, Ellie says softly, and you're not sure if you were meant to hear.
You try not to think about the stupid jokes, the endless questions that would have filled the silence months ago. Of course she is quieter now. It's a sign that she's still human.
After this is all over, I'll teach you how to play the guitar, you say, the words somehow escaping your mouth before you can shut them down. She lifts her head, finally, to meet your eyes, and you find yourself warming up to the idea quickly. She is still the best person you know, her brightness is just subdued now. Maybe you can bring it back. You still remember your favorite chords, the way they fit together into songs. It won't be hard to teach her. You'll start with something basic. You wonder if she'll like country.
Sounds good, she says. You pick up the absent tone in her voice, but that's all right. She needs time. After this thing with the Fireflies wraps up, you'll make sure she has all the time she needs.
What are you scared of, Ellie whispers, her eyes tired and her fingers trembling as they clutch at your shirt and hold on. Fourteen, you remember, the number landing like a punch to the gut. She's too small for her age, the hospital gown doing little to hide her bones. She's too clever, too brave. Watching her grow up in this place, it's killing you. You're hurting in ways you forgot about years ago.
Joel? she says.
You think about lying and Fireflies and then real glowing fireflies, Tommy's photograph crumpled in your breast pocket and that day he won his first soccer match, your voice so hoarse from cheering in the stands. You think about your old house, the neighbors you waved to and the mortgage you paid off, the smokey scent of backyard barbecues and the flickering blue light of late night television, curled up on the couch with Sarah. In the summertime, the heat inTexas was so oppressive and sticky it took everything you had just to roll out of bed. You think about the life you had then and the life you have now, and Ellie feels so small pressed against your chest but she's growing up fast and you hold her closer and think, this, this, you.