Lumy (luminations) wrote,

"Comforting Sounds" Chapter 11: "Clocks" (11/17)

Title: "Comforting Sounds" Chapter 11: "Clocks" (11/17)
Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Pairings: Ellie/OC
Word Count for this chapter: 8010
Rating (for fic as a whole): R

Nana and Ellie were sitting on the back porch, watching the kids (and several adults) playing in the yard... some game that involved a lot of shrieking and running around. They were far enough away that their conversation wouldn't be overheard. Ellie sipped her lemonade, which was usually her favorite thing to drink on a warm day, but now that she was subhuman, she could barely taste it. The monster would probably prefer to feed off my internal organs rather than anything I might consume, she thought meanly.

She would have tolerated Tommy's presence, but a couple of the kids had dragged him off to play as soon as they laid eyes on him, with Ellie's blessing. Nana had the biggest backyard of anyone in town, and not by accident. Her primary job was daycare, with some help from other residents, and sometimes other parents who didn't need daycare but brought their kids over to socialize. Her secondary job seemed to be giving therapy, even though she'd never been a trained therapist. She had a huge heart, especially for children, but plenty of adults bent her ear with their problems, too. According to her, she mostly just listened to people. A lot of times, that was all they needed.

Ellie didn't dislike the woman -- it was hard to dislike someone whose smile was so genuine, who was so bubbly and happy all the time, and seemed to live to serve other people's needs -- she just didn't see how spilling her guts to her would help anything. Nana could comfort anyone from a kid crying over a scraped knee to an adult crying over a dead loved one, treating each like a terrible tragedy that warranted the most sympathy ever -- but she wasn't magical and all-powerful. Her real name was Amy, but only people her age or older were allowed to call her that. Even Joel had to call her Nana.

Ellie wondered if Tommy thought one chat with Nana would cure all that ailed her. He'd warned Nana that Ellie was reluctant to come, not eager to talk, and Nana agreed they could just sit for a while in silence if Ellie wanted to. Stubbornly, that was exactly what Ellie wanted to do: sit there mute for hours and hours, for so long that eventually Tommy would have to admit he'd made a mistake -- then take her home and never make her go anywhere again.

But... she just couldn't do it. Nana knew better than to try to make small talk with her, or spew bullshit at her, or ask personal questions to stimulate conversation... she was sitting there sipping lemonade, watching the kids play, glancing at Ellie every so often with a docile expression on her face, deferential even to a sulky teenage bitch who didn't deserve anyone's respect. After probably less than a minute of silence, Ellie began with, "Did Tommy tell you why we're here?" Clearly he hadn't told her upon arrival, or Ellie would have heard him. But she knew they'd been in touch.

"Well... I know he's worried about you. That you've been through a lot lately." She was a petite woman with kind hazel eyes and soft features. Short, fine white hair, the ends curling at odd angles around her ears. More wrinkles than Joel. Ellie felt fairly at ease with her, even though she barely knew her. She chalked it up to the woman's unassuming, sweet-looking face.

"Yeah, that... and I'm pregnant. From that night," Ellie mumbled into her glass. No 'maybe' or 'might be' -- it was a fact, as far as Ellie was concerned. No mention that it could be Bailey's. Still, she felt ashamed, admitting it like that. Just being pregnant was like an advertisement of having sex. Why did I even tell her?

Nana seemed genuinely surprised, so maybe Tommy had kept his mouth shut. "Oh. Wow, that's a doozy. Ellie, I'm so sorry."

"And apparently there's no way to get rid of it." Ellie suddenly wondered if Nana might be willing to help her in that regard... although she imagined the woman's feelings on the matter were similar to the doctor's, given how she felt about children. Yeah, probably a long shot...

"Get rid of it... as in terminate the pregnancy?" Nana asked.

"Yeah. Terminate it." She liked that word. Termination sounded less harsh than abortion.

"No, there's not. No safe way. Even before the world went to hell, it wasn't risk-free, or easy. There's always... ramifications," she echoed Dr. Choi.

I don't care about the ramifications! Ugh. "So I'm supposed to just sit around and hope I have a miscarriage. Great."

"That's not without ramifications either," Nana replied calmly. At least she didn't appear to be freaked out or shocked by Ellie's desire to have this pregnancy terminated.

"What, the pain? I'm sure it hurt worse when the... when it was created." She snorted.

"It would hurt you emotionally, psychologically..."

Ellie shook her head. "You sound like Dr. Choi. I don't want this thing. If it goes away, I'd be..." Happy? No. There was no happiness left in this world for her. But she'd be less miserable. She just let the sentence die out.

Nana didn't ask her to finish it. "You're concerned about the emotional turmoil if you go through with the pregnancy. I don't mean to... diminish, or... dismiss your feelings. But if your life is at stake--"

"It's my life. I can fucking risk it if I want to! Or I should be able to." Unbidden, Joel's words from nearly two years ago came to mind: "Do you have any idea what your life is worth?" he'd said. Yeah, I do: NOTHING.

"Frustrating that the choice has been taken from you, I'm sure," Nana sympathized. "That you have to make the best of a bad situation. Make lemonade out of lemons, they used to say."

Ellie snorted again. "Is that why we're drinking lemonade?"

"Sure. Why not." Nana paused to take a drink, and looked at her thoughtfully. "It doesn't seem real to you yet, hmm? That you have a baby growing inside you?"

"It's not a baby! I wish everyone would quit calling it that. That makes it sound like... like something good."

Nana's smile didn't annoy her like the doctor's had; there was nothing smug or patronizing in it. "That's what it is. Babies are a blessing, Ellie."

Here it comes... brace yourself, Ellie. "Not rape babies -- they're more like a curse."

Nana didn't flinch at the term. "Even rape babies are blessings. Ellie... I'm not trying to tell you that what you want is wrong. But since what you want is not an option available to you, maybe you can... shift your thinking a little? The child is innocent... he or she deserves a loving home. And it wouldn't have to be your home. There are lots of people in this town who would welcome a baby into their lives. They wouldn't care who the father is."

Yep, as predicted, now the woman was echoing Tommy. "Would you?" Ellie couldn't resist asking.

"If I were in your shoes? I can't say I wouldn't care at all, I'm sure--"

"No, I mean would you welcome this..." Monster. Thing. Abomination. "...this one. To be its parent."

Nana chuckled. "I would adore the child, certainly, but someone younger would be more ideal. I'm sixty-six years old, I might not have another eighteen years in me!"

Eighteen, that magical number. Ellie felt like she'd already been an adult for a long time. A young adult, maybe, before. But thinking back to even just two months ago, when she'd felt as close to carefree as she'd ever been in her life... surely that was a childish notion, being carefree. She'd aged years since then. "But you have kids here that are like yours, right? Orphans?"

"I do. The youngest is eight. He's had some behavior issues... that's a deterrent for many people. These kids are traumatized, and a lot of people... they don't really know how to handle that, or they can't handle it -- or just plain don't want to handle it if they don't have to. If they don't have any bond with the child, some child they don't know at all, they won't take that on, most of them."

Ellie's little friend who'd died, Mandy, hadn't lived there. She'd had an older brother... an alleged older brother, anyway. Ellie had the feeling that they were another pseudo-family, not blood relatives; manufactured from spare parts. She thought of something Joel had told her a few months back -- or rather, someone. "But even you don't keep all of them," she said. "Not the really fucked up ones."

Nana nodded. "You heard about Charlie."

Charlie, the little girl with the boy's name. Joel thought it was probably a form of Charlotte or Charlene, but no one knew -- not even the girl herself, it seemed. Eleven years old, dangerously unstable. Ellie had met her once, and she hadn't liked the vibe she'd gotten from the girl; all children were not pure and sweet and good simply by virtue of being a child.

"She was a handful. Still is. I visit her from time to time. I would have loved to try to help her, but... not at the risk of the other children. Some of them, kids like her... they've just suffered too much for too long... it's hard to reach them. Not so with a little baby brand new to the world. They're easy to love." Nana smiled dreamily then, as if imagining some sweet, cuddly little newborn.

Ellie wondered how quickly that smile would disappear when she saw the evil in this thing. "Oh no!" Nana would exclaim. "I had no idea it would be so... you were right, Ellie, we should have helped you kill this awful beast. No one could ever love it."

But what Nana had said earlier made Ellie think of Joel. Joel hadn't wanted to deal with her at first. She'd proven herself useful to him in saving his life -- then he wanted to keep her. Ellie knew that wasn't entirely how it had gone down, but it gave her some kind of perverse pleasure to think that Joel was only using her, and when she got to be too much work, he bolted. Just like every other fucking person she ever tried to hold on to. There couldn't be something wrong with all of them; clearly it was her, the common denominator.

"Did Tommy tell you Joel left?" Ellie asked. "That the people he left with came back but he didn't? He's never coming back." She controlled her voice enough that it sounded casual, nonchalant... like she didn't give a fuck if he ever came back.

"I did hear that he's still out hunting, but not that he's never coming back. What happened?"

"Nothing -- he just doesn't want to be here with me anymore," she said coolly.

"I don't believe that. Not for one second. He must have another reason."

"Not a good one." Ellie had imagined Nana telling her that Joel was just a jerk then, and she'd be better off without him -- that she didn't need him. It actually made her feel a little bit hopeful that Nana didn't believe he'd ditched her for good.

"No wonder you're having such a hard time. The two of you were... inseparable. He'll be back," Nana said with a confidence Ellie didn't dare believe.

"I'm not gonna talk about Joel." Ellie closed the subject before she could get emotional.
"Okay," Nana said agreeably. "What about your friend who was killed? Bailey? Do you want to talk about him?" Her voice was kind... gentle. Inviting.

Ellie shook her head emphatically. "I can't," she mumbled.

"Too painful," Nana (correctly) surmised. "Some people find it helpful to talk through things..."

"Well, I don't." She snorted. "I'm just like Joel, huh. We're not even related."

Nana smiled. "Possibly why you two connected in the first place. One reason, anyway."

"Maybe. I don't wanna talk about him!" Ellie declared crossly -- as if Nana were the one who had just mentioned his name.

Nana took it in stride, though. "Right, right. The baby."

"The creature," Ellie corrected her.

"Embryo, if you prefer, or fetus. Still a tiny human life."

"It's not human," she mumbled. She set her lemonade on the table and fiddled with the end of her shirt. Ellie didn't want to tell Nana about her visions. She'd probably think Ellie was crazy. I AM crazy, though. It's not untrue. Still, it was better to let her think she meant a sack of cells that didn't seem human yet.

Nana was quiet for a moment. "Do you think you would recover faster, from this terrible thing that happened to you, if the unborn child... died? I don't believe that you would."

Ellie sighed. "I know what you're doing. Trying to get me to think of it as a real baby and not a... whatever. No, it's not that. Because I know I won't recover, period." She glanced at Nana, who looked... rather stricken. What's it to her? Ellie wondered.

"Oh, that must be a dreadful feeling. To have no hope."

"This is where you tell me that I will recover, it will just take time," Ellie remarked dryly.

"Is that what you want to hear?" Nana asked softly.

"Pfff. No. ...yes? I mean, I wish it was true, but it's just not."

"The human spirit is a remarkable thing. People are capable of getting through so much more than they ever expected to."

Ellie thought of Joel, how he'd been broken for so long after losing Sarah... maybe he's still broken. Maybe I didn't actually put the pieces back together the way everyone thought I did... or if I did, maybe I broke him again. She remained quiet.

"The way you feel now, will not be the way you'll feel a year from now, two years from now... it will get better," Nana said reassuringly. "I wish I could tell you that if you suffer for... a certain number of weeks, months... some measurable thing... then it will be over, but it doesn't work like that."

"It's never going to be over," Ellie insisted.

"You're right, in a way. But the pain does change... it becomes more bearable, lets you get on with your life."

My life is already over, Ellie thought. But she couldn't say things like that to people. She just sat there sullenly, plucking at her shirt.

"You don't believe that will happen this time?"

"This time?" Ellie parroted.

"You've been through many tough situations in your life, have you not? A lot of pain?"

Ellie sighed again. "This is different. It's... it's too much. Everyone thinks I'm strong, and I don't know why they think that because I'm obviously not."

"I suppose I'm part of 'everyone,' then, because I do think you're strong. Stronger than you know. Why don't you think so? Do you think you should have been able to prevent it from happening?"

"Which part?"

"Any of it."

Ellie snorted. "Yeah -- all of it. Everything would be normal if I didn't get this awesome idea to sneak out in the middle of the night, and go make a bunch of noise to draw attention to the fact that there's these two naked people just begging to be mugged -- yeah, naked, so they can't even defend themselves real well. Kinda hard to wear a gun without your clothes on. And, hey, naked chick! She must be a slut! Cool, let's beat her up and have sex with her, we don't even have to rip off her clothes! The boyfriend won't like that -- well, let's just kill him, get him out of the way. -They were supposed to kill me, too. I don't know why the fucker was okay with raping me but not killing me."

Nana didn't cringe at her frankness. So Ellie continued, keeping her tone bitter rather than emotional. "And then, I show up at the funeral. Like I have any right to be there -- there wouldn't even be a funeral if it wasn't for me. And everyone there wonders why it was him and not me. It should've been me, everyone knows it. I know it. I upset Rachel so much that she-- she goes home and blows her brains out. And even if you say that's not my fault, that it was her choice, whatever fucking lame bullshit -- nope! She'd have no reason to do it in the first place if her son hadn't... if I hadn't killed him. So, still me, however you wanna look at it."

Ellie still wasn't done. "And Joel -- he's angry. All the time. At me, at the situation... at the world. He leaves. He's prob'ly killed like a hundred more people by now, so that's on me, too. Maybe he's even dead himself." Her voice caught a little at that last bit, and she felt the bravado slipping. She squeezed her eyes shut to ward off tears. "I'm like this... curse. Spreading pain and death and... just... this... I dunno. But everyone I care about... eventually, they..." She opened her eyes and looked across the table at that kind face. "I'm not a good person, Nana. I guess I look like one or something cuz people keep... trying to be nice to me."

Nana's eyes looked a little moist, and Ellie wondered why; after all the sob stories the woman must have heard in her lifetime, she should be immune or something by now. Hardened. Desensitized. But the voice that answered Ellie's little outburst was brimming with empathy. "Bad things happen to good people all the time in this world, Ellie. All the time. You deserve to have people be nice to you. You need love and support to... to heal."

Ellie took a shaky breath. "I know I should be grateful to have people around who care about me... a few years ago, I had no friends, no family, I pretty much tried to glom on to anyone who was even a tiny bit nice to me."

"I'm glad you have people in your life now who care," Nana said kindly. "But you say that you... should be grateful? Are you not?"

"If I was grateful, I'd be happy," she reasoned. It felt like a lifetime ago now, but there was a time she would have been ecstatic over just a fraction of the attention and provisions she currently had. "God, I'm such a selfish bitch."

Nana shook her head. "You're trying to be logical about it. Emotions aren't logical. You're hurting, you're... blind to the good things, because the bad ones have kind of... taken over. Right?"

There ARE no good things! Ellie thought exasperatedly -- and then she realized that wasn't logical, because obviously, Tommy and Maria and Eddie and having a fucking house to live in with water and electricity and food every day... those were all good things, things that many people didn't have. She sighed. "So... if the bad ones win, it doesn't matter. They poison all the good. What I have now... I won't always have, it'll be gone like everything else."

Nana looked pensive, and took a long moment to answer. "Ellie, have you ever studied Buddhism? I think you might find some... some solace, in those teachings..."

Ellie kind of remembered learning about various religions in some school or another, but she'd memorized whatever she was supposed to for a test and then promptly forgotten it. She stiffened. "I'm not religious. None of that shit makes any sense to me. No offense."

Nana smiled. "None taken. I'm not talking about any sort of organized religion. But the beliefs themselves, a way of looking at the world... the views on attachment and suffering, in particular. You might find it helpful."

"I doubt it." Her stomach churned queasily. Ellie drank some more lemonade, hoping it would settle the beast in there.

"How about this: I'll find you a book on Buddhism at the store -- you can look at it or not, your choice. You can read it and decide it's a steaming pile of horseshit and tell me so, if you'd like."

"Whatever." The 'horseshit' comment was kind of amusing; she'd never heard 'Nana Pollyanna' cuss before.

If Ellie could learn how to hang on to the people she loved from a fucking book of all things... but it's too late. And that was only part of her problem. Would it teach her how to get rid of the memories that kept tormenting her, reminding her what she'd done and what she'd become? Would it erase the fear that followed her everywhere -- fear that even Joel, her hero, couldn't eradicate for her? Would it teach her how to feel something besides sad/angry/numb? (and 'guilty'... can't forget that one... although it's a subset of 'sad', I guess...) In any case, it couldn't do a damn thing to get rid of the monster living in her belly. As far as what she was willing to tell Nana, she'd stick with the first issue -- the one she'd been dealing with her whole life. "It doesn't matter. Sooner or later I drive everyone away."

"Not that one, you won't." Nana gestured to Tommy, who had been reduced to a comical heap on the ground with like five or six kids trying to pile on top of him, all giggling.

It made Ellie's heart hurt, and she had to look away.

Her gaze fell upon a little boy not playing with Tommy and the others, sitting by the fence, solemnly dragging a stick around in the dirt. Probably four or five years old. He glanced over at the shrieking, giggling masses every so often, but not with longing or contempt or even just curiosity... or so it seemed to Ellie. She wondered what he was thinking. Him, it didn't hurt to watch. It was probably the exact opposite of what one was supposed to feel when comparing the two scenarios; really, what kind of weirdo didn't like to watch happy children playing? Fucked up attracts fucked up, then?

"And Maria..." Nana was saying, "she might not be as... well, she can be tough, but she's loyal... they do consider you part of their family, you know."

Ellie didn't think of her as 'tough,' per se, just that there was a certain... hardness in her disposition, some quality Ellie didn't see in Tommy, even when he was trying to be strict and serious. But Ellie couldn't let the family comment slide by unanswered. "So did Joel," she scoffed. Tommy and Maria were great and all, but they weren't Joel. He was irreplaceable. Like a REAL father...

"And I'm sure he still does. You didn't scare him off. He'll be back."

"You don't know that! Nobody knows that! If you know for sure he's coming back, tell me when," she challenged.

"Whenever he's ready to."

"That's not a real answer."

"It's the truth."

"No. Because you can't promise me that. Maybe he's ready and on his way back and then BAM! Someone kills him. Just like that. And we'd never know. Maybe he met someone, someone who needs help, and he -- he has this thing about having something to fight for, see, and maybe this new person needs help going somewhere -- like maybe getting across the country. Maybe Joel ends up back in Boston. It'd be the same difference as if he was dead cuz I wouldn't know. But Bailey -- he's -- I know where he is. I put him there." Her voice wavered again. "I know you're gonna say it wasn't me... the only one responsible for his death is the piece of shit who killed him. Never mind that. -Joel didn't just leave to find those guys. He left because I wasn't doing what he wanted. All he wanted me to do was try to be normal. If I'd only just... like, faked it... or if just one time I told him that he was helping me... maybe he wouldn't have left." Ellie scoffed at herself. "I guess I did wanna talk about Joel, huh."

Nana was sympathetic as ever. "Honey, I think you make an awful lot of assumptions... about what people are thinking... what they're feeling... did Joel actually tell you that he would leave if you didn't... act 'normal'?"

Oh shit, here come the tears. She blinked against them. "No. I wish he had, then I could've just done what he wanted. He didn't tell me he was leaving at all. He said he wouldn't leave and... I believed him. So stupid, right?" She swiped at her eyes.

"You trusted him. That's not stupid. It was wrong of him to leave without letting you know. But... I'm sure he wasn't just trying to make you act 'normal' -- he thought it would help you feel better. Sometimes if you go about your business and... do the things you used to do, even if it feels strange to you, or... you don't enjoy it the way you used to... it can help. Maybe he thought you needed a little push -- but you weren't ready. We're all wired differently... like clocks that tick at different speeds, and we can't... sync up with someone else's idea of how long things should take. Do you know what I'm saying? It's not something you did wrong."

Part of Ellie wanted to take comfort in that. It sounded good (even if the clock thing was a little weird; didn't they all run at the same speed?). But the other part of her -- the part that knew herself and Joel better than Nana did -- thought it was bullshit. "I guess I should be glad he's gone because he would never be able to handle this... gross..." She gestured to her belly with disgust.

"The baby's not gross," Nana said firmly. "Ellie, I'm going to tell you something... something that was told to me in confidence, but I think it would be beneficial for you to know, and... well, both parties are gone now. It's about Bailey. And his mom. You might already know this, if he told you..."

A knife twisted in Ellie's heart just hearing Nana speak his name. "Maybe I shouldn't know. If he didn't tell me."

"Did he tell you about his father?"

"Yeah. He died when Bailey was really little. He doesn't even-- didn't, even remember him."

Nana studied her for a moment. "He didn't tell you, then."

"Tell me what?"

"He never knew his father because he -- Bailey -- was the result of... an assault on his mother."

Ellie gasped. She almost hopped out of her chair, but quickly realized that she didn't want to do anything to draw Tommy's attention. "No way. You're making that up! Why the fuck -- do you think that'll make me not want to get rid of this -- this--"

"I'm not making it up," Nana replied calmly. "Her friend Joyce knows, you can ask her if you'd like."

"Joyce? What about Tommy? If I ask him, he'll say-- or... is that why he wanted me to talk to you?" Although Ellie didn't know why Tommy wouldn't just tell her about that right after they'd started wondering if she was pregnant.

"No, Tommy doesn't know," Nana confirmed. "To my knowledge, at least. I think, given the circumstances, he may have decided to tell you, if he knew." When Ellie remained quiet, she continued. "Now, Bailey... he got upset when his mother finally told him. Only about a year ago, I think it was. It was after they came to Jackson. She thought he was old enough to know the truth. To know why it was that whenever he asked her about his dad, she only gave vague answers at best, then changed the subject. He was angry. He said she shouldn't have told him, that it was better for him to think his dad was a good guy who'd been killed. Like so many others. But... the truth of it, about his father... that's not so uncommon these days. So much violence out there."

Ellie felt a little dizzy just thinking about it. "But... Bailey's not-- he wasn't a monster."

"He wasn't at all," Nana agreed. "I knew her better than I knew him, but from everything she said, and from what I observed, he was... a kind, sweet... gentle boy. As decent as they come. Loved his mother. Loved you too, I'm sure."

Ellie's mind was reeling. "God. How could Rachel stand it?"

"She told me she struggled with it, as you're struggling now. Thought about abortion, even though she was raised to think that was wrong. Whether it's right or wrong... that's not for me to say. Women used to have a choice in the matter. Now... it's much, much harder to have an abortion. I know the medical staff here can't do them. The woman would have to travel to a functioning hospital to even have a chance at doing it safely. Back when Rachel was pregnant, I think there may have been more of those around than there are today. But... she realized she couldn't go through with it, even if she found a way. She said she realized that life is a miracle, and... that innocent child deserved a chance. She wanted to be a mother someday; it just happened a little sooner than she expected. Granted, she was older then than you are now. Mid-twenties. But she was scared... terrified, even. And yet, by the time Bailey was born, she already loved him so much."

Ellie stopped pawing at her eyes as the silent tears flowed down her face like a river, because there was no point. "He should still be alive. He's worth, like, ten of me," she sniffled.

Nana reached across the table and put her hand over Ellie's. "You're worth plenty. And that's not how the universe works, you know. If it was... the terrible things that happened to you two never would have happened at all. You're both good."

"I really can't talk about this anymore," Ellie whispered. If the woman didn't shut up, Ellie was going to have to tune her out.

But Nana respected that she'd reached her breaking point. "Okay. You don't have to decide what to do now. You don't have to decide for a long time. Just think about it... discuss all the options with your family."

Ellie didn't bother correcting her on the family label, or making another snarky comment. "I will."

She patted Ellie's hand and stood up. "I'm gonna go get some snacks ready for the children. Would you like to join me? Or if you'd rather stay here, that's fine too."

Ellie opted to stay there, to get her thoughts in order before Tommy or the kids came over. She let her hands fall to her belly, which wasn't protruding noticeably yet. What if it's a sweet little Bailey in there, not some filthy abomination? But... wouldn't I KNOW? She didn't feel any love for it -- any connection at all to it. If it were really a monster... well, the answer would be simple: kill it. Just like when you stumble upon infected -- you don't have to debate whether or not the creatures should be killed. They'd been human at one point in time, but the quality of their lives went to shit when they turned. Killing them was not just a smart way to stay safe -- it was the humane thing to do. Was she just looking for an easy out? With humans -- even hunters -- it wasn't so black and white. Joel was a hunter once, too...

It took Tommy only a couple minutes to notice that Ellie was now alone, and he extracted himself from the boisterous kids to go to her. The kids didn't follow him, so maybe he'd told them to keep playing. Tommy plopped down in the seat Nana had vacated. "Hey. How'd it go? Any hugs?"

Ellie snorted. "Only a hand pat."

"Are you okay? I mean... considerin'."

"Well... I don't know what to do, still, and... I'm still freaked out by the idea of... everything. But you don't have to worry, I'm not going to try to... terminate it."

"You're not," he repeated, like he wanted to be sure he'd heard her correctly. "You sure?"

She nodded. If Rachel could stand it, so can I. "Promise."

"Okay then. Whew! That's a relief. Thank you for tellin' me."

Ellie was touched that he cared; it continued to surprise her. But she didn't say so. And she didn't want to talk about it with Tommy any more than she'd wanted to continue with Nana. "Tommy, who's that kid over there by the fence? Is he just shy, or...?"

Tommy didn't have to follow her gaze to know who she was talking about. "He's new. No one knows his name. He ain't said a word since he got here, couple weeks ago. Not one single word."

"Where are his--" She groaned at her dumb question. "Well, duh, obviously if he had parents, you'd know his name. Dead?"

"We assume so," Tommy answered soberly. "Scoutin' party found him 'bout ten miles from here, an' one of them took him in, at least for now... the boy was the only one alive, at the scene. Had blood on him, but he wasn' hurt. They estimated he must've been there a few days, maybe a week, after..."

"Jesus." Ellie could only imagine what the boy had witnessed. "That's just..."

"Yeah. Good thing they found him when they did."

For once, the tears she was fighting had nothing to do with herself or the mess she'd made of her life. What a shitty, fucked up world this is. "Can we go home now? Please? I need to be alone for a while."

"'Course. Any time you wanna come back an' talk more I'm sure Nana'd be happy to see you."

"Yeah, maybe... but she said I should talk to you. I know I... kinda suck at that."

Tommy smiled a little. "Practice makes perfect. I'm always here for you. You know that, don'tcha?"

"Except when you're not home," Ellie pointed out flatly. A cheeky comment without the cheek.
Tommy's smile grew, and Ellie realized he was glad she was joking a little with him -- a flash of the old Ellie, the one that had died that night.

"Well, then someone at that house can call me an' I'll come runnin'."

"What if you're in the middle of something crazy-important?"

"Even then."

Ellie knew she'd never ask that of him. He probably knew it too, so he could say things like that and not have to mean them. Still, it was supposed to feel good, to know that someone valued her so much... but she couldn't go there.

The old Ellie is still dead... ghosts resemble who they used to be, but it doesn't make them alive... And she reminded herself that she couldn't afford to take comfort in words... fluffy, pretty words that sounded nice and rich but were actually hollow on the inside, empty as an echo.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ellie did actually feel a little better, after that talk.

For a little while.

That was the problem; talking might provide some sort of temporary relief, but it didn't actually fix anything that was wrong. Bailey and Rachel were dead. Joel had left her. She was pregnant with an eternal reminder of the worst night of her life. The world was fucked up beyond repair. Sooner or later, everything that was good would be destroyed, in one way or another.

She lay on her bed, staring at a water stain on the ceiling -- the shadow from her dream. This time it retained its actual size and shape. She alternated between staring and zoning out. She'd begged off dinner, saying she felt sick and reminding Tommy that he'd given her a free pass for the next day and a half. He didn't argue, but said he'd come bring her some warm milk later, and that was fine with Ellie. It was supposed to help her sleep. Ellie figured with all the spacing out she did, that made up for plenty of lost sleep, and her fatigue was really due to the demon inside her sucking as much energy as it could.

Finding out about Bailey's parentage didn't change how she felt about him at all -- except maybe to feel a smidge hurt that he hadn't told her himself. Maybe he would have, after they'd been together longer. Maybe he was too busy denying it to himself. It really didn't matter now. She wondered, had Bailey lived and his mother had no reason to hate her, if Rachel would have felt motivated to offer her support now, knowing that she would be in a unique position to understand what she was going through. Or maybe not so unique, if rape was as common as Nana said.

The opinion she really wanted was Joel's. He couldn't look at her -- couldn't stand being around her -- so how could he possibly feel anything but disgust for the spawn of something so awful? And even if by some miracle, Bailey was the father, it still had a rapist for a grandfather, then. Maybe these traits could skip generations. Who could say?

Maybe it would be born infected. She couldn't exactly ask the doctor about that, but the thought had crossed her mind. When she and Joel had speculated about it once (hypothetically, of course), Joel seemed to think it would be the opposite -- that any kids she had would be born with her immunity. It had led the conversation to a ridiculous place.

"Well, if you're right, I should like... become a baby factory or something."

"A baby factory?"

"Yeah. If all my kids are immune, I could raise an army -- we could kick some serious ass."

"In another couple decades, maybe."

"No-- well, yeah, but I'd train them real young. Because all of them would have to be baby factories, too! The girls, at least. Do you think boys would be able to pass it on?"

"Hmm. Nah, I don' think so, all that shit usually comes from the mother, I think. Boys would be pretty useless. You better only have girls."

"Okay. Say I have ten girls. As soon as they're like thirteen or fourteen they each start up their own factories, start having their own girls. Within two generations that'll be like a hundred girls, right? Me and my girl army can travel around the country -- around the fucking WORLD -- and no one will be able to stop us, we'll obliterate the infected once and for all!"

"Uh, one problem with that."

"What? It's brilliant."

"You ain't gonna know for sure if they're immune unless they get bitten or scratched or somethin'. Maybe it's not somethin' that always gets passed down?"

"Oh shit! I'd have to test them first... maybe we could find one of those spore flower things... -No, you'd have to remember to put your mask on all the time, too annoying... okay, so we get like a cage or something -- I'm sure you could build one -- and go find a Clicker to keep as a pet. Then we--"

"A Clicker? Why not just a Runner?"

"Duh -- all that moaning they do would drive us crazy. Clickers just click, unless you get them worked up."

"I don' know... that clickin' noise is pretty fuckin' creepy."

"Fine, a Stalker... no, a Bloater! Ha! Yeah, I'm sure we'd have noooo problem finding and catching one of them!"

"Oh, no trouble at all. How exactly are we gonna get the Bloater to just take a little nibble and not rip their faces off?"

"Hmm. I see your point. It should be a Runner then, you're right. As soon as it bites, you have to pull it off the girl and punch it so we can get away from it and lock it back up. It has to be you cuz if I punched it I think it would just laugh at me or something, and if I shoot it or stab it and then it dies, we're screwed, but if you just hit it once..."

"All right, I can do that. Then we wait and see if she turns. If she does turn...?"

"Then... then the Runner gets a friend! Yeah! Cuz I'm not gonna kill my own child. Maybe you should make a really big cage, in case that happens a lot. Oh and then if I accidentally kill one, it wouldn't matter, so you wouldn't have to do all that hitting if you didn't feel like it. Except, then I'd still be killing my child... sorry, I think you'd better keep doing the hitting."

"So... are you makin' an army of girls or an army of infected?"

"Uh... right. I guess it might be both?"

Ellie both loved and hated remembering shit like that. Those days were over, and not just because Joel was gone... but him being gone did make the memories all the more painful. Sometimes she missed him so much she truly thought she couldn't stand not seeing him for one more minute.

But she did stand it. She had no choice.

I'm starting the girl army -- unless it's a boy, of course -- without you, Joel... just not exactly how I imagined it. All ridiculous fantasies aside... Joel wouldn't want her to keep something spawned from such filth -- from the filth he'd set out to kill. She was sure of that.

And there she was, making more assumptions, like Nana had said. If she never saw Joel again, his opinion didn't mean shit anyway.

She wanted no part of this. Shouldn't mothers love their children? That settled it; she'd give it away, to a family that would want it. And then probably have to leave town to get away from it completely. Ellie tried flip-flopping that scenario -- leaving to give it to someone outside of Jackson County, so she could return to town -- but logistically, that didn't seem feasible. Joel would never have let her leave like that, at least not on her own. Would Tommy? As Joel's brother, he was probably her 'next of kin' for all intents and purposes... except that without Joel, they had no connection. Just a bunch of words, which could be forgotten as easily as they were spoken.

If only Joel would come back!

She felt like she could get through this if he were with her. Her burdens were so much heavier with him gone, and his departure had only added to the lot.

Longing to see Joel and missing him like crazy usually led to getting angry at him. Now... she just felt an overwhelming sadness. Bailey's death had left an irreparable hole in her soul -- the part of her that had belonged to him. But the bigger part of her soul was Joel's, and he'd left her on purpose -- it was a whole different brand of pain.

Without even really comprehending what she was doing, Ellie found herself pulling open the drawer of her night stand and picking up the pistol Tommy had given her. It was loaded. Ready for action. She idly turned it over in her hands, slowly, several times... she fell into a weird sort of daze, finding it oddly comforting simply to hold so much power in her hands. One pull of the trigger and I won't feel anything ever again. No more missing Joel and Bailey. No more heartache, guilt, fear, despair, shame, worthlessness... no more fucking PAIN. Joel would be sorry he'd abandoned me then, wouldn't he!

And then something snapped in her head. What an utterly childish thought that last one was, and before that... what the fuck, Ellie?! Horrified at her thoughts, she hastily returned the gun to the drawer and slammed it shut, then retreated to the floor next to the closet. She didn't go inside it this time. Just sat in front of it, gathering her knees up to her chest, and rocked herself a little. Back and forth.... She may have spaced out at least for a little while... then suddenly she became aware of the absolute stillness and quiet of the room. Not even the ticking of the little clock by her bed, since she'd unplugged it her first day there.

She did hear some muffled sounds from downstairs, though. Voices. The TV.

She gingerly opened her door and quietly moved to the railing that led to the staircase. She saw Maria and Tommy on the couch -- the backs of their heads, anyway. They were watching something Ellie didn't recognize; she couldn't see the screen from up there, but she could hear voices and other noises coming from the TV, at a low volume. She lay down there on her side in the hall, her face against the rail, and closed her eyes. She didn't want to try to follow the story, she just wanted it to serve as white noise... the muffled TV sounds occasionally punctuated with comments from Maria or Tommy.

It was dark outside, probably late enough that Ed had gone to bed already, but the hall light was on, so if he were to come out of his room, he wouldn't accidentally step on Ellie or anything. She decided she would go back to her room when they started shutting the house down for the night.

She jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked around in confusion. "Ellie, it's jus' me." Tommy. "Comin' to see if I can get you some warm milk to help you sleep -- but from the looks of things, you don' need it," he added with a soft chuckle. "Are you all right? Why are you sleepin' out here in the hall?"

Tommy was crouched next to her, Maria right behind him. "Oh, um... milk sounds good," Ellie mumbled. Maria said she'd be right back with a glass of it. Ellie sat up and knuckled at her eyes. "I fell asleep?"

"Do you remember leavin' your room?" Tommy asked.

"Yeah." He was looking at her expectantly... puzzled. Would sleepwalking be less embarrassing than the truth? "I just wanted... I dunno. I just felt like being out here. Out of my room."

He still seemed confused. "You can come downstairs anytime you want, sweetheart."

"I know. It's not that I wanted to go downstairs. I wanted..." She didn't know what she wanted, exactly. "I'll go back to my room." She started to get up, but Tommy stopped her.

"Hold on. Don' feel like you... it's all right, you didn' do anythin' wrong. Do you feel like talkin'?"

"No," she answered quickly. That much, she knew.

When Maria returned with the milk, Ellie thanked her, said good night to them both, and returned to her room, shutting the door behind her.

She plugged in the alarm clock on her nightstand so the room wouldn't be so eerily, deathly quiet. When she finished her milk, she lay there on her bed, clutching Bailey's little stuffed dog, and listened to the pleasant ~ tick ~ tock ~ tick ~ tock ~ sounds. She thought about Nana's theoretical clocks running at different speeds. There was only one speed that was accurate, though; any other speed would be too slow or too fast. I was too slow. In more ways than one.

Morbidly, she thought about how each tick or tock marked another second passing, dying... each a unique moment in time that would never occur again.

~Continue to Chapter 12~

Tags: comforting sounds, fic, tlou
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