Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: PLEASE SEE NOTES ABOUT WARNINGS IN FIRST CHAPTER
Word Count for this chapter: 11,298
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
* * * * * * * * * *
Washing the asshole's blood and guts off of him seemed to have helped Joel calm down... like he was washing his hands of the whole affair once and for all. He sat next to Ellie on the couch, all fresh and squeaky-clean.
"Feel better?" she asked him.
"I wasn't feelin' bad."
"Well... okay. Feel less angry?" she amended.
"I s'pose. I don' know. This ain't about me, though." He gave her a small smile. "Sorry I scared you."
"You didn't scare me, exactly..."
"Why were you so afraid for me to leave? Did you think I wouldn' come back?"
"Not really..." She shrugged. Maybe...
"Even though I already killed the guy."
Killing the guy hadn't killed his anger like she'd expected, though. "You killed one of them. The other one's dead, if Tony was telling the truth... but we'll probably never know for sure. Can you live with that?"
"Why are we talkin' about me? Can you live with it? You're the one that... that this happened to."
"It happened to both of us," Ellie said quietly. "Tommy told me that before, but... I don't think I even realized how true it is until today."
"I'm not the one who had to go through it," Joel argued.
She shook her head. "You did go through it. I was thinking about this while you were in the shower. You know why I think you're still angry?"
"'Cause I didn' get to dole out all the justice I wanted to?" He was calm, but Ellie still heard anger in his words. Would it always be there?
"I think it's more than that."
"'Cause one of the motherfuckers is possibly still alive?" he ventured.
"More than that." She chewed her lip a moment, wondering if her thoughts would agitate him further. "I think... you somehow thought that if you could punish the guy, you'd be like... undoing what he did to me? And it didn't work."
Joel snorted. "That ain't it. It's impossible to 'undo' what happened. I know that."
"Logically, yes, but emotions don't always follow logic." Ellie believed Nana's words, although they did sound a bit strange tumbling out of her own mouth.
Joel didn't seem to notice if it was odd. "Forget me. How are you doin' with all this?"
He doesn't want to talk about that, so he deflects it back to me. Ellie knew that trick well. "I'm good -- he's dead, that's all that matters. I don't think it's really sunk in yet."
"'Cause you're tryin' to figure me out instead of yourself." He ruffled her hair. "You were obviously real affected seein' him again. Panicky-like."
Was she doing the same thing as Joel -- worrying about him to avoid dealing with her own shit? Ellie chuckled sadly. "Yeah, at first, I guess. You know what the really scary thing is? He was acting all nice, like he just wanted to be part of a community and help out, like a... a normal person... What if someone else had been out there? Instead of us, I mean. And they fell for it and thought he was nice and... brought him inside here..."
Joel shook his head. "Wouldn'ta happened. You know they don' jus' let strangers wander around town. He'd be quarantined an' questioned. If they even brought him in at all. We don' owe survivors nothin', jus' 'cause we got a good thing goin' here. Families... women, children... they're less threatenin', an' they're not given a free pass. But a man, or a group of men? Harder to trust. If Tommy or Maria or Eddie didn' get a bad vibe off him, I would have, an' they do listen to me on that shit."
From the confident way he said it, Ellie had to wonder if that had happened before. She'd never heard about it, but it struck her as the kind of info Joel would feel didn't need to be passed on to her. Sometimes his overprotectiveness could be annoying. She frowned. "But there's nice guys out there, too, right? Trustworthy guys? He was acting nice. You said it yourself, that assholes can act nice." -A lifetime ago, when he'd actually been worried that Bailey might hurt her.
"Don' matter. My gut can tell fake from real."
"Then why didn't you trust Bailey right away?" It slipped out before she remembered she didn't really want to talk about Bailey. But if her gut could be wrong sometimes, didn't that mean Joel's could be too?
"That was different. He was..." Joel's frown was the one he wore when he was trying to find the right words, and failing. "It ain't so much that I didn' trust him..."
Ellie snorted. "You didn't. I remember."
He thought about it a little more before answering. "My gut never told me he was bad news. It wasn' so much about him as much as... I don' know. It was the dad thing, then. I know that's kind of vague, you not bein' a dad an' all, but it's... all I know is, if you'd come to me an' said that that motherfucker I jus' killed was your boyfriend..." Joel shuddered at the thought. "I would've killed him."
"Like a teenage version of him? Even if you didn't know anything about him." Not that Ellie could even imagine that creep being anyone's boyfriend.
"I'd know enough. My gut would know," Joel insisted.
Ellie sighed. "He probably wasn't lying about wanting shelter. It's cold, and maybe he's been alone since Pete died, if he died... maybe he wasn't even thinking about doing bad things in here. He just wanted food and warmth and security. Like anyone else. You know?"
She'd expected another outburst about what an animal the guy was, but Joel surprised her with an answer that indicated he'd heard her and saw her point. "Maybe he did want those things. Ain't like assholes do nothin' but asshole things twenty-four/seven. They feel the cold, same as us. They get hungry. That don' make him any less of a piece of shit, though. It don' mean he deserves... what we have here. The comforts of a real home." Joel put his arm around her and pulled her close. "He's gone now, you don' have to worry about it."
Ellie leaned against him, secretly thrilled that he'd initiated the contact, that his anger really was in check now -- and that he seemed to know she wouldn't refuse the comfort. She wasn't trying to appeal to his protective feelings to manipulate him, though; her concerns were real. "What if his brother comes looking for him? Maybe... maybe Tony told him he'd come check this place out and let him know what it's like, and then when he takes too long..."
"Let him come," Joel said -- rather cheerfully. "I could introduce him to some of the ideas in my head that I didn' get to do to this one. An' do better at makin' sure he don' pass out so fast."
Ellie thought he'd done an amazing job in that regard, but apparently the fucker had passed out less than thirty seconds into his 'five minutes of knife time' at the end, much to Joel's chagrin. "Okay, but... it's not just him. There's other guys out there like that. Right? Lots of them. Anyone could decide to play nice and try to fool people. Maybe some of them already have." She bit her lip.
"I may not be friendly with a lot of people in this town, an' maybe I..." Joel let that trail off, and Ellie got the feeling he'd almost said something he would rather she didn't know. He squeezed her shoulder. "Nevermind. If there were people like that in here, you think I'd let any of 'em near you?"
She wanted him to finish what he'd been about to say, but she knew that he wouldn't. "You're not with me all the time..."
"You're safe here. Safe as can be, the way the world is now. Is it a hundred percent safe? No. No place is -- that was true even in the old world, but it's much more hostile now, ain't gonna lie. That's why you always carry a gun, an' be aware of your surroundings."
She felt the tears welling up. This time she wasn't going to try too hard to stifle them; she realized now that she needed to talk to Joel about this shit -- to clear the air, if nothing else -- and tears came with the territory. "How can you not be... so mad at me, for what I... God, I was so stupid." Her voice trembled a little.
"You made a mistake," Joel said quietly, his own voice affected by the change in hers. "Yeah, I was mad, for a while. But that's all it was. A mistake. God knows I've made plenty o' those myself."
"Uh, it was a little... more than..." She couldn't seem to make her voice sound normal now.
"A big mistake, maybe, but still jus' a mistake... an' the punishment didn' fit the... aww, baby girl, don' cry..."
"Sorry." She turned her head and tried to compose herself. Maybe we SHOULDN'T talk about this...
"No, I mean... you can cry, I jus' wish you didn' feel like doin' it. C'mere." He shifted a little and folded her into his arms, stroking her hair as she sniffled. "It's okay..."
"Nothing's okay," she moaned. And then she began to sob helplessly into his flannel shirt, trying to muffle it at first, but the more Joel soothed her, the more tears streamed into the cloth. She just cried and cried, and he just let her. Hiccuping, gasping, snot-riddled sobs. Eventually, they petered out, but she remained in his arms, her face still buried, a headache starting to form behind her eyes.
"You're okay," Joel kept whispering to her, reminding her of the internal chanting she did during a panic attack. "You're okay..."
"I'm okay," she responded finally -- when she was, more or less. She felt embarrassed, even a little ashamed. "Thank you. Um, sorry..."
He shushed her apology. "Thank you for... lettin' me help. Lettin' me in. Ellie, I... I hate that this happened to you." She heard the tears in his voice. Joel never cried... but he was crying. Or quasi-crying, at least. "I can't even describe how the... the thought of... I hate that I couldn't stop-- couldn't prevent it."
Ellie chuckled sadly. "I know you could've if you'd been there. You were asleep, what were you supposed to do?" Although if anyone could sleep-kill a man, it would be Joel.
"I shoulda stopped you from leavin'."
"How could you do that? You were asleep," she repeated. So Tommy's theory was right: he blames himself.
"I shoulda woke up. Shoulda heard you. But it ain't even that, it's... I let you... I wanted..." He sighed, and paused a moment to find the words. "When you were amused by those kids who snuck out and got caught... do you remember that?"
"I remember. The idiots who found a way Out but didn't think about how they'd get back In." She remembered how she'd casually laughed about it at dinner, giddy with feelings of... superiority, or something. Smugly thinking that she would never be that stupid. No, I was only a thousand times MORE stupid.
"Right. We could've talked about it then. The thought even crossed my mind. But I didn'. 'Cause you were in a good mood that day... happy... I told myself you would never do anythin' like that anyway. You didn' think they were idiots for sneakin' out, though -- jus' for not thinkin' the whole thing through. Is that right?"
Ellie raised her head, dumbfounded. "Are you seriously blaming yourself for that?"
"Not jus' that -- everythin' that goes along with it. I was so busy tryin' to give you a normal childhood that I let you forget the bad shit. I liked seein' you... becomin' the person you are... or were. Not always lookin' over your shoulder, expectin' bad shit to happen at every turn. Lettin' your guard down some. But I let you get too complacent. It was selfish an' lazy of me. A good parent would--"
"Whoa whoa whoa," she had to interrupt him. This was beyond absurd. "Joel, you didn't 'let me' do anything. You always reminded me to carry a gun -- even just around town -- don't you remember?! And you did lecture me sometimes. You think because you weren't on my ass about it every second of the day that it's your fault?"
"Partially, yes. But it ain't so much about blame... it's about how I could've done things different so it would never've happened."
Just like Marcus. "The 'if only' game, right? I play it, too. And my 'if's are... way more, like... legit, than anyone else's. I have to live with that forever." She laid her head back down on his chest, against the patch of shirt drenched by her sobs.
His fingers rethreaded her hair. "You've beat yourself up enough, kiddo. It don' do anyone any good, all the 'what if's... we both jus' have to accept it an' move on."
"We both," she repeated. "You have to do it, too."
"That's right. We can help each other out. Remind each other what's done is done."
"It is what it is," Ellie recited the dumb saying that he liked, smirking.
"That it is."
"No 'but's. No matter how much we wish things were different, they're jus'... not. That's reality."
"I wish you had heard me that night," Ellie lamented anyway, feeling a little weepy again. She knew Joel was right; she just couldn't dismiss her own 'but's so easily. "I wish you'd gotten up and yelled at me and... I would've been all mad about not getting to go... Bailey would be alive, and you'd yell at him too... God, I wish that's what happened. But -- I was really careful not to disturb you, Joel. Too fucking careful. I remembered how you caught me when I snuck out the front door that one time. There was nothing you could've done, believe me."
He squeezed her tighter, and Ellie sensed that he was now trying to hold back actual sobs in earnest. "You can cry, too," she encouraged him softly. "I got you."
He choked out a little chuckle. "I don' cry." But he did sniffle.
"It's okay. I won't judge you or anything. I'm not even watching you. And I won't tell anyone, I promise."
She truly wasn't even trying to be funny -- she meant every word, and she wanted him to trust her enough to cry with her -- but Joel seemed to be amused nonetheless, and not inclined to sob with abandon the way she just had. He kissed the top of her head. "Awfully nice of you, but I think I'll pass." He turned and leaned back against the arm of the couch, stretching out his legs, settling her in the crook of his arm. She was a bit squished between him and the back of the couch, but she liked it that way. It reminded her of being in the hammock with him last summer. They hadn't been anywhere close to that comfortable with each other lately. It felt... sort of amazing, actually. Enough to make her start to feel guilty, because she shouldn't feel anything more than just 'okay.'
She wasn't going to dwell on it now, though. "Joel... what was the thing that made you come back? You never did tell me." Not for lack of asking on her part. He always said he'd tell her 'later.'
"It's... sad." He resumed petting her hair.
"Tell me. Please? I already cried out all my tears, so..."
"All right. Now's as good a time as any. Well... you know why I left. It wasn' you. I wanted to come back every day I was gone. I really did. I thought about you all the time. But I also thought about what I wanted to do to the assholes. That, I could maybe do somethin' about. I didn' know how to help you any other way."
"I wasn't better off with you gone, if that's what you're thinking," Ellie reminded him. "I told you that."
He wasn't so easily convinced. "I know you think so. I don' know. Tommy told me a little bit of... what it was like for you."
"Yeah..." Ellie wanted to get something off her chest now -- she had a feeling it might help Joel somehow. "I have to admit, part of me was glad you weren't around to see me all, like... fucked up, basically. And I didn't even have to think about protecting you from me with you not there."
"Protecting me... what? Why would you--"
As she'd suspected, he hadn't realized what she was doing. She hadn't realized it for a while herself. "From the inside of my head. The darkness. It was easy to protect everyone else from it, but you... you were too close to me... you wanted more from me, or something. I didn't want to... um..." I didn't want you to leave me, so instead, I pushed you away? That didn't make any sense!
Maybe it was absurd in terms of her own survival, but in stories, they said that when you really love someone, you put their needs before your own. She instinctively hadn't wanted to drag Joel into her private hell, to hurt him more than she already had. Maybe that's why she'd felt so unloved when Joel couldn't put her first... but what if he was simply trying to protect her from his private hell? Clearly, it was more complicated than the stories suggested. And stories weren't always based on reality, anyway, so how was she supposed to know what was real and what wasn't? It wasn't like she had much personal experience to draw on for insight.
She realized Joel was patiently waiting for her to formulate what she was trying to say. "I can't explain it," she said instead, dismissing the confusing thoughts. Because she had to think about them some more first -- and besides, she didn't want to completely derail Joel from the story she'd been waiting so long to hear. "But we were talking about you... why you came back. So what happened?"
Joel didn't try to puzzle out what she'd been trying to say, at least. "You didn' need to 'protect me' from anythin'. I know you were in a dark place. I was, too. For a long time. The anger... it was like... a fire that kept burnin' an' burnin', an' wouldn' go out no matter what anyone tried to fight it with. Even when I was with you. Maybe especially with you. It wasn' you, though, it was..."
"I know," Ellie saved him from having to try to explain it any further. "I get it. I got that before you left. I mean, it was kinda obvious, the way you looked at me. Must've been hard for you to look at me and keep thinking about how... well..." She ended that sentence with a vague wave of her hand, meant to encapsulate all the bad.
"No! No, it's okay, you couldn't help it. I wasn't mad at you, you know." It was true; she'd never really been angry at him for that. For being real with her. And she was sure she'd been far angrier with herself than Joel had been with her. She was still angry with herself. Didn't know how not to be, even as they took baby steps towards putting it all behind them.
"An' I wasn' so much mad at you, of course, it was them... the whole situation... the world, even. Maybe I coulda tried harder to see past all the..." Joel cleared his throat. "Anyway. So this fire, it keeps burnin', right? Eventually, it seemed to be burnin' a little less bright. I didn' like that. Didn' like when there was room for... other shit. I wanted to be angry all the time."
"Me too!" Ellie couldn't resist butting in. She was impressed that Joel even recognized what was going on with him, emotionally. I guess he did have a lot of time to think out there... ? "Except I wanted to stay angry at you. For leaving."
Joel chuckled. "I don' blame you for that. So you... kept stokin' the fire too?"
"Yeah. Even after you came back. But you were too nice to me, so it didn't last very long. I mean, look at us now. We're talking again. Really talking."
"Right." He squeezed her. "So, I was still angry, but I was also gettin' more tired an' frustrated every day, an'... I wondered how you were gettin' on at home. When I thought about you, it wasn' like... well, it was this you, the old you. Not--"
"Those aren't the same thing, you know," Ellie interjected. "You didn't know 'this' me so I think you mean the old me."
"Fine -- the old you. Whatever. Can I jus' finish my story?" he teased.
"Okay okay, I'll shut up! Tell me."
"Thank you. So... I missed you. An' I knew it wouldn' be the same, but... whatever it was that you were like -- this 'new' you? I wanted to be... in your life. So, I was leanin' more towards goin' home than goin' on lookin' for the bastards anyhow... an' then I happened upon this dead body. Not so unusual Outside, right? I wouldn'ta thought much of it, but it wasn' all decomposed yet... looked like it'd only been killed recently... an' I could see it was a little girl. Younger than you. So small, so... Way too young to be out there in bumfuck nowhere by herself. Maybe the others in her party got infected or somethin', or maybe someone... well, God only knows. But it... really got to me, more than usual. An' I got to thinkin'... why in the hell am I out here by myself, on some damn fool's quest, instead of with my little girl, makin' sure nothin' else bad happens to her?"
Ellie had thought her tears were all dried up... she was wrong. She didn't even object to him referring to her as 'little' like she normally would have. "I'm sorry, Joel. And then you came back and I was a bitch to you."
"Nah, you jus' didn' trust me. I deserved it," he said graciously. "You're bein' sweet now."
"I'm not sweet," she protested feebly. She knew she wasn't, but she liked it that Joel thought of her that way.
It chilled her to think about what would have happened if any of her suicidal fantasies had come true. For Joel to decide to come home like that only to find out that she... I can never tell him about any of that, no matter how real we're being. Some things were best kept to oneself. Joel had plenty of shit like that. Mostly from before she knew him, but from their journey as well... she never did get the whole story about the Fireflies. It was understood that he'd said all he was going to say on the matter, just like that day with the stolen meat. And yet, also like that day, she couldn't resist asking one more time. Testing his resolve, perhaps? Trying to glean something from his terse replies? But all she got was the sense that Joel wasn't going to tell her what she wanted to know... that he had so many skeletons in his closet, it didn't bother him one bit to cram some more in there. And he guarded them so well. Maybe someday he would trust her enough that she could drag them out one at a time... examine them, come to understand them, then help him get rid of them for good.
She wanted to tell him not to bother protecting her from himself. More recently, she'd begun to wonder if that wasn't even it at all. Maybe it was just that some things were too fucking painful to share with another person, even someone who knew you well. She couldn't imagine ever telling Joel in detail what had happened that night. She wondered if Joel had ever known such abject shame, terror, helplessness... she doubted it, but sometimes he wore masks that even she couldn't see through.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the baby, who did tend to get more active when she was resting. Perhaps he or she was protesting the squishy position she was currently enjoying. "Oh! Gimme your hand -- here --" She positioned his hand, then craned her neck so she could see his expression. "Now wait a second... or two... there, did you feel that one?" He had to, even through her shirt. She watched his face excitedly.
His eyes widened and he started to smile. "I do, a little. Holy shit."
She laughed. "Yay, finally. Only a little? I feel it like, majorly. Fuck, that's prob'ly gonna hurt in another month or so, huh. He's getting strong. Or she."
Joel regarded her curiously. "A little while ago you referred to it as a 'she.' How come?"
She laid her head back down on his chest, keeping her hand over his. "Out there? Because at the time, I was thinking of it as a girl. I go back and forth. I do kinda hope it's a girl, I think."
"Start that girl army of yours?" he teased.
He remembers that! Ellie laughed. "Yeah... no. Not like it even matters."
"As long as it's healthy, is what they always say."
"No, not that, I mean -- well, yeah, that, too -- but if it's not even gonna be mine, then... what do I care, right?" She tried to sound nonchalant... but she'd noticed that that was getting harder to do, that she did care more than she let on. She'd have to work on that: getting back to not caring. Not just not caring, but being glad to be rid of the thing. She felt a pang of... something, just at that thought -- a sadness that she hadn't felt when she'd been numb to the baby's existence. Fuck, this is gonna be harder than I thought...
"Ellie... I been thinkin'... I know I said I was tryin' not to influence you an' all, but..." He was speaking slowly, like his brain wasn't far enough ahead of the words he wanted to say.
"But?" Remind me why I shouldn't care about this kid, she urged him silently.
"I'm... not convinced you really don' want this baby." He paused, perhaps waiting for her to protest.
"You're not?" she said lamely.
"No. It's your decision. You know that. But I think..." He was really laboring over these words.
"You think what? Just tell me. What do you think I should do?"
"What do I think you should do? Well... I really think you should reconsider givin' it up for adoption. I don' think you've sorted out all your feelings on that. That's nothin' new... we've been tellin' you that over an' over. You should think about it real hard, an' then..." He sighed. "You should do what you decide is best, considerin'... everything. I know that's a little vague, but... maybe I can help you figure out the specifics. Whatever's on your mind."
Would she 'get over it' faster that way? Instead of trying to go around it, plow right through it? But Ellie sensed he was holding something back. "Maybe that's not the right question. Instead of what you think I should do... what do you want me to do? What do you want. If the choice was yours. I never even asked you." ...because I already know? ...RIGHT?! She was starting to get a niggling feeling that maybe she was wrong.
"See, that's where... I don' know if it's right for me to say, 'cause I don' want you to decide based on that." He sounded a bit sheepish, and she knew she was on the right track.
She snorted. "Come on. Since when do I just do whatever you want, without having my own opinion about it?"
"Ha! Point taken. But still."
"If I'm asking you what you want, then it's 'right' for you to answer me," she tried to persuade him. Maybe he could sense her ambivalence, and he felt guilty. Like he was all too eager to accept the adoption choice, and only asked her once in a while in a perfunctory way if she wanted to discuss other options ... all the while, secretly glad she was being so stubborn about it. Except why would he tell me all that stuff about Sarah then? My mind was already made up like his!
He remained quiet. Maybe she could make it easier for him... "Joel, I'm finally ready to talk about it and now you're not talking? It's okay to tell me what you think. I really want to know. And... well, I already know you don't want me to keep it... so." She bit her lip. There, I said it, it's out there, ice broken. At least they weren't looking at each other; laying side by side the way they were, he couldn't see her expression.
He did seem a little relieved. "Mm. I had a feelin' you assumed that all along."
"Yeah. You didn't have to say it. I knew." Murderous rages notwithstanding, they were generally more in tune with each other again, like before. Picking up on things with no need for spoken words. But hearing it... talking about it now... Ellie hadn't expected to feel so... so fucking sad; there really was no better word for it. She started babbling to hide it. "Yeah, so, really, you should have a say in it anyways, right? You're involved cuz I'm living in your house. I know you're not going to kick me out -- I mean, sure, I could just go stay with your family if you did, but then why even bring me home at all? I could have just stayed there 'til the baby was born, and hand it over to whoever, then come home, and you wouldn't have to deal with anything. But you wanna help me, I know... which is cool. My point is, it affects you, so--"
Joel tried to interrupt her but she just steamrolled over him -- if he was having any second thoughts himself, similar to hers, she had to squash them. "--you have almost as much say as I do. Almost, cuz it is mine. Ultimately my decision. But I already made my decision and it's the same as yours so it all works out! I'm not ready to be a mom and this baby is... just... It's better this way. For everyone. The baby, too. We just have to figure out the details. How much involvement to have, after... Dr. Choi has this pump thing so I won't have to... you know... yeah. I could just hand it over to the parents as soon as I push it out, no need to--"
"Ellie!" he said, more forcefully this time. "Ellie, stop. I... I want you to keep it."
WHAT?! Except... part of her had known he was going to say that (unless her rambling made him lose his nerve -- why couldn't he have lost his nerve?!), and it scared the shit out of her. She lifted her head up then and twisted around to face him. "Bullshit you do."
"I'm dead serious," he said firmly. "Keep it, an'... if you want... I'd raise it with you. As if it were my own."
He looked serious, but... "No. No way. How could you ever think of it as yours when you know... where it came from? Probably came from..."
"It's comin' from you. It's part of you," he pointed out; she did tend to forget that fact.
"Okay, but... still. It would constantly remind you of that night. It would remind me of that night." Surely he won't want THAT... How could he want the baby with that as a side effect?
"I don' think so. Jus' now, you were smilin' when it kicked you... you weren' thinkin' about... anythin' bad."
"So... that makes you feel like I should keep it?! One tiny smile?" She wasn't trying to mock him, but... she had to get him to see this was a horrible idea.
"Not so tiny. I was thinkin' about it before, so not just that," he said, defensive now.
"How long have you been thinking about it?!" And how could she not have picked up on it before? So much for being in sync.
"Uh... a month or so, maybe? Since not long after I got back. I really didn' wanna influence you, though. It was your decision. Is your decision. I'm jus'... puttin' it out there as an option."
"Not just an option -- the option you want me to pick."
"It's up to you. It really is."
"But it's what you want."
Joel sighed. "I don' want you to do it jus' 'cause it's what I want, like I said before. That's why I've kept my mouth shut. I'll support you in whatever you decide. You know that, right? I'm fine with you givin' it up for adoption. But... yeah. I'd like it if you kept the kid. If you wanted it."
She sat up and rubbed her temples, irritated a little by the 'crying' headache. "...I think my brain might be breaking."
He laughed. Sat up alongside her and mussed her hair a little. "Is it really that crazy, kiddo?"
Yes! Ellie figured Joel would have helped her, if she'd decided to keep the baby. He could've limited his involvement, of course, but he'd be there with them day in and day out, regardless. She hadn't even given that scenario much thought because she was so set on adoption as the most logical choice. Joel's proposal was... not logical.
"Look," he said, "if you wanna keep it on your own an' have me be jus'... Uncle Joel, or whatever..."
"Wouldn't it be more like Grandpa Joel?" she said with a grin.
Joel groaned. "I am not old enough to be a grandpa."
"Um, hate to burst your bubble, but technically, you really are." She ducked away from him in an attempt (a failed one, at that) to avoid getting her hair mussed again.
"I think Eddie would make a better grandpa," Joel deflected. "He's got like fifteen years on me."
Ellie thought about that. She wasn't sure what a grandpa was supposed to do, exactly, but she could imagine Ed playing with a baby. Telling it stories. Taking it fishing (maybe in a few years). She shifted a little as the baby kept moving. "Good idea. A grandpa, a dad... and we'd have Uncle Tommy and Aunt Maria -- this kid would have a huge family, if I kept it. That's five relatives! Six, if I ask Nana to be grandma."
"Sounds good. Hey, if me bein' the father would weird you out too bad, it's all right. I don' mind bein' Uncle Joel."
"It... would be weird," Ellie agreed. "If you're kinda like my dad, and you're also this baby's dad, then it's like... I'm the baby's sister?"
Joel laughed. "No, you'd be the mother, of course."
"But if you're, like... in charge of me? Or whatever? If you have two kids..."
"It'd be... unconventional," Joel conceded. "But no, it wouldn' be like... like I'm the ultimate authority, or some shit. It'd be like... co-parenting. He or she would still be every bit your child."
Ellie didn't see how he wouldn't end up being the ultimate authority. But that wasn't really an issue for her. He was the only authority figure in her life who had ever cared more about her than about himself. They didn't always agree on everything, but for the most part, she was happy to do what he told her because she trusted that he always had her best interests at heart (and she wasn't half bad at getting her way when they disagreed on stuff, either). That trust had been shaken when he left, but... it wasn't irreparably broken. Part of her would probably always fear him leaving her for one reason or another. It didn't matter how many pretty words he tossed her way about never leaving her -- they wouldn't mean shit if things changed in some way. Then those comforting words would morph into "I'm so sorry, baby girl, but I have to do this..." And she couldn't predict what all the 'this's might be. All the things that could possibly take him away from her. But... if this baby was his, he'd have all the more reason to never leave. At least not while the child was small. She would probably have at least a decade of reassurance in that regard, because he could tell himself that Ellie didn't need him, that she was strong and capable and just fine on her own, but a little kid -- especially a girl, who would of course have Daddy wrapped around her little finger in no time... provided that she was cute and sweet and innocent, and not a little monster...
He gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. "Hey. Whatcha thinkin'?"
"It's... a lot to think about."
"You still don' gotta decide right away. Kid won' even be born for another four months."
That was true, but Ellie wanted to figure this out now. "How the hell would we explain that... Mommy and Daddy aren't like most mommies and daddies cuz Daddy is sort of like Mommy's daddy too..."
Joel chuckled. "Ain't like there's a lot of nuclear families anymore. Even here in Jackson. There are worse things in this world to have to explain, though, yeah? Like I said, it'd be unconventional. Small town like this where everyone's got their nose in each other's business... I reckon people will remember the kid ain't mine, biologically, so..."
"So they wouldn't think... the wrong thing. Yeah. Otherwise, that could get awkward." Everyone knew what had happened that night. Very few people knew she was pregnant at the moment, but that would change soon enough, and she wouldn't let anyone think Joel had had something to do with knocking her up (there was bound to be at least one troublemaker keen to start a nasty rumor). The truth was embarrassing, but that would actually be even more so.
"Nowadays... family is what you make it," said Joel. "However we wanna define it. Like you did when you laid out all the relations, pickin' out grandparents."
"Okay, that sounds great and all, but... I think I might be too fucked up to be someone's mother," Ellie admitted. The baby's origin wasn't the only issue here.
"You'd be a great mother," Joel said without hesitation, and she wondered how he could be so sure of that.
"Pfffff." The baby's movements calmed down some. You agree with me, huh? she thought, fancying that the stillness equated to loss of enthusiasm or something.
"It's true. I've seen you with the town kids. What about Kyle?"
Kyle... the mute four-year-old she'd seen at Nana's that one day. They knew his name now because he'd finally started talking. "What about him?"
"You're really good with him. He trusts you."
"I don't do anything special for him. I talk to him. That's hardly mothering."
"Sure it is. An' you listen to him. Bethany says he talks more to you than anyone else," Joel said (and Ellie thought he sounded proud).
Bethany was one of the people Ellie might have considered to adopt the baby; it was no secret the woman wanted one. She wasn't all that old, but her husband/boyfriend/ whatever-he-was had disappeared some months ago, presumed dead. Maybe little Kyle would be enough for her. The thought made her feel vaguely guilty. ...what the fuck, Ellie? You're not taking anything away from her -- she doesn't even know you're pregnant. And it's YOUR baby. But back to the matter at hand... "So what? He likes me. That doesn't mean anything. I don't know how to... I can barely take care of myself these days, right? How could I take care of another person?" She glanced at him.
"You've been doin' a lot better lately."
She sighed. "'Better' isn't good enough when it comes to something so important."
Joel looked pensive for a moment. "I think havin' someone who needs you... I think that could actually help you be more... not fucked up. Like a little bit ago, when you were all worried about me -- you kinda forgot to be freaked out yourself, didn'cha?"
"I... guess? But I still, like... space out sometimes. Or can't breathe."
"That don' mean you can't take care of a kid. As for spacin' out... baby starts screamin', it might snap you out of it."
Ellie was skeptical. "Really?"
"I don' know for sure... I mean, I ain't a shrink or nothin', but you do come around when we call your name."
"Not always the first time, though, right?"
"...not always," he admitted.
"What if the reason it's screaming is cuz it's hurt or something, cuz I wasn't paying attention before when I was spaced out?"
Infuriatingly, Joel smiled. "You already sound like a mother, worryin' about shit like that."
"It could happen, though!" She didn't see how Joel could find that amusing.
"Look. If it'd make you feel better, maybe we jus' don' leave you alone with the baby for a while, see how it goes. Maybe by then it won't be happenin' at all. Who knows? An' this place needs a lot of baby-proofin' anyhow; I can work on that. You can't watch the kid every second."
"Would I sleep in the baby's room? Or your room?" Ellie imagined herself waking up in the middle of the night screaming, terrifying the poor child. Usually her screams were rather quiet, if not completely silent, but not always...
He chuckled softly. "Wouldn' be proper for you to be in my room."
"Whatever -- we slept near each other on the road all those months. Even in houses with lots of rooms." In the beginning, they'd slept in separate rooms when they could, but as time went by, they each felt more comfortable sleeping in closer proximity to the other. It was hard to have someone's back out there when you weren't even in the same room.
"That was different. My bed's too small. Even if it wasn', that's jus'... wrong."
Ellie didn't see what the big deal was. She'd slept in his bed quite a few times when they'd first arrived in Jackson, before she'd gotten used to not having him an arm's length away. He was just Joel, not some pervert. "Okay, well, if we rearranged a little, my bed could fit in there, too."
"Hmm. Maybe. That's still not... I don' know, maybe we should jus' move to a bigger house."
Ellie bit her lip thoughtfully. "So... it's not like we'd pretend to be married or something. Like a normal family?"
"Uh, no." Joel chuckled again. "We'd be the same as we are now. No need to pretend otherwise."
"What if you get a girlfriend? And she doesn't want you to be a father to some kid that's not even yours?"
"Well, I imagine she wouldn' be my girlfriend very long, then," he answered mildly.
Ellie just couldn't resist playing devil's advocate. "What if you're really really in love with her?"
"That ain't gonna happen. Kids always come first. Besides, I don' even want a girlfriend. Now, if you have a boyfriend, or girlfriend--"
"No way -- that ain't gonna happen," Ellie interrupted, scoffing.
He smiled knowingly. As if this was something he could even know. "Maybe not for a while, but it will, someday. You're so young."
"No. I can't." She wasn't trying to be stubborn -- it was just fucking true!
"Then there's gonna be a lotta broken hearts in this town," Joel said in an infuriating teasing-but-not-really tone.
"Shut up," Ellie muttered. "Who would even want me, after..."
"Lots of people," he replied quickly, without a hint of teasing now. "Ain't nothin' wrong with you. If you--"
"I don't wanna talk about this!" Ellie cut him off, cursing herself for letting that particular skeleton out of the closet. She'd have to shove it back in there and lock the door before Joel got too close a look at it. "It doesn't matter anyway, cuz I'm never going to want that. Never." She couldn't imagine loving anyone like that after Bailey... although she'd felt like that after Riley died, too, and she'd been wrong. In time, as her memories kept getting older and dustier, there might have been room for someone new to creep in... if she was ever interested in having sex again, which she most certainly would not be.
At least Joel didn't poke at the skeleton. "That's fine. You don' have to. If it happens, it happens."
"Ugh, it won't! You should be thrilled -- you didn't want me having a boyfriend in the first place," she reminded him.
"I was... apprehensive. Yeah. But you were so happy... it was nice. An' you still made time for me."
"Of course! You're like... my dad."
Joel smiled a little. "Don' matter. In the olden days, kids would grow up an' grow away from their parents. It was natural. Not that they stopped carin', they jus' get involved in lives of their own, they move away... an' people took each other for granted a lot more back then. They don' do that so much now. If they're lucky enough to have any livin' family, they stick together."
Ellie couldn't imagine living in some house of her own, one that she didn't share with Joel. For them to live in the same town, but separately? She shuddered to think of it. "I don't want to move away," she declared. "Ever."
That elicited an even bigger smile. "Good. I like havin' you around."
It felt like they were straying a bit off the topic. Normally Ellie wouldn't mind, but now she really wanted to dissect his offer... to find the one flaw in his idea that he couldn't refute. She thought she might have one. "Joel, this all... sounds good and everything," she began again, "but... how do you know that..." For some reason, she was feeling hyper-emotional about this question. I'm actually scared to ask him this. But why? Surely he's thought about it...
"That what, baby girl?" he prompted gently after a moment, giving her shoulder a squeeze. "Tell me."
"Well... helping me out is one thing, but to like... raise it as your own... this kid you have no connection to... it's noble and all, but... how do you know that..." Would it be fair to subject the baby to his anger? Not that he would ever hurt the child; she knew better than that. But he could inflict pain unintentionally -- of the non-physical variety, of course -- and it could fucking hurt. She had to take that into consideration. She took a deep breath. "How do you know you could love some other guy's baby like that? Like a father's supposed to." It was hard, because she wanted to look away, but she forced herself to watch his face for signs of disgust that her reference to 'some other guy' would likely generate. To see if his mouth would say one thing while his eyes said another.
"How do I know? Easy," he replied immediately. "Because I love you like that."
...what? Did he just say... Holy shit! Nothing in his expression contradicted the words. She sure as hell hadn't been expecting that. She hadn't even equated his ability to love her with his ability to love the child. And she was stupidly affected by hearing the words. Of course she'd already known that he loved her; he'd shown it in plenty of ways. She felt tears prick her eyes yet again, and her face flushed. "You do?" was all she could say.
"Couldn' love you any more if you were my own flesh'n'blood." He looked and sounded sincere. Happy. Not even a little bit awkward, amazingly.
Yet she couldn't leave it at that. "Even... even after what I did?" she dared to ask, averting her gaze. Am I just determined to ruin this, or what?
He seemed a little surprised. "What you did?"
She stared at a stain on the floor, unable to look at him now. "Yeah. You know." Don't make me say it!
He sounded genuinely confused as to why she would think that. "It don' matter what you do. That's not how it works, kiddo. An' even if it was, what happened... it didn' make you unlovable or bad or... whatever you're thinkin'. Not at all. You an' me, we're still the same."
"...Oh." He'd said that before he left, and she hadn't believed him. He's right, she realized. It went both ways. Even when she was super-angry with him, she still loved him. It didn't just fade away because he did something she didn't like. Even when she'd wanted it to. Suddenly overcome, she threw her arms around his neck.
He hugged her tight, chuckling. "You already knew how I felt about you, didn'cha?"
"Yeah, but you never said... you never used those actual words." Can I not even say the word 'love' now? She'd said it just moments before... "Fuck, you made me cry again."
"You're s'posed to cry when you're pregnant. Hormones outta whack an' shit."
Say it back to him, Ellie, she ordered herself. He wasn't going to ridicule her for it; there was nothing to fear. Should she just blurt it out? They were sort of off the subject already if he was talking about hormones... although she hadn't responded to his remark. Would it be weird to say it now? ...Why am I even thinking about if it would be weird or not? He said it first! She kept hugging him so she could bury her face in his neck and not look at him, because for some stupid reason it was extremely difficult to say the fucking words. It's probably weirder that I'm making this a really long hug, though. "Joel..."
Say it! She took a shaky breath. "I love you like that, too," she murmured to his neck.
"Awww." He squeezed her, and she exhaled the breath she hadn't even realized she was holding. "Thank you for tellin' me. It is nice to hear it out loud, yeah?"
"We should totally say it more often," Ellie affirmed, relaxing even more. "And I'm gonna say it to the baby every single day."
"You are? Does that mean..."
She hadn't even thought about what she was saying; it just sort of tumbled out. What did it mean? It means I want this, she decided. I want to keep the baby... MY baby. She pulled back then to look at him excitedly. "Let's do it."
Now he looked wary. "You can think about it for a while, you know... make sure it's what you want. I wasn' tryin' to pressure you--"
"I knoooow! You didn't! I really want to. With you. We can do it together. From now on, this baby's as much yours as it is mine. I'd even let you give birth to it if I could."
Joel laughed and grimaced at the same time. "Ugh! Uh... I mean, it's a damn shame that I can't do that part. Sorry. I would if I could," he teased.
"Uh-huh, riiiight." They could joke about it, but Ellie believed Joel actually would do that for her if he could, that he'd do anything within his power to spare her pain. "You're not gonna be able to stand watching me, either. You're so gonna pass out."
"I might. I... don' really like to think about that part, truth be told. I'll skip right to 'it's a girl' or 'it's a boy.'"
"Wuss." Ellie laughed. Life was just too fucking bizarre; an hour or so ago, she was a mess, and now... she felt happy. Happy! She who was never going to feel happy about anything ever again. Her life had been over, and now all of a sudden she had a future. A purpose. Good things to look forward to... good things happening right now. She couldn't stop smiling. "Thank you, Joel. I can't even..."
He was smiling, too. "Thank you -- shit, you're the one givin' me a kid."
She giggled. "You better enjoy it cuz this is a one-time offer." I'm going to be a mother. Holy shit, I'M GOING TO BE A MOTHER. And Joel would get to be a father the right way this time -- starting from birth. Like with Sarah. Except this kid would make it to adulthood. It had to, with both her and Joel protecting it. And to think she'd wanted to kill it herself... I'll make it up to you, little one! I'm going to make sure you're happy and loved and that nothing bad ever happens to you... oh God, isn't that what ALL parents say? The world is a shithole. But -- Joel will help me. He always knows what to do... but what if we do everything right and she just has some freak accident like Mandy? Or turns out to be a horrible, unlovable kid, like Charlie? What if he's a good boy but meets a bad girl who gets him to do stupid things...
"...you want," Joel was saying.
"Names? I'll help you pick one out if you want but... I think ultimately, that one's your call."
"Oh man." Ellie knew she should talk to Joel about her what-ifs, but that could wait. She was grateful to think about a happier topic. "How am I ever gonna decide? You totally need to help me."
"All right. You know, I was thinkin'..."
"You got some picked out already?" He was just full of surprises. "Fuck, you really have thought this all through!"
"Well, no... the last name. I know we don' use 'em much around here -- I'm sure I don' even know half the town's surnames -- but... I reckon it would be nice if, since we're a family... if we all had the same one. What do you think?"
Ellie considered that. "All of us? How can we?"
"We could if you... if you would take mine..." He said it with an uncertainty that touched her -- just like pretty much everything he ever said that betrayed a vulnerability no one else ever got to see.
"Oh." It had never once even occurred to Ellie that if she were Joel's daughter, it would make sense to become Ellie Miller. It did have a nice ring to it... and it would bind Joel to me even more... He could say he thought of her as a daughter all day long, but how much more real would it be if there was something more official to it? Something more permanent than a thought. Thoughts could wither... change... die.
"But, forget it, it don' matter. You have your mother's name, you prob'ly want your child to have--"
"No, Joel, stop -- I like the idea. I'll think about it?"
"All right then."
"Except... would I have to call you Dad?" She scrunched up her face in distaste. "That didn't really work so well last time." Mainly because she had laughed every time she said it -- when she even remembered to say it.
And Joel laughed at it now. "That's still up to you. I don' care what you call me."
"Okay. Any other bombs you wanna drop on me, or did you finally run out?" she teased.
"I think that's it. I'll try to whip up some new ones..."
"Ha!" She slugged him playfully. "Hey, let's go tell Tommy and everyone!"
"He prob'ly ain't home yet..."
"Oh. Right. Is he coming back here? Won't he be surprised to see us all happy now!" They'd been a sight gloomier when he'd left them. "Just imagine the look on his face. Do you think he'll be excited about being an uncle?"
"I think he'll be excited to hear you laugh again."
"Okay, but after that?!"
"I know he will."
Ellie gasped as a really awesome idea struck her. "We should all move to a bigger house!"
"What, you'n'me an'..."
"Yeah, all of them. Like you said, families stick together, right?"
Joel winced. "Maybe not that together..."
"Aww, why not?" she pouted.
"Me an' Tommy might kill each other, for one thing?"
She giggled. "Well, you'd have to just not."
"That's a lotta people to live under the same roof."
"Six? Not really. There was way more than that at school. I know you like your space and all, but... maybe this would help with that, in a way. Like, you could go be by yourself sometimes and not feel like you're leaving me and the baby alone when you do. We don't have to decide right away or anything, and like... we prob'ly wouldn't even be able to do it 'til spring cuz of all the storms and snow on the ground? But we should invite ourselves over for dinner and talk to them about it, at least!" She remembered that Maria, for one, had seemed to like the idea right before Ellie moved back home. And Ed was the one who suggested it -- even if it was half-jokingly. Joking because of Tommy and Joel's turbulent relationship... but she knew that under that, the brothers really did love each other. And surely Tommy loved her enough that if she spun it the right way, saying she needed his help...
First, she had to convince Joel. He was frowning. "I don' know, Ellie..."
"Please, Joel? Just to discuss the possibility. No commitments. Pleeeease?"
Joel sighed. "You know I can't say no when you look at me like that."
"Yay!" I'm counting on that! Getting him to agree to dinner was only the first step, after all. "Maybe we could even build a whole new house -- you'd like that, right? We could make it however we want!"
He laughed. "You think it's that easy?"
"You know how to do it, don't you?"
"Now you're dreamin' real big, kiddo."
"Completely from scratch with shitty materials -- or at least unrefined materials -- crap for tools, no crew... or an unskilled crew -- an' no technology?"
"Yeah! You can do it," Ellie insisted. In her eyes, Joel could do anything he put his mind to. "Didn't people do it that way like two hundred years ago? I'll help you!"
Joel quirked an eyebrow. "You an' your... eight- or nine-months-pregnant belly?"
"Sure -- why not?"
He chuckled and shook his head. "It's too impractical anyhow. There's plenty of houses in town not bein' used; I'm sure we can find one suitable."
"For all six of us?"
"We haven' even discussed it with them yet, Ellie, jus'... hold your horses."
She loved this little house she shared with Joel, but would there ever be a better time to make a fresh start? She did have some good memories here. She also had painful ones, like finding out Joel had left... Bailey coming over to get her on the last night of his life, sneaking out that fucking window -- the worst mistake ever.
Maybe it was time she let Joel take the boards off the window, though. Let a little light back in.
"Okay," she said. "Wherever we move to, I have one condition -- it's non-negotiable."
"What's that?" he asked, and she almost laughed at the way he seemed to be bracing himself to hear something awful.
"There has to be a place where we can hang the hammock," she proclaimed. "We missed out on half the summer -- gotta make up for lost time next year."
Joel smiled, visibly relieved. "You got it, kiddo. That one, I can handle."
* * * * * * * * * *
Life had changed so dramatically in such a short span of time that Ellie couldn't process everything right away. After flying high on the excitement for a whole day, she began to come back down to Earth -- or, rather, back to the voice in her head that reminded her she had no right to feel happy. Not after what she'd done. That it wasn't fair.
But suicide was unfathomable now. She was alive, she was going to stay alive, and it didn't make sense for her to squander that gift from the gods or the universe or whatever by deliberately trying to be unhappy as penance, especially when unhappiness occurred on its own often enough. Maybe she didn't deserve to live, but Bailey hadn't deserved to die, either. Other kids who made the choice to sneak out didn't die. It wasn't purely cause and effect. There was a certain randomness about it all. Or maybe it was fate, destiny, some force she didn't understand... it was beyond her control. She had to let go of the self-loathing her mistake had spawned, and find a way to move forward.
It was easier said than done, of course. Pretty much everything was.
Ellie was at the graveyard, kneeling in front of Bailey's grave. Rachel's was right beside his, as it should be. They were marked with large stones that some kind townsperson had painstakingly etched their names on, along with the dates their lives had spanned. She'd visited only once before, with Joel. This time, she had opted to come alone.
It was unreal, knowing that the warm, happy, funny boy she'd known was now a cold, lifeless, soulless piece of matter, not so different from the stone itself. Would she ever be able to accept that? She sighed. I have to picture him the way he was. He's sitting here in front of me, only he's invisible. Sure... "I miss you, Bay. I miss talking to you. This isn't the same." She snickered a little to herself. "Except I can hear you teasing me: 'what's not the same about it? You're doing all the talking and I'm all quiet.' Okay, well... fine. I can talk a lot when I want to, you're right. I don't know exactly what I want to say, so... maybe there'll be extra words. I just wish you could hear me... sometimes it feels like you can. Can you?" Ellie looked up at the sky, which was full of what Joel called 'snow clouds.' It seemed silly to imagine Bailey up there sitting on one of them, literally watching over her, but it was a nice thought all the same.
It made more sense than him being invisible, didn't it?
She continued gazing up at the vast gray expanse of sky. "You won't believe what Joel did yesterday. He offered to be the father of this baby. Not just a grandfather -- or uncle, since he's a little delusional and thinks that he's not old enough to be a grandpa -- but nope, he wants to be the dad. I thought it was crazy at first, but really, no matter what title he had, he would end up in that role, like by default. Since I live with him, and I want to keep it now. I'm going to be a fucking mom. Is that weird or what? I never even had a mom so I have no clue how to be one. Anyway, if this kid is yours, you couldn't ask for a better dad than Joel, so I think... I like to think you'd be happy about it. To be honest, I haven't really given it a lot of thought, that it might be your baby... when I was giving it away, it was easier to think of it as a... a rape baby, y'know? But it could be yours. From that one time. Maybe even that other time. I don't know if I'll ever know the truth... maybe when it grows up enough that it starts looking more like... I dunno. I could drive myself crazy thinking about it. I'm gonna try not to. It's Joel's baby now. I hope that's cool with you, cuz I can't, like... look at the kid and keep wondering if I'm supposed to be happy or supposed to be sad that bio dad is dead, or wonder what if this, what if that... am I imagining that this or that means it must be yours, or Tony's, or Pete's... plus, if it's Joel's, I don't have to feel guilty that I..." She let that thought trail off. Her eyes filled with tears anyway.
"Marcus says you really wanted to come with me that night. Even if you did, I'm always gonna feel like it's my fault, cuz it was my idea. I don't know how to forgive myself for that, you know?" She shifted her gaze to Rachel's headstone -- if Rachel was up above, she was probably preparing lightning bolts to rain down on Ellie like spears; it was safer to talk to the rock. "You couldn't forgive me, I know. I get it. I... I think I'm about to get it even more, now that I'm gonna be a mom. It's a little scary. Not gonna lie. Okay, a lot scary. But I'll have a lot of people to help me, and... maybe if I'm a really good mom to your-- what could be your grandchild, that would count for something? I'm gonna do my best. I can't do any more than that. I'm so... You'll never know how sorry I am."
And now she was crying. She pawed at the tears with her fuzzy gloves, fearing they would freeze to her face if she didn't. It was really cold out. She looked at Bailey's headstone again. At his name. "I'm always gonna miss you. I'm not trying to forget you or anything like that. I'm just trying to... be okay with things the way they are. Because I have to be. For the baby, for Joel... even for just myself..." The voice in her head wanted to protest that last one. It was hard to ignore. Maybe she couldn't talk back to it herself, but she could hear Joel doing it for her... and Joel's family. MY family, she reminded herself. She had so many people in her life who loved her. Listening to them didn't make her stupid or weak, or even self-indulgent. If they can fight my demons better than I can, maybe it's okay to let them.
She knelt there quietly for a little while, until the tears subsided and the noise in her brain faded away. Snowflakes had begun drifting lazily down to the ground. Ellie rose to her feet and looked at the grave one last time before turning to leave. "Love you. I'll come back soon. Goodbye."
Joel had promised her some hot apple cider when she returned. Lunch couldn't have been more than a couple hours ago, but Ellie was hungry again, so she planned to snack on something as well... maybe some honeyed toast. That sounded good. She picked up the pace a little, eager to reach the warmth of home.
~Continue to EPILOGUE~