Fandom: The Last of Us
Characters: Ellie, Joel, Tommy, Maria, OCs
Warnings: Underage [please see A/N of doom in Chapter 1!]
Word Count for this chapter: 8731
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
That was Ellie's first thought.
Followed by, so this is what it feels like to be dead.
Except... death was supposed to be not feeling. Just nothingness. Or... whatever comes after, if such a thing existed (she didn't think so, but no one really fucking knew). It was dark as fuck, which would fit with her perception of nothingness... but once she became acutely aware of pain, she knew she wasn't nothing. She felt it in several places. Stinging pain... the kind where you feel all the heat of your body rushing to it, and it bothers you, but you can stand it. It wasn't even as bad as the burn had been.
This headache, though... fuuuuck, is someone sitting on my skull?!
If she could feel pain, she wasn't dead. ...does that mean I'm not dead YET, but I'm dying?
-- -- Joel?!
Joel, where are you??? Where are we and what were we doing? What the fuck happened?
Ellie tried to call for him, which only served to give herself a little coughing fit; she had dirt in her mouth, which made sense, since she was kissing dirt. She racked her foggy brain, trying to remember what had happened, and why she was now laying practically face-down on the ground in an extremely small space. Not ground, exactly... but the floor... with carpet... I'm indoors... where? Her head was pounding. Not just throbbing like a normal headache... but again, she could stand it. She had to. Slowly -- because she could do it no other way -- she turned her head first to one side, then the other. Neither direction told her anything she didn't already know: she was in a dark place. She tried to get up, but her already-aching head bumped something... a piece of wood? A pipe? Something that rained more dirt down over her. And her left leg violently protested the motion, sending searing pain up through her core. Shit! Is it broken?
No. That pain when she tried to move the leg softened a little when she let it go slack, and if it was broken, it would be constantly throbbing... wouldn't it? I've had broken RIBS before... And she could wiggle her toes. That had something to do with it not being broken. She moved her hand down the outside of her thigh to the source of the pain and felt that her jeans had torn there. She wasn't bleeding... but she must have been before, because there was blood-stickiness on the... wall? No, it was something square and smoothish... like a beam or something. Definitely a large object. Is my leg under that thing?! No -- she could move her leg.
She was able to roll herself away from there, onto her side, although she felt her jeans ripping more when she did. It was right next to my leg... so close that it scraped it? Like, through my jeans? ...was I trying to get out of the way, or... Man, how long was I out, that my wounds clotted up already? Minutes? Hours? Her pounding head felt a little... thick. Sort of woozy. The stinging on her arms, her face... probably scrapes, bruises, nothing too terrible, at least not like her leg. And how bad can my leg really be if it stopped bleeding already, without stitches?
She decided she was in pretty good physical shape: banged up, but not dying. Not pinned by a heavy object. She was just a bit squished, and not in the good way, like when Joel did it...
Joel Joel Joel -- where is he? Was he squished, too? Why couldn't she remember where he was? "Joel?" she called tentatively, coughing again. Her throat felt raw, and she still had some grit in her mouth... but her voice was intact. "Joel!" she tried again, louder. She listened for any tell-tale rustling noises, evidence that she wasn't alone. A cry of "over here, kiddo!" would have made her feel so much better.
There was only silence.
Fucking THINK, Ellie... they'd been in a town. A park. She and Sophie and Poppy were there, and Joel was not. She didn't know why. Her mind was fuzzy... and maddeningly blank.
"Sophie? Anyone? Helloooooooooo?" she called out loudly... to nothing. Okay, forget how I got here -- how the fuck do I get out? There was a musty smell in the air, mingled with an earthier scent, like dirt. Worst of all was the unmistakable odor of urine. She had realized before that her crotch was wet, and now she connected the two observations for the first time. Eww, I peed myself? I never even did that when we faced a zillion Infected at once!
After watering out the dirt, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She still couldn't see for shit, but she could tell it was daytime, because there was a very faint light source if she looked in the direction of her feet. She carefully rotated herself onto her stomach, painfully slowly, then scooted herself in that direction, propelling herself with her arms so she wouldn't have to move her leg, which had begun to throb like a bitch. Still... it's not bad, I can stand it, it's not broken so I should be able to use it when I get out... The light was coming from above her, and she couldn't get to it. There was a ceiling of... debris of some kind, in the way.
That's right -- Joel thought there was an earthquake in this town, before! Had there been another one? Was that why she was in this little indoor cave-type thing? That rang true to her, somehow... but she still couldn't fucking remember. It was just a feeling she had. Like a hunch.
Ellie felt her way around in the dark, and determined that there was no easy and obvious way out. She thought she'd found a tunnel -- a very narrow, pitch-black, creepy-as-fuck tunnel -- but it ended in solid, unbudge-able metal. She couldn't even turn around in there; she'd had to scoot herself backwards to get to the more open area where the smidge of light was... that tiny 'room' where there was at least enough space to sit up and move around, though not enough to stand up. There was some space above her there -- which was maybe how she'd gotten down to where she was? Had she fallen? She tried to let her other leg do all the work of moving, to not even so much as twitch a muscle in the injured leg, but she didn't always succeed. And it was more important to figure out how to get out of there. The place was really starting to creep her out.
She found a spot where she could sit with her back against what felt like rock, and decided to make that her home base. She couldn't allow herself to sit for long, pain or no pain -- I want to get the fuck OUT of this place! Can't do that while sitting on my ass! There was nowhere in this area where she could squeeze through, although she found she could stick her arm up beyond the 'ceiling' in a few places. Not that it did her any good; she couldn't get even so much as her head up through there.
She knocked over something cylindrical on the floor -- a thermos! -- and she had a flash of memory. I saw this before... she had determined that someone was using this space as a hide-out... but it was bigger then! There was a thermos, and a toy truck missing a wheel... she couldn't remember what the fuck had happened, yet she remembered these little details... she remembered there being more light. Not tons, but enough that she could make things out better, as if she was just hanging out in the shadows at dusk. It wasn't so eerily silent then, either... she'd heard voices... and maybe the whooshing noise that wind makes... even though I'm inside? Can I hear the wind now? Maaaaybe just a little? She heard her own head pounding, more than anything -- and that wasn't even a sound, exactly... She didn't know what had happened to the truck, but it was the less valuable of those two items. The thermos still had liquid inside it. She didn't care what it was or how old it was -- someone could have pissed in there, for all she knew -- but she was fucking thirsty, and she was going to drink it.
It was tasteless -- yay, water! -- yet it tasted really fucking good. There wasn't much of it, and she almost gulped it all down greedily before it occurred to her that it might be wiser to ration it. She'd swallowed four times... there probably weren't even that many gulps left in there when she stopped.
The air was still deathly silent, but since she'd just somewhat soothed her parched throat with water, she tried yelling some more. Maybe she couldn't hear out there, but someone could hear her? She screamed at the top of her lungs for as long as she could hold it.
No answer. She was on her own.
For now, she reminded herself. Joel was looking for her. Of course he was. If he wasn't hurt himself... don't think about that. He's fine. You remember being in here alone... he wasn't with you -- because he was somewhere SAFE. Yeah.
She'd been annoyed with Joel. She couldn't remember the reason for that, either. She just had a vague sense that she'd been sort of bitchy with him in general, the last couple days. And she had this vague feeling that her parting words to him had been something along the lines of "fuck off." So... had he fucked off? No... he'll still look for you. He'll know you didn't mean it.
But what if he didn't know... what if he thought...
No, he wouldn't think that I left!
Her brain was being stupid, and she needed it to be smart right now. Just a few weeks ago, they'd even had that conversation about it, after talking with that Ron guy... Ellie knew Joel was looking for her. If she couldn't get herself out of this little hellhole, she just had to be patient.
What if Joel doesn't know where I am, though? Like... at ALL?
Had she told him where she was going? She racked her brain again. What came to mind now was the story about the guy who cut off his own arm because no one knew where he'd gone, and he was going to die if he didn't. And I made a terrible joke about that... I'm sorry, dude, I wouldn't have said it to your face or anything... and I didn't MEAN it... I'm sorry... I need to quit saying shit I don't mean! She shivered, but she wasn't cold... she was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and a hoodie. And the pain was warming her. ...why am I thinking about chopping off my arm? My arm is fine!
Something scurried across her feet, startling her and making her yelp. She kicked with both feet, but stopped after a second when another searing pain ripped through her leg and made her suck in her breath. She couldn't hear anything... "It's your imagination, Ellie," she said out loud. "If it was a rat or something, it would like... squeak. There's nothing and no one in here with you. You're alone." With nothing but... hey, wait! Where's my backpack? It couldn't be far. And she was still wearing her... fuck, the holsters are empty. But she did have her switchblade in her pocket! Maybe she could find somewhere to cut her way out... more like chisel, very slowly, but it was something. I just have to find the right place to do it... either above me or to the side, where the lights are...
That idea sustained her for a while... then faded as soon as she cut into some piece of wood that had apparently been holding back rocks or bricks or other debris... it split or splintered or something, causing a mini landslide that sliced off a portion of her already-modest living quarters. She still had enough room to sit up -- still had that rock-thing she'd been leaning against -- but the 'room' was now only about as big as like... the little kitchen in Joel's house in Jackson. Maybe slightly bigger. With oddly-placed, oddly-shaped nooks -- and some sort of pipe or pole or something dissecting it. She could still detect the faint light... meaning there was a hole, to the outside... meaning she didn't have to worry about running out of air. Right? Even if it's way up high? She poked around at the landslide area, but it was no use; her efforts hadn't yielded any new escape hatches.
That was a dumb escape plan. What did I think, that I could just carve up one piece of wood and I'd magically discover a tunnel out of here?! She wished she could just go to sleep until Joel found her and got her out. But, achy though she was, she wasn't exactly tired -- and, worse, what if he didn't realize she was under there because he didn't hear her yelling because she was fucking asleep? She yelled as loud as she could again, at that thought. If nothing else, maybe she was scaring away that critter... imaginary critter... yes...
Ellie thought she was remaining remarkably calm, all things considered... until the light went away. It had barely been there to begin with, but it was something -- enough to make out shadowy forms around her. When she realized it was about to be gone completely, that there would be nothing there but blackness... nothingness... she felt panic crawling up her throat as she watched the light of the setting sun slowly leave her to her fate. What the fuck! You're not afraid of the dark -- you don't see... HIM, anymore... no cannibals in here... they're not chopping you up and you won't have to cut off your own arm and FUCK -- you CANNOT have a panic attack in here, Ellie, NO NO NO NO!
But of course she could. She couldn't stop it. Okay... just ride right through it... you're okay... no biggie... breathe in... breathe out... one two three four, one two three four-- omigod I can't-- I can't-- I can't BREATHE-- it's going to choke me -- and my head's going to crush me -- AND I'M GOING TO DIE IN HERE I'M GOING TO DIE JOEL WHERE ARE YOU I'M GOING TO DIE HELP MEEEEEEEEEE--
It was a bad one. She had no way of measuring its length, other than it felt like it would never end. She would think she was able to breathe again, and then she'd feel something crawling on her-- or think she felt it -- cuz this is ALL IN MY HEAD -- none of it is REAL. Or, even worse -- she did see him, for the first time in ages. "You keep surprising me, Ellie..." She knew he was dead, of course -- and yet, she found herself pulling out her switchblade, ready to fight for her life.
Eventually, she realized that she wasn't about to die after all, because of course it was only another fucking panic attack, coupled with a little paranoia. When she was done gasping for breath, and able to gather enough steam to let out as loud a scream as she could muster... well, she feared it wasn't all that loud, and it quickly dissolved into hiccuping sobs that punctuated the throbs of pain in her body. Fuck it -- I'm alone -- I haven't heard SHIT from the outside -- if I want to cry, I guess I can just go ahead... normally, she never let herself cry (certainly not to the point of sobbing) when the urge struck, but this time, she didn't even fight the tears. She toppled herself sideways -- onto her right side, so as not to aggravate the throbbing leg -- and curled up like a fetus, letting her tears and snot run sideways down her face into the carpet. When the sobs petered out, there was just nothingness again. Black silence. And she felt another layer added to her headache -- behind her eyeballs.
Ugh -- you're better than this, Ellie. You have to find a way out of here. There's always a way in and a way out. Yeah, that makes sense...
...okay so not really. It's possible to get STUCK. How the fuck did I even get in here?! A memory flitted across her brain... an image... a triangle... the hole was triangular, sort of... a vending machine... it was propped against a wall at an angle, like it had fallen over and didn't have room to fall all the way to the floor and there was this opening... it was an Ellie-sized hole and it had called to her. She couldn't remember actually crawling into it, though, let alone why she had.
Go to sleep. Close your eyes -- it's dark because your eyes are closed. That's all, yep, no other reason.
She wasn't going to be able to sleep, at least not for a while. The pain wouldn't let her. And hadn't she decided going to sleep was a bad idea? She needed to be ready to yell if someone came near her. Preferably Joel, but she couldn't afford to be picky.
Okay, so PRETEND you're trying to fall asleep. Think about happy things. But sit up, so you don't actually forget that you're pretending and get all tired...
She thought about Joel. It wasn't a rock or wall behind her -- it was Joel, stroking her hair, telling her to go to sleep and have sweet dreams. Telling her he loved her. She thought about kissing him. Hugging him. Play-fighting with him. The way he looked at her sometimes... the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed... the coarseness of his beard under her fingertips... even just random things like the way he rolled up his sleeves, or poked at the fire. She wanted to see him so much right now that she felt a physical ache in her chest, as real as any of her wounds. She even wanted him to tease her for stinking of piss. Or yell at her for whatever she'd done that had landed her here. He doesn't usually yell, though... he just gets that disappointed look on his face...
Fuck, even thinking about him lecturing me makes me want to cry!
Her heart ached -- literally -- and that was fucking scary. No heart attacks! Okay -- don't think about him TOO much. And don't close your eyes... stare up -- at the area the light was coming from. In case there's a flashlight beam outside or something. Don't think about the way your leg is throbbing, or how it feels like someone's constantly thumping your head... or how you apparently peed your fucking pants and don't remember doing it.
But if she started to think about other things, like how scared she was that no one would find her... that she would never lay eyes on another human being again... then those more basic thoughts were welcome. She could deal with pain and discomfort and thirst. The fear was the worst of it all: it could lead to despair, and maybe another panic attack.
You can sing to yourself! Yes, that's what she would do. Look for a flashlight beam, listen for people, and sing... not out loud, just in her head. It took a minute for anything to even come to mind. The first song that popped into her head was one she'd recently discovered, which -- surprise, surprise -- made her think of Joel.
~You make me... Feel like I'm living a, teen - age - dream
The way you turn me on, I - can't - sleep
Let's run away, And don't ever look back...~
Don't ever look back... don't ever look back... don't ever look back...
Ellie knew she was fucked.
In her continued explorations of the same spaces over and over again, hoping she'd turn up something she'd overlooked before or find that she could now move shit out of the way, she'd somehow managed to cut off her only light source, pathetically feeble though it was... and her efforts hadn't gotten her any closer to escaping. She'd lost all sense of time, without even having the ability to reason that darkness meant nighttime... the passing of another day. Now it's always night...
Her leg should have been feeling better as time healed it -- haven't I been in here for weeks?! -- but it was... the opposite of that. Her jeans rubbing against the wound seemed to be making it worse, so she had cut away a large patch there -- they were already ripped to hell in that spot anyway.
The thermos's pitiful offering had long since been exhausted. She was so thirsty that she'd stopped feeling thirsty... not that that made any fucking sense. It was hard not to lose all hope. She kept telling herself she needed to save the shouting capabilities of her voice for when Joel found her. It wouldn't do to be all hoarse and raspy and unable to be heard beyond the rubble! But deep down, she knew he wasn't coming, and that she was just trying to put on a brave front for herself so she didn't lose her mind completely.
She'd thought she heard Joel, quite a few times, but whenever she called out to him, he didn't come... and since obviously he would come help her if he was real, every time that happened must have been a dream. She was having a lot of those now, even when she was awake. It was hard to tell the difference between asleep and awake, dreams and reality.
She did yell, sometimes... as best she could. But all this time, she hadn't heard a single sign of humans out there, in her orbit... not one single time. Stupid fucking brain imagining stupid fucking shit that just makes me feel worse afterward!
She was annoyed with Joel for not teaching her how to be as light a sleeper as he was; obviously, she couldn't be awake all the time, since her stay in this hotel was now an extended one, so she was terrified of being asleep when the time came to yell for her life -- of not hearing Joel or whoever, and thus, putting the nail in her own coffin, as they say.
After succumbing to that first sleep, she woke up to find that her brain had gone a little loopy. She wondered if she'd lost her immunity, suffered a bite, and was now going to turn. Maybe immunity has an expiration date, like some of those cans that we find... yeah... why not? ...at least Joel won't have to kill me? He didn't think he could do it...
The idea of not being in her body anymore was rather appealing. If she wasn't going to get rescued, then... no, those expiration dates are lies. We still eat that stuff.
As time crept by, it felt more like she was just... sick. She was lightheaded, dizzy, itchy, sweaty, shivery, crampy... like she was getting the flu, on top of everything else wrong with her. At least her head had stopped its relentless pounding at some point. Because it was finally done pounding my brains into mush! Now it just... pulsed with pain, like the rest of her body. My heart pumps pain, not blood...
She was still singing. To herself, and to the spiders or whatever-the-fuck else was in there (nothing crawled over her, no no no that was all her imagination). Singing softly, so as not to strain her voice, but aloud, because the deafening silence was unbearable, and surely she would go insane if it persisted. She felt like she'd tasted insanity in here already, and she didn't much care for it. If she could just stay calm and rational, and clear away the mushy pulp in my head... by constantly singing? I mean, if I'm going to die anyway, no need to conserve air or voice, right? She could think such things and not freak out -- as long as she stayed in 'outside mode,' where her emotions were unfeelable. The physical pain would actually help with that. She couldn't always do it... I'm really out of practice. So just sing, Ellie...
"~I am a man who will fight for your honor... I'll be the hero you're dreaming of...~"
She'd rescued the toy truck. Found it under some dirt, wedged between a metal thing and a rock/wall thing. It was her teddy bear now... her sleeping companion, in the absence of Joel. A little smaller than a normal teddy, and less snuggly, but she wasn't picky. It was better than being alone! It's bright yellow -- a happy color! -- I never could see it well enough to tell its color but that's what I say it is and therefore it is. And I loved it so much that I hugged the wheel right off of it... the wheel's not here, it's safe... it's with Joel...
She couldn't really talk herself into thinking positively anymore. At least not for more than a few moments at a time. It was just too much of a joke, at this point. This is how people die... scared and alone and fucked up, melting into the floor... and people like me come along and see their corpses years later and like barely give them a passing thought... Joel was probably dead, because otherwise, he would have found her by now (and she knew she was firmly in outside mode if the thought of dead Joel didn't freak her out). She must've been in here for weeks by now. ...weeks? I don't think a person can live without water for weeks... well, it felt like weeks. Maybe it was just one week. Whatever -- it was long enough for Joel to have found her. If there'd been an earthquake, he would've dug through all this shit by now and fucking found her. She hadn't run away, for fuck's sake.
She was so very tired... she felt like she was never really asleep, but also never fully awake.
She was dying. She had to be. I can die if Joel's already dead, right?
"~We'll live forever... knowing together that we did it all... for the glory... of love...~"
We'll live forever... If Joel was dead, and now she died too... could they 'live forever' in whatever came next? Would Joel even know she was right behind him? What if he left for that place without her?
The thought of dying was less scary if she could only know Joel was waiting, holding his hand out for her to take...
It was too quiet.
Death is quiet... Joel is quiet...
She couldn't stand it.
"~I'm still here behind you, in the corner of your eye... I never really learned how to love you... but I know that I love you through the hole of the sky where... where I see? you... that's not -- not an invitation... I disconnect~"
Her voice sounded like crap. Raspy as fuck. And she was totally fucking up the lyrics on that one. Joel said if you forget a line just keep on going don't start over it's okayyyy~~
That song also had a line about having some kind of record for being patient... she liked that. I was TOO patient! Joel was certain that he'd never heard it before... he said not all those songs she listened to ever got played on the radio. Which she'd found strange, because if the music was recorded, why shouldn't it all get played? No fair playing favorites, because people had different tastes and preferences. He'd tried to explain to her how it worked, why only certain songs got played. The injustice of it still bugged her -- though not at this particular moment. All she cared about now was--
"Joel! Wait for me!" she yelled, earning herself a coughing fit afterwards.
He can't hear you if he's dead, she realized. Unless... wouldn't he be watching over her? Isn't that what people said happened when you...
I'm hot. It's hot in here. But that couldn't be right. She'd been cold a little while ago. And death was cold, not hot. Everyone knew that. Even if she was going to hell, her corpse would be cold first. Hot doesn't make sense...
Unless maybe there was a fire... she didn't smell smoke... would the smoke find its way down to her? She was breathing air. Which had to come from somewhere. The smoke could come after me, like that smoke monster thing on that Lost show... I never got to find out what it was...
Her brain pulp hopped to another random song.
"~And there's this burning... like there's always been... I've never been so alone, never been so alive... this is the last time we'll be friends again... I'll get over-- ~"
"I so won't get over you," she sputtered. That's enough of that song. I'm tired...
"~So tired that I can't even sleep... so many secrets I can't... I can't keep them... all... promised myself I wouldn't weep... one more promise I can't keep...~"
Promise I can't keep...
She'd been thinking about Joel a lot, but she also thought about Sophie. Where was she? What had happened to her? Did I leave her alone? I'm so sorry, Sophie... I know you didn't lose Spirit on purpose... I'm not mad now... and I never promised you to your face, but it was understood that I would protect you on this trip, and I'm in here, so obviously I failed...
~One more promise I can't keep~
I'm sorry, Joel! She'd let him down terribly by getting her ass stuck in this little hellhole. He would be so hurt if she died. Completely devastated. Tommy had hinted once that Joel would kill himself if anything happened to her. She understood the feeling, because she knew she couldn't live without Joel, but if she ever said anything to that effect around him, he would get all concerned, and start trying to reason with her about how much older he is blah blah blah.
And she couldn't fully comprehend how anyone could love her that much. She could love a person that way, but she herself couldn't be loved that way. Joel came the closest... yet deep in her heart, she knew she loved him more than he loved her. He DOES love me, though... he wouldn't forget about me yet... he must be so...
Wait -- I got confused again -- if he's already dead, he'll be sad if I LIVE... right? Wouldn't he rather have me with him no matter what? But what does that MEAN -- would we be nothing together? Two black spots of nothingness in the... where, exactly? What if we're NOT together... what if we never find each other again? That's just...
...Just fucking sing, Ellie!
She could hear every instrument of every song that flitted through her head; it was almost as good as listening to something for real. Except sometimes the lyrics weren't as clear... and her oatmeal brain wouldn't stick with one song for more than like, thirty seconds. Now the songs were playing in her head in some bizarre, random order... it was torturous, somehow. Like they were mocking her in her powerlessness to control even such a simple thing as what to fucking think about...
And how could she still 'hear' the fucking silence at the same time? Too quiet TOO QUIET--
~"You held me high... up on a... a pedestal... so hiiiiiiiigh that I could almost see... ETERNITY...~"
Annie liked that one. She had the record in her room. "You needed me"... Ellie's thing was, the chick sang about needing the other person. Like, the entire song. So the song should have been titled "I needed YOU." Annie couldn't explain it, except to say that maybe the other person needed her to need them.
Which -- like so many things -- Ellie related to herself and Joel. She was his "something to fight for." He needed that. Well, I need YOU, Joel... where are you?
~"On a hidden beach under a golden sun... She laid down and... on a blanket! And we loved the world away in Maria... Maria? ... Ray...~"
No -- Monterey! Wrong city, but it sort of fit. Joel liked that singer. Garth Strait, I think... yeah, that sounds right... what was his favorite one that the guy sang... she couldn't remember the name of it. We never made it to Monterey, Joel... we were supposed to finally be together there, like a real couple... I waited and waited...
Joel was swimming... swimming away from her. Out into the ocean... and the ocean looked exactly like the lake in Jackson. She'd expected it to be bigger, and wavier.
I can't swim! And the water was swallowing him up. I can't swim I can't swim I can't swim, don't you remember?
I CAN swim -- he had taught her how. I can swimmmm! So why the fuck can't I follow you?
The ocean disappeared. It's too dark in here to have an ocean. (...what?)
Her thoughts were like... they weren't always making a lot of sense. The songs of her mental library got all muddled up and spliced together. She couldn't sing them; they were running too fast. The words, all those letters, they had legs, legs that were running running running, then skipping jumping running STOP IT She couldn't keep up, even when they were just thoughts and not words being sung aloud. Wrong way, it's a one-way track, don't ever look back, don't ever never ever, hey hey baby hey, do you have to have to have to, let it linger, how could you walk, walk away from this, and make believe that you love me... one more time... for the-- the Mexican princess is-- is what-- it's you and me in the summertime -- hello Texas, sure is good to see me a friend--
It's cold in here. She shivered. It must have been from the hole in her jeans, letting all the cold air blow in like an open door, through a window with two shutters and a flower bed... with YELLOW flowers that someone's taking care of... No! I'm all sweaty from when it was hot and now the sweat is making me cold. Maybe Joel will bring me a blanket. I don't care if it's the scorched one, Joel, I'm not picky...
He did bring her one, but it was from Boston. She remembered it from her room at school so at least not the one Riley puked on -- good job, Joel! It was a little bit scratchy. And not at all warm -- at least, not now. You could just hold me, you know... He didn't seem to hear her. And he was so quiet. Joel's always quiet, I'm the talking talking TALKING one...
She was so confused. Some of this had to be a dream, because it couldn't happen all at once... yet it was. She wanted the words to stop, she wanted the silence to stop. Can't have both.
Now she knew what death felt like -- like your brain getting squished out of your skull, so all the thoughts and memories and feelings get jammed together, all mixed up. And the truck goes back and forth... forth and back... squeaky wheel, pretty noise...
An eternity passed this way. Things shifted, changed, morphed into other things -- things which then shifted, changed, morphed into other things... and yet everything stayed the same. She was playing hide-and-seek with Kyle and Kirsten and even skanky Christine, who didn't have a broken nose... she was laughing at Maria teasing Tommy, something that wasn't even that funny but struck her as hilarious... she was having a heart-to-heart with Annie over a milk pail... she was watching Clicker blow out candles on a birthday cake, just like they do in the movies... she was drinking with Max SO THAT'S WHY MY HEAD FEELS FUNNY... she was dancing with Sophie in the rain... popping blueberries into her mouth with Sam... watching the infection bloom in Riley while it laid dormant in herself, with her unexpired immunity (what a waste...).
But it was all so fleeting. She should've known none of it was real, but when it was happening... it was real, each time, over and over. Kind of like a panic attack except without the terror. A friendly no-panic attack? Except I can still breathe... sometimes... more like a really vivid dream, then. Things felt so real that it was always a surprise whenever she realized she was still alone in the dark no no no not dark just closing my eyes. All the time. Still dying.
Over the course of this forever-amount of time she'd been huddled in her hole, she'd probably seen every person she'd ever met in her life. Even the ones with faces she could no longer remember. She would see the kid who had liked to steal her shoes at age seven, and then jump to Winston, who had taught her how to ride a horse at age thirteen. And they weren't even like real memories... like, the only thing she'd ever done with Ron (aside from the two of them threatening to shoot each other, anyway) was drink tea, but now she was picking tomatoes from some huge-ass, fantastical garden, then making zucchini spaghetti with him in Maria's kitchen. Tommy and Maria's house... so full of people... kids running around... playing games with Dora and Thomas and Nemo... and with fucking Megatron... bad-ass... hey Sam, I got your robot... where did it go...
As for Joel... he weaved his way through all of it, all the people and places, the bizarre images and thoughts. Staying just out of her reach, as if mocking her efforts. She started to hear him more than see him -- only when everyone else shut up. Because you heard me say it's too fucking quiet in here? Without these people in my head talking to me, anyway -- can't squeak the wheel ALL the time -- hand tired -- wheels stuck --
He didn't tell her anything useful. She wanted to have a conversation with him, not just be tormented by his weird nonsense, but he didn't listen HE NEVER LISTENS TO ME. He just offered up random things -- things he'd once said to her, only completely out of context or chronological order, that made no sense now. Things like--
... ... "I ain't punishin' you... it's for your own good."
Which... if she recalled correctly, was about not sharing the bed anymore. He'd said it a million years ago. Why bring that up now? Joel, seriously, what the fuck?
The visions of him were like... fleeting-er than fleeting, because she was always trying to rush into his arms when she saw him. Like if she could just touch him, he would be real... if she could just grow that power... grow it or learn it...
... ..."Why don' we jus' keep our histories to ourselves."
Then he would dodge her, or she'd run right through him, or he would just plain disappear. It was maddening as fuck.
... ... "And were you gloating about how many people you've killed?"
Pure torture. His voice -- even his lecture mode voice! -- should've been a comfort to her, but it only made her more confused. The other... hallucinations, or whatever... those were fake. Not Joel's! He just has to be different... in a good way, usually... They were memories, all of them... her brain was replaying them for her. Fuck if she knew why. She was glad it was Real Joel and not the one in her head, because that version was a lot meaner. He always threatened to leave her, or he'd tell her he didn't love her anymore, or that she deserved to be alone.
... ... "Patience, young grasshopper. Can't you wait another five minutes 'til we get home?"
He hadn't called her 'grasshopper' in ages. She was being impatient. She had to live for months here in the dark. Maybe years, if he wanted her to. He says he's not doing it to punish me. Be patient... patient, yes, he's worth the wait... Joel loves me. He does. Everyone knows that. Not sure why he put me in here, but I guess he had a reason. He always has REASONS. ...to make me get better at patience? To make me stronger? But it hurts. Too weak. Big pile of fail.
In between those little pearls of wisdom from Joel, Ellie heard drums in her head, and singers' voices competing with one another for her attention... she heard her own scattered thoughts shouting in her ears... and yet there was that deathly quiet, hanging out there behind everything, like if she found a way to shut off everything that was tormenting her, it would reach out and grab her and choke the life out of her... what remained of it, anyway. What's that saying... devil may care... NO--the devil I know... I'd rather be tortured than quiet and peaceful and DEAD... don't choke me please please stay in the corner!
The more time passed, the more aware she became of the menace -- of the death hiding in the nooks and crannies, hanging out with the spiders. With Sammy the spider -- a friendly spider from her childhood. Why didn't I remember him when Joel was teasing me about spiders?! Ellie hadn't thought of him in years, but now they were pals again. My childhood wasn't ALL bad... Sammy was just trying to get from the bathroom to the kitchen... he didn't ask for much... Sammy, you can ride in my truck! It doesn't work so good on three wheels but... but you can make it...
...just... keep going, dude... yeah that stuff's all bigger than you but you can NINJA through it, you know...
... ...keep goinnnggg....
Some of the noise receded... to wherever noise went to die. That kind of made sense. Another eternity had passed, so the noise should pass, too. Death should pass. Nothing lasted forever. We'll live forever--
Joel wasn't even with her anymore. She hadn't seen him in a long, long time. He'd left her while she slept... Joel left, there's nothing left... Just fuzziness, a big fuzzy blanket of fuzzy fuzziness... Joel, did you take the blanket... the pain wasn't real anymore, either. Nothing's real so I guess Joel isn't either. -Wait... was he here when he was dead or when he was alive?
She wished he would tell her, instead of making her figure it all out on her own. I'm TRYING, Joel! I can't make sense out of this! Can't you just fucking let me out? Do I try to live or try to die? If I do nothing at all, can I pick which side of the wall I fall on...
It was quiet, and silent, and there was no noise. And... yes... that made sense, because it was death. Everything should sloooowwww dowwwwwn. The pain was sleeping, which allowed her body to sleep, and her blood... does blood sleep? Who sleeps?
Is Joel alive or dead? She had to find out. She didn't have enough information to make a decision. She had to wait. It was too important to just fucking guess -- no do-overs. If you live and find out he's dead, you can just kill yourself later. But if you die, and you never see him again... I DON'T WANNA DIE, JOEL, I REALLY DON'T... don't be dead, Joel...
It's quiet... too quiet...
She had moments of lucidity... then she'd hear the words running around in her head, the jumbled lyrics, at a lower volume now, fuzzier... less pervasive... and then there was nothing. Over and over. The nothing could have been sleep, or maybe death -- because you can fall in and out of death like falling in and out of sleep... or love... NO! She never fell out of love with Joel. Just like she'd fucking told him she wouldn't, all along.
That's romantic... ~I loved him 'til my dying day~ put it on my tombstone. Can you make me one without my body being under it?
Sharp knife, short life, bury me in satin--
WAIT. Joel wasn't waiting for her... she was waiting for him. And he had to be alive, he had to be, because for him to not be... that was a loss so great that her mind failed to grasp it fully; its measurement was off the charts, scales, or whatever was in use. It defied... fucking science, in that way... so it couldn't be true, and she couldn't think it. Reality is whatever I want it to be... only... REAL reality is... ...
I don't want to die! something inside her screamed. I was finally happy, finally FINALLY and I don't want to die...
Shit! Go back outside -- outside mode -- no feelings--
...yes, much better that way.
Swallowing her own saliva so she could pretend to quench her thirst only worked as long as her body produced saliva. But she had to try -- now, while she was a little more lucid than fuzzy -- because maybe it wouldn't last, and she had to sing. She needed her mouth to function properly. Sophie had told her more about that arm-cut-off dude.... he drank his own piss... ewwwww... but it kept him ALIVE... I don't even have to go... I think I went in my sleep, I'm always asleep... and he had a bottle... I don't have anything, anything at all... She found that if she sucked on a pebble, she could trick her mouth into thinking it was food, and bam! Saliva.
Then she remembered she did have a bottle... sort of. The thermos. It couldn't have wandered off very far. But even when she'd had enough strength to pull her pants down, she hadn't bothered with the hassle. She’d already pissed herself anyway. Besides, who was around to give a fuck? She certainly didn’t. So, her corpse would be extra dirty.
Oh my God-- JOEL--
Joel's never going to find my body. If he's looking -- and he must be, cuz I decided he can't be dead -- he's going to be looking forever and never ever find me and he's going to be so so SAD... I can't stand for him to be that fucking sad! He needs me--
She promptly had another panic attack. She knew she'd had more since that first one, she just didn't know how many... it was hard to tell because sometimes it just felt like she was racing through one of those dreams, or visions... hallucinations... whatever-the-fuck... everything is FAST-- so fast--
And then they were calm again, slowing dowwwwn... less buzzing... maybe she could finish a verse now.
She was so very alone -- but she had to forget about that, because she couldn't fucking breathe, and breathing was essential to... not being dead. There was no getting around that... she had to breathe breathe breathe. If she had to choose between panicky death and calm death, she chose calm. Breeeeathe. I'm out in the open, yes, I could move around more if I wanted to... and it's just dark because it's nighttime, that's all... the moon and stars are sleeping tonight too... I'm cold but the throb-throb-throbbing of pain in my leg, pain all over, it woke up and it's making me hot--
Somehow, it was like she didn't feel the pain physically anymore, but in her head, it was still there -- is it coming back? No, it went to work hi ho hi ho hi ho! All of this nonsense made sense now. For some reason, she could tell herself these things, and sort of believe them... like her mind was very suggestible now that it had seeped out of her skull... except... Joel... Joel was just a big question mark. She tried again to imagine him there, holding her, petting her and cooing to her, and doing whatever it was he had to do to stop everything from hurting, because of course Joel could do that. He was her hero... god-like and perfect. Far from perfect, yet so fucking perfect.
It was impossible to conjure him up out of nothing, though. Her brain wouldn't be fooled for long; she was alone. I don’t even know where the truck went… somewhere… over… can’t reach…
Just sing! If she could hear the music, it could be a friend to her. And if she was singing, she couldn't be dead. Dead people don't sing. Everyone knows that. Her throat was painfully raw, but still she had to sing. Breathe and sing, sing and breathe.
"~If you're lost... and alone... or you're sinking... like a stone... Carry o-o-o-o... o-on... May your past... be the sound... of your feet on the... on the ground... Carry on carry on carry on~"
...But what if I can’t?
She was wrong before... when she thought she knew what dying felt like. This had to be it. She had to fight it, but she couldn't swim... she'd forgotten, or maybe she'd never learned... I don't know how to die, either, and I don't want to learn that! I don't! I want to live and for Joel to live and we all of us live happily ever after~
She had to sing happy songs. She didn't know how to feel scared when singing a happy song. And since Joel had gone quiet again (not that he was even telling her what to do when he did speak), she had to puzzle it all out by herself. Don't be scared... happy songs only, happy happy HAPPY drown out the fear ~ carry on on on endure and surviiiiiiiiiive--
But I'm tired... so tired... the truck's not rolling back and forth anymore... it left... and I'm too tired...
No, Ellie, you can't be-- you'll sleep when you're dead and you're not dead yet! Be here here HERE now... It's only hell... that's all... you don't have to swim, just breathe...
"~Yeah... the worst is over now, the morning sun... it's shining like a red rubber ball...~" Not exactly a happy song, but... the tempo and flute-y bits were cheerful? And it was hopeful... have I lost hope? Can I find it again? I want to see the sun right now... bouncy rubber ball sun, wait for me, I'll see you when I'm done here... Joel will get me out... LET me out... when I've learned... whatever power I'm supposed to learn...
She was weak. Even lifting her head was too hard now. The smooth carpet under her cheek felt... solid. Good place to ooze my way into... She felt the sleep trying to take over, and she fought it, which was fucking hard because she really wanted to just fucking sleep now. Be done with this. If you sleep, you're DEAD, that voice in her head reminded her. Her own voice... only I'm not Ellie anymore so not really. Ellie's not here. Ellie is with her mother, who loves her very much.
But YOU -- You can't sleep -- you need Joel to sing you to sleep. And he's not here.
She thought about the first time he sang to her. It's Ellie's turn... Ellie, come back... you can sing that to HIM... he's right over there... yeah... that's right... if you do a good job, maybe he'll let you out... our future is... is... ~days of you and me~...
It was still impossible to stay focused. And her throat hurt. And she was tired. And and and--
No excuses, bitch!
Never stop singing.
A/N: Chapter title from the Simon & Garfunkel song.
And if you were playing "name that tune" with poor Ellie -- some of these songs were randomly selected while shuffling my iTunes as I wrote. Here's the list (excluding the unsung fragments -- kudos & e-cookies to you if you can get those without googling):
- "Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry
- "Glory of Love" by Peter Cetera
- "Communication" by the Cardigans
- "Motorcycle Driveby" by Third Eye Blind
- "Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum
- "You Needed Me" by Anne Murray
- "Marina Del Rey" by George Strait
- "Carry On" by fun.
- "Red Rubber Ball" by Cyrkle
[not sung, but "Sammy the Spider" is a children's song by Jewel]
~Continue to Chapter 38~