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: 9987
Rating (for fic as a whole): R
"If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would livin' do me?
God only knows what I'd be without you"
~the Beach Boys "God Only Knows"
"I know you don't want to hear this, but... maybe you should take a break? You look like you could keel over at any second."
No, Joel didn't want to hear that. He didn't care what he looked like; he wouldn't collapse. He just wouldn't. That wouldn't do Ellie any good. "I've already taken enough breaks," he grumbled. But he did take the canteen Sophie offered, gratefully gulping down the first water he'd had in hours. Still, he felt a twinge of guilt doing even that much, when Ellie might not have the luxury.
Sophie looked down at him from atop the horse and scoffed. "Uh, noooo, helping me with the bags doesn't count, and stopping to drink or tinkle or just think for a minute doesn't count... you haven't slept."
"I told you, I ain't sleepin' 'til I find Ellie."
"You can't change my mind." He handed the canteen back to her... or, tried to.
"Keep it. I've got plenty of fresh water brewed up now, and you wouldn't believe how much food I found. These guys must've been stockpiling for a while. How 'bout I whip up a little--"
"Do what you want for yourself," he interrupted, "but I ain't hungry."
"You have to be hungry by now," Sophie argued, her voice disgustingly gentle and full of pity. "And you need the fuel. Don't you think Ellie would want you to--"
"No! She'd want me to find her!" he snapped.
Sophie seemed to want to say more, but she didn't, perhaps thinking better of pissing him off further.
"You go eat," he told her, "an' let me borrow the horse for a while. I'll check the streets again before it gets dark, an' then... I don' know, I'll find some places to check I haven' looked at yet, an' come check in... maybe two or three hours from now."
"I can still keep looking," said Sophie as she dismounted. She could walk better today than she could yesterday. "I don't mean I want to just stop..."
"It's fine. Maybe she's back there waitin' for us." He didn't believe that, and he didn't think Sophie did, either, but... pretending was good for his sanity. And since it wasn't impossible, he did stay somewhat tethered to that medical center, hoping his gut would be proven wrong for a change (but not too wrong, since it was also telling him that she wasn't dead -- or was that just denial?). Ellie had been gone more than twenty-four hours; it was starting to get dark again. "You remember which way it is?"
"At 28th and K," she recited. The streets of the city were laid out in a nice grid pattern that made it difficult to get hopelessly lost, if you could remember the number and letter you needed.
"Which is... ?"
"...that way?" She pointed west.
"That way." South, slightly west.
"Right right right, okay, well, I'm going to check the building again while waiting for you. Good luck." She reached for him, as if to put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he just took the reins from her and mounted the horse without giving her the chance.
Sophie could check the building ten more times for all the good it would do. Joel had scoured it thoroughly five or six times himself yesterday, and again today. They'd found Ellie's backpack on the third/first floor, amongst some desks and cabinets that leaned against a partially collapsed wall... a lot of the furniture in the building was piled that way, presumably from the slanting floors. The backpack had been laying on its side, the main part open, with some of its contents strewn about. Later, when searching the dead men's bodies -- more for possible clues than for loot (although, really, what did he expect to find? A map to Ellie?) -- he'd found her gun, or what he was pretty sure was her gun. He couldn't be one hundred percent certain, but it was the same model and was in roughly the same condition. That was on the fourth floor... a man he'd killed stealthily, not the ones he'd burned on the third floor. Which meant that... the guy going up the fire escape had taken it from her? Because those men had come from above him, and he hadn't thought that she'd gone up there... but really, he had no fucking clue where she'd been. It was possible she hadn't even been on the third floor... that someone had just taken her backpack up there and been careless with it.
And she had only been carrying that one revolver, since Sophie was using the 9-millimeter. Joel had given Ellie a second gun to use in a fight on occasion, but she'd always returned it to him once the dust settled. And they were always together, so it hadn't seemed to matter much...
He could kick himself for that later. That, and whatever else came to mind -- like how he should have just let her come with him. Or perhaps not gone scavenging at all. He should have known she would come looking for him at the first sign of trouble -- he wanted to be angry with her for doing it, but he just couldn't be. He'd even found himself wishing he'd irritated her more that day -- then, maybe she'd be so pissed off that she just stayed put, thinking, Fuck Joel -- he deserves what he gets.
But of course she hadn't thought that. Trouble had a way of neutralizing their moods, whether they be good or bad. So she'd been worried about him. Over a couple of lousy hunters.
...okay, so, more than a couple, as it turned out, but she'd only seen two when she decided to look for him. There had ended up being enough of them to be a cause of concern. Enough at once that she... somehow lost her backpack? It was open... was she trying to get something out of it, or had someone looted it after she lost it?
He would ask himself all these questions, trying to puzzle out what had happened, but ultimately, there was no goddamn point. He needed to find something like a little recorder, like what they'd found when they were looking for the Fireflies... he needed to find it, and it needed to have Ellie's voice recorded on it, with instructions for him on where to find her.
He also wanted to kick himself for not bringing the Firefly recorders on the trip so that they could record over them if needed, but he couldn't really, because... well, it seemed unlikely that Ellie would be in a situation where she could record something like: "Hey, Joel, these assholes are about to kill me and there's no clear path down, so I'm going to go hang out on the roof, I'll wait for you there. Hope you find this!" Sophie could have possibly done something like that... but Ellie wouldn't have been content to wait for him to kill everyone himself, at least not when she didn't know where he was and what shape he was in. She probably wouldn't have even had the patience to make a recording.
He'd looked on the roof, of course. He'd looked every-fucking-where.
Joel had combed that whole goddamn area for more clues, to no avail. The shitty carpeting inside and the pavement outside didn't show tracks the way dirt and grass may have. Even on isolated pockets of dirt, he couldn't be sure what he was looking at. He found no scraps of her clothing... nothing else that belonged to her. There was plenty of blood on the third floor, but he had no way of knowing if any of it was Ellie's. He'd killed a handful of people, and she had killed at least one herself. His gut was telling him she'd been in that building. Actually, his brain was, too, because unless someone in the group had gone traitorously rogue, Ellie was connected to those shots he'd heard, either as the shooter or the shootee. So unless one of them was sniping from the building... but, her backpack. She'd been there, inside, unless someone-- knock it off, asshole, you've already been through all this. Over and over. The repetition didn't provide any answers. Where the hell had Ellie gone? And why hadn't she come back yet?
Joel had searched the oncology building next, thinking that Ellie may have been looking for him there because he'd stated his intention to search it, and there had been hunters holed up in there, too. She may have thought he was already over there when she spotted the two on the street. Striking out there, he'd searched the other buildings in the plaza, thinking that she might have misunderstood which building he'd meant to search next.
Although they were in a big city, it just stood to reason that she would be somewhere close. Even if she'd had to run away, she would have come back. She was a smart kid with a good sense of direction. Hell, even if she had gotten lost, she could've hollered for him. If she couldn't holler... well, no, she couldn't flash the night sky, because her flashlight had been clipped to the strap of her backpack, where it always was.
Sophie had helped search on horseback, that first day, due to her ankle. Initially, he'd wanted her to simply wait in that truck where Ellie had left her, but she said she'd go crazy hanging out in there, not doing anything to help. She'd left a note in there for Ellie in case she returned, telling her to wait there... that they would be checking in every few hours.
Several hours after dark, Sophie had pleaded with Joel to call it a night. By then, her ankle was a bit better, and with his help, she could get up to that third floor. He'd helped her get settled in one of the rooms that had a door which locked from the inside, and he'd picketed the horse in the park. He'd told her he would search a little longer and then find a place to sleep nearby, but he'd known it was a lie when he'd said it, and he suspected she had, too. When she'd accused him later of not sleeping, he hadn't denied it.
To her credit, Sophie wasn't being as annoying as she could have been. She didn't cause any problems. She did whatever he said, and without complaint. Joel really didn't want to have to deal with her at all, but he had to. She didn't know what to do -- and neither did he, for that matter... but he was in charge, and he was responsible for her safety. He gave her specific areas to search and instructed her not to go anywhere else, because the last thing he needed was to have to search for her, too. He'd taught her how to use the water purifier previously, so she'd gone back to the last river they'd seen, about twelve or fourteen blocks before, and bulked up their water supply, using some of the containers they'd scavenged from the hunters. She took care of Poppy. And for the most part, she stayed the hell out of Joel's way. Maybe he should have kept her with him, for safety reasons, but that would only slow him down as well as grate on his nerves, and since she was willing to help search, it made more sense to let her search elsewhere.
Of course, that didn't stop Joel from going back and searching those areas again himself. Sophie could have missed something. They hadn't found Ellie yet, so she must have missed something...
How could Ellie have vanished into thin air? They hadn't seen any more hunters. He'd given Sophie instructions to hide if she saw anyone. If she couldn't hide, she was to fire her gun -- which she was also supposed to do if she found Ellie -- and that would summon Joel to the area. Whenever he checked in with her, he always asked her if she'd seen anyone, and she always said no. It seemed unlikely that some asshole hunter was keeping Ellie somewhere. Sophie likely wasn't stealthy enough to avoid being seen, and Joel couldn't imagine that a hunter wouldn't approach her with the idea of lifting that gun from her, at the very least. Also, Joel felt that he was searching thoroughly enough to uncover someone in hiding... still, Ellie could be holed up with them somewhere he hadn't yet looked, and the possibility tormented him. She had no gun, no supplies... hopefully she had her knife. But Ellie was so... little. Even though he knew she wasn't exactly fragile, he couldn't help but worry that some motherfucker -- especially if there was more than one -- could overpower her.
That big one who had tried to strangle him really stuck in Joel's craw. Resourceful as she was, Ellie was still a small girl. Not that she was weak... the female form just wasn't designed to have upper body strength. And she's so skinny... so SMALL-- his brain kept coming back to that. Whenever she made him hug her "as hard as you can," he only used maybe half his strength before she was gasping for air. It turned his stomach to think of his precious baby girl in the hands of some sleaze who--
He just couldn't go there. Focusing on the task at hand helped keep the ugly thoughts at bay. Staying hyper-alert, all senses trained on the singular goal of fucking finding her, was all he could do. He could ignore the aches and pains, the fatigue... he could especially ignore the feelings of hopelessness and despair, the devastation that threatened to whack him the moment he indulged in anything resembling an emotion.
Unless the emotion was anger -- but catering to that one was pointless. It had led him to smash office furniture, bash equipment, hurl random objects into walls... it accomplished nothing. Except perhaps to drain him of energy he could be using to find Ellie.
The search reminded him of the time back in Jackson when Ellie had uncovered his big lie and run off to get away from him... to the 'sad house'. He'd been tormented that whole day, too, worried sick... mostly due to the mental state she'd been in. Rough as it had been, he would take that hell over this one in a heartbeat. It was childsplay by comparison – because back then, the chances of her being in any real physical danger were slim.
Poppy had carried him up and down street after street in an endless loop of motions that produced nothing. He'd also backtracked along the river and the highway, wondering if Ellie would follow that rule of theirs about where to try to meet up when separated if lost, rather than trying to find where they'd last been together. Joel had yelled for her constantly the first night, but he'd long since had to give up hollering at the top of his lungs -- he was still rather hoarse from it now. Wherever she was, it wasn't some place she would just come running out of at the sound of his voice, anyway. He trusted that if Ellie was in whatever area he was searching, he was making enough noise to attract her attention... plus, he was still calling to her raspily -- and he was listening for her. Listening hard.
So hard that his brain had played tricks on him a couple times already. He could have sworn he'd heard her calling his name, but after fervently searching the source of the sound, he had to conclude it had only been his imagination. Once, he'd done that in front of Sophie, who'd only given him the most pitiful of pitying looks, undoubtedly thinking (correctly) that he was losing his mind. The more sleep deprivation he endured, perhaps the worse it would get. But he had no choice; he had to keep going. The thought of laying down to sleep without knowing where Ellie was... knowing that since he hadn't seen her, she must be hurt or held against her will... it just didn't compute in his brain, no matter how exhausted he was.
He fantasized about seeing her sitting somewhere, just sitting... like when he'd eventually found her that day in Ghost Town. Safe and sound. Oh God, he would give anything for that -- he wouldn't even be pissed at her for worrying the shit out of him.
He'd nearly nodded off a couple times on Poppy's back, and decided that that meant he should head back to 'base' to rest the horse for the night and tell Sophie to go to sleep. He parked in front of the medical center and hoarsely called Sophie's name until she answered through one of the broken windows. He dismounted, and he might have dozed off standing there in the street, leaning into the horse, waiting for Sophie to come down. He was dead-tired... and he was also tired of the overly-sympathetic looks she was giving him; it made him not even want to look at her.
"Just a few hours," she'd tried to coax him, "and then you can start looking again. It'll actually help you search! You're only human -- you can't go two nights in a row without sleep. When you've rested some, you'll feel a thousand times more energetic, you won't be so sluggish, you'll--"
Joel had cut her off with a frustrated sigh. "You don' get it: I can't. It ain't jus' that I won't -- I physically can't do it. Maybe that seems crazy to you, but it's the truth. I ain't sayin' that you can't sleep -- it's safer if you spend the night behind a locked door anyhow. You can sleep for the two of us. Do me a favor an' go picket the horse first?"
"Do you have enough water? Are you hungry now? I could--"
"I'm fine. Jus' go on. I'll check in a lil' after dawn." He'd turned away before she could answer, and if she did call after him, he'd tuned it out. He began to trot, because sluggish, my ass! He hadn't realized he'd slacked off on the pace. Maybe Sophie had just said it generically, as something you might say to any exhausted person, or maybe she'd actually observed it -- which meant it was true, and that was intolerable to Joel. Ellie deserved a better effort than that.
He fantasized about finding her, helping her out of whatever trouble she'd gotten herself into, and her saying, "what the fuck took you so long, old man?"
Not that she ever called him an old man now. He knew she didn't like to think of him as old, with 'old' conjuring up images of him having one foot in the grave. Since they'd fallen in love, he really did feel like she'd somehow stripped years off of him. He felt much younger now than he had a year ago.
Well, maybe not this very moment...
After a day and a half of frantic searching, Joel was running on fumes now. Adrenaline, maybe. Or fear. Fear that would be paralyzing if he stopped and let it catch up to him...
He decided to check the transit center, addiction center, the little coffeeshops and businesses down on O Street... he probably hadn't searched that area well enough. His gut wasn't serving him very well anymore; he'd hoped it would act as some kind of compass... but what did he expect? A fucking metal detector, beeping louder and louder the closer he got to Ellie?
O Street didn't yield him anything. Neither did P Street. He checked the buildings up through Q Street, then crossed 28th Street to check the park on that block. It wasn't until he'd reached the center of it that he realized checking this place once, as he had the day before, should be sufficient; it wasn't like there were any places he could have overlooked. Ellie wasn't playing hide-and-seek with him. If she were here in this wide-open area, he would have found her.
He switched off his flashlight and sank onto a stone bench, dropping his head into his hands. I have no fucking idea where to look in this goddamn big-ass city! Ellie, where in God's name ARE you? He thought back to that conversation they'd had, about how she wouldn't just disappear on him on purpose. He'd found it adorable that she was worried he might think that, that he'd just be like "Damn... oh well, that's that, she left!" and move on with his life. He hoped that wherever she was, she wasn't worried about that now.
His head was throbbing painfully, as were his feet... and pretty much every muscle in his useless body... he leaned back enough to look up at the moon, which was a day or two shy of being full. "Where am I s'posed to go?" he asked it forlornly. "You know where she's at... you saw her go there... can't you just... shit, I'm talkin' to the moon. Like a... a goddamn coyote or somethin'."
He stopped short of howling... but did let loose a pathetically hoarse cry of "ELLIE!!!!"...
As if she would answer him this time.
Well, he wasn't going to accomplish anything by sitting on his ass. Irritated with himself, he got to his feet -- only to find that his feet did not wish to cooperate. He crumpled to the ground. You're good... just got dizzy for a moment, he told himself. You stood up too fast. Just give yourself a minute. He took hold of the bench and pulled himself to a sitting position on the ground. Slowly, now... or, just rest here for another minute...
...only a minute...
... ... ELLIE!
Ellie! I was so worried! Where have you been?!?! // I've been here the whole time, Joel, what are you talking about? // What? But... you... no. You were-- // You must be losing it. Should I be worried? // I was looking for you... I don't understand... // I'm right here, silly. // NOW, yeah, but... why can't I touch you? Are you really here? // Nope! You're dreaming. You're dreaming when you could be out trying to find me. // But you just said-- // Don't believe anything you hear in a dream. // ...Am I in a nightmare? // No, definitely not. In your nightmares I'm hurt, or dead, or you never ever find me. // Don't say that! Ellie, come here, please... // I can't! I'm not really here. I'm either hurt, or dead, or somewhere that you'll never ever find me, and you'll never KNOW. Ha! HAHA! // ... ...no... You wouldn't laugh about something like that. You ain't the real Ellie. // Duh! That's what I'm telling you! So why are you just laying there like a corpse?
xxxx "HELP ME, JOEL!" xxxx
Joel woke with a start, a little puddle of drool on the hand that his cheek had been resting on. What the hell was that? I fucking fell ASLEEP? How long had he been out? The presence of the drool suggested it had been more of a catnap than a real sleep. Still, the idea of it bothered him greatly. He'd just told Sophie that he couldn't sleep until he found Ellie, and he'd truly believed that. I was wrong. I don't know shit. ...I don't know where Ellie is, so I don't know shit.
He stood up, and this time his feet didn't fail him. His back was killing him, though. He shifted the straps of his backpack... as if it would help. He didn't even have all his gear with him; he'd left some of it at 'camp' with Sophie. A glance up at the moon told him he hadn't been asleep all that long, really. Maybe a half hour at most. If Ellie's a half-hour dead when I find her, I'll never forgive--
He cut that thought off, because he couldn't afford to entertain thoughts like that. If he did, he might start feeling them.... and then he'd be lost.
Joel worked his way down to T Street, then back up towards base via 27th Street. He methodically checked everywhere he could, realizing dully that he wasn't as alert and 'with it' as he'd been before, but not much caring, because he was just going through the motions of looking, not expecting to find Ellie... or anyone else, for that matter. The buildings were easier to check than they might have been had an earthquake -- or saturation bombing, but more and more, he thought of it as an earthquake -- not ravaged the city at one point. Some buildings he couldn't even enter at all. He searched the surrounding area, maybe climbed up on the rubble some to look around... if he couldn't climb up on top of something, then Ellie couldn't, either. And in the places where he could barely make it, he dropped right back down, figuring there was no way could Ellie could have done it.
And then, a block or so later, he would doubt himself, and imagine Ellie lying unconscious on top of one of the buildings. Maybe I just couldn't make it because I'm tired... or maybe someone else got her up there somehow... once, he'd backtracked four whole blocks to check, thinking it was his gut finally whispering Ellie's whereabouts to him -- but of course, he'd been right the first time. After that, he told his gut to go fuck itself if it wasn't going to tell him anything useful.
When he reached the park where Poppy was spending the night, the black sky had just begun to ease into gray. Sophie wouldn't wake up and look for him right at dawn; he had time to check another few blocks' worth of buildings. He headed toward the church, on the park's other side. He'd been through this area once before, but he may have missed something.
Eventually, he would have to decide when to move on from this general area. Maybe he should change the note in that truck to tell Ellie they'd check there once a day for her. And then maybe he could just make it like a goddamn treasure hunt. 'Ellie: now find the gray van 20 blocks south, 20 blocks west. Corner of Such-and-such streets. That's where I'll be checking in once a day from now on. Sorry if you have to crawl or drag yourself all that way 'cause you're hurt...'
Shit -- just stay in the here and now, asshole. Like this church over here...
The church had only caved in on one side, and the main doors were busted open. As soon as Joel entered the nave, he froze; there's a sleeping person in here! Ellie?! But it struck him as somewhat absurd that Ellie would just be lying there in a pew, asleep, like nothing was amiss. Unless she ain't alone... His hand on the Shorty's trigger, he searched the pews with his flashlight until he found the lightly-snoring body of a man. The man was on his stomach, using a backpack as a pillow, a coat as a blanket. A Glock lay on the floor, beneath a dangling arm. Joel doubted he could reach it without disturbing him.
But he wanted to disturb the guy anyhow. First, he performed a quick search of the rest of the room, and determined no one else was there. He strolled over to Sleeping Beauty. "Wake up, motherfucker!" Joel barked, jolting the man awake. "Sit up an' scoot this way." Away from the gun on the floor.
The guy appeared to be in his thirties. Very scruffy and dirty, with an overgrown beard and grungy clothes. "Hey man, just take what you want-- I don't--"
"Where've you been? Did you notice all your buddies are dead?"
"Buddies? I, uh... who you talkin' about?" He did seem genuinely clueless. Maybe he was a solo traveler.
Not that Joel cared whom he was or wasn't affiliated with. "Just tell me where the girl is."
"The girl. The one you're hiding somewhere."
"Bro... you've got the wrong person. I'm all by myself."
Joel shot him in the kneecap, and the man screamed in pain. "You ready to tell me now? Huh?" he taunted. "Or you want me to fuck you up a 'lil more first? One way or another, you're gonna tell me."
"I... really don't... uugghhh... I don't... know..." the man wheezed, clawing at his leg.
Joel holstered the gun and dragged the guy up by his collar. He punched him in the stomach and let him double over -- leaning heavily on the non-injured leg -- then lifted him up by the hair and cracked him in the jaw. "Tell me!"
"I-- swear to God -- I--" The man collapsed on the floor, leaning against the pew, whimpering and gasping, his arms crossed over his face... as if in surrender, or maybe just self-preservation. There was no 'fight' in him... perhaps because it was clear he couldn't win, seeing as how Joel had already crippled him, and his best chance at survival was to gain Joel's sympathy.
Tough shit. "Have you seen a girl, then. Tell me that."
"If you want me -- to say that -- then okay -- yeah, I seen one!" he sputtered through gritted teeth.
Joel sighed. "I don' want you to lie to me. Christ. Have you, or have you not, seen a teenage girl around here?"
"No! No one! Please..."
Joel kicked his broken kneecap, and when the man was writhing around helplessly on his side, Joel just started whaling on him. It did seem that the poor bastard probably didn't know anything, hadn't done anything to Ellie... Joel didn't care. It felt good to hit him... to deliver pain. He wasn't sure where the strength came from. He couldn't just shoot the guy somewhere lethal; he had to inflict pain with his bare hands.
And the fact that he was doing it in a church didn't faze Joel any. It wasn't like God had done him any favors lately.
Joel beat the guy into a bloody, unconscious lump, and then beat him some more. I'm doing him a kindness, not letting him die a long and painful death of bleeding out from that gunshot wound, Joel decided. Shit... what do I care? Maybe that was Ellie's voice in my head just now...
It just felt incredibly satisfying to hit. Because he was a bad person. As established long ago.
When his rage was spent, he slumped against the pew where the man had been sleeping. He stared at the lifeless body in front of him. Watched the dawning sun begin to color it brightly as the rays filtered in through broken shards of a stained glass window that still clung to the window frame. Funny how the whole window hadn't shattered. Just pieces of it.
Ellie would think it's beautiful in here. Joel didn't, though. The light that brightened the bloodied corpse was garish... the lighting in general felt surreal... like it was painting this strange... nightmare, or...
Yes. Nightmare. That was certainly what he was trying to live through right now.
For the first time since this ordeal had begun, Joel found his throat clenching, and tears pricking his heavy eyelids -- tears he had no intention of shedding. He swallowed, blinked… willed the emotions away. Then he calmly looked around the church; finding no representation of God anywhere, his gaze fell upon the stained glass again. "Tonight, I've talked to the moon, an' my own gut, so I reckon talkin' to you... God... ain't so much of a stretch. You an' me... we don' see eye to eye on things. Maybe you're still mad at me, for... that business in Salt Lake City. Maybe you think it's only fair that I lose--" Joel cleared his throat. He couldn't even bring himself to say it. "If this was some... dumb movie or somethin', I'd be tryin' to bargain with you: 'Spare Ellie's life an' I'll be good from now on.' Or maybe 'Take me instead.' But... I don' think you operate like that. Hell, I don' even know if you operate at all, truth be told. I don' know how you could let... all that crazy shit happen, with the virus... but I don' care about that right now. I jus' care about Ellie. If you... if you don' want me to find her, for some reason... all right. As long as she's alive... an' good... I ain't gonna give up lookin' for her, but if you can promise me that, then--"
Joel interrupted himself with a derisive snort. "Like you can promise me shit. Jesus fucking Christ," he muttered. "All I'm sayin' is... please let her be alive. An' safe. She... brings so much, to the world... she's young, an' strong... she don' need me nearly as much as she thinks she does, as long as she's... Look, if you think she... shouldn' be with me... it's prob'ly true. I shouldn'ta brought her out here in the first place. It's my fault she's--" He had to wait a moment to will the lump out of his throat as a memory surfaced. That old motherfucker back in Jackson was right: she's better off without the likes of me. "I got no business askin' for nothin'. I know. You're prob'ly thinkin'... this motherfucker's got some nerve, askin' for favors when he jus' killed a man for no reason -- in a holy place, even. I know that's s'posed to be your call, not mine. It was... a mistake. I make a lot of those. I'll apologize for every last one of 'em 'til I'm blue in the face if it makes any difference to you. The thing is, I ain't askin' for myself. If this is punishment... punish me, not her. All right?" He closed his eyes. That sounded like another lame TV movie cliché, too, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "I'll keep on lookin', even if I never find her -- an' that's as good a punishment as any... 'cause this is hell. Please... jus' let her be okay, wherever she is. Can you do that much?"
He meant what he said. He wasn't trying to take more than he deserved from life. The problem was, he couldn't imagine how she could be all right without him finding her. She hadn't just decided to join some other survivors and run off. If she had, and he could somehow know for sure that it was true, he could live with it. But to imagine a world without Ellie in it... that was just... Where ARE you, baby girl? What happened? I'm so sorry I didn't protect you from it, whatever it was... you can't be gone. You CAN'T be. What does that even mean... "gone"? Rest in peace, they always say... if your soul ain't fucking THERE in your resting body--
If I find her… WHEN I find her?... she has to BE there, in her body... she has to know how sorry I am for everything I ever did that hurt her... and she has to know how much I love her... how SPECIAL she is... how she turns everything around her into something better than it was before, including me... how she's the goddamn air I BREATHE--
When he opened his eyes, he expected to see Ellie standing in front of him, for some reason. Of course, she wasn't there -- he hadn't dozed off this time.
His only company was the dead guy he'd beaten to a pulp. I really am losing it now. "I gotta get goin'," he told the window. "This wasn' really a prayer... or if it was, it was a shitty excuse for one, so I guess I don' gotta say... oh, fuck it. Amen."
Many hours later -- midafternoon, judging by the position of the sun -- Joel thought he heard Ellie again. Only this time, she wasn't calling his name; she was... singing. Or... making noises that vaguely resembled singing.
"Sophie!" he bellowed; his voice wasn't completely restored yet, but she couldn't have gone that far away. "Sophie!"
"What what?" She came hurrying from around the corner.
"Tell me you don' hear anythin'."
"Uh... what is it that I don't hear?"
"Jus' listen a moment... ... ... that. Jus' my imagination. Right?"
But instead of telling him he was right, Sophie gasped. "I hear it, too!"
"Don't mess with me now." He didn't dare get his hopes up this time...
But Sophie clutched his arm and tugged him toward the source of the faint... singing. It was definitely singing. "Ellie?" she called. "Ellie, where are you?"
Holy shit -- it's NOT my crazy brain! THANK GOD! Joel felt a surge of excitement. "Ellie! Ellie, I'm here! Jus'... stay put an' I'll find you!"
"But... keep singin'!"
It sounded even less like singing now, but there was some kind of muffled noise, coming from... where?! The funny thing was, they were right across the street from where they'd started. Was she right here this whole time? How the hell did I miss that? "What the hell-- there's no rooms behind the... it's all caved in back there. Nowhere to go but up."
"And that's definitely coming from... down. Our level."
"Right. Like she's... " ...NO. She couldn't be underneath all that rubble somehow, could she?
"Do you think she's under there?!" Sophie echoed his horrifying thought.
"That's... impossible." Except that it kind of made sense -- it explained why he hadn't been able to find her. But all this shit was already HERE-- how did she-- "Unless there's an openin' back here... somewhere..." He moved quickly along the length of the debris until he reached a wall. "Check the other side!" he called to Sophie.
Joel climbed where he could find purchase, careful to check the stability of the mound of debris... he wasn't even near Ellie, he was just looking for an entranceway of any kind -- there was absolutely nothing that even someone as small as Ellie could fit through, as far as he could see. Maybe behind this wall... maybe she got around it, somehow... Joel checked and doublechecked and triple-fucking-checked everything he could think of, all in vain.
Sophie came around to his side of the 'mountain.' "I got nothin'," she declared. "I don't know how she did it!"
"Maybe she got in there an' ran into somethin' an' it collapsed on her... trapped her... it don' matter, we jus' gotta get her outta there!" He sprinted back to the closest place he could get to the source of her voice. "Ellie? Ellie! Hang in there, kiddo, we're gonna have to dig you out, all right?"
No answer. Joel's eyes darted around, trying to figure out where the hell to start digging. What was safe to move that wouldn't cause an avalanche.
"Joel?" Sophie's voice was tentative. "Do you think maybe... it was just a cat or something?"
"A cat?" Joel snorted. "What song was the cat singin'? Did you recognize it?"
"Yeah, um... that one that goes..." Sophie hummed the melody of the song Joel had in mind.
"Beatles. 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' -- that's what I heard, too. Ellie likes that song. That was no goddamn cat." Although it had sounded much more mournful than the upbeat song Joel remembered. He walked around to what he considered to be the front of the pile. There was a vending machine laying on its side, with a 'column' of wall inches from its head.
Something about that... that machine...
"Sophie, c'mere. Was that layin' like that when we got here?"
Sophie looked at it and frowned. "I have absolutely no idea. Maybe? I wasn't looking over here, I don't think..."
"I don' think it was. When you two went to the park... I think I remember seein' it leanin' against..." Why the hell didn't I notice that before?! So much for being observant. He'd passed by it at least a couple times in the past two days, too, and hadn't noticed that its position had changed. And he did walk by it that first day, when he'd started to follow Ellie down the street -- the unusual angle of it sharpened the memory. It still didn't exactly explain how or why Ellie had gotten under all that shit, but it was something he could pursue.
There was nothing piled on top of it, and he couldn't see what was behind it, exactly... It didn't appear to be supporting the pile of rubble in any way; there was a semi-intact wall behind the upper half of it. Something about the way it was sitting there, apart from the debris... it niggled at him. If I could just move it... It was a snack machine -- a big one, but the front casing was busted, giving him access to a slew of places to grab hold of. He contorted himself in various ways to try to get a good hold on the thing, using its innards... he would have to pull it, but he couldn't get a decent grip on it. "Shit. I can't get behind this thing to push it, an' I can't pull it. 'Specially since the ground's cracked right there so it ain't a level surface. It won't budge."
Damnit, Joel, you should be able to do this! How heavy could the thing be? It wasn't even intact. But his muscles felt like jelly. Catnap aside, he hadn't slept... hadn't eaten anything... in more than two days. He could ignore the pain... push through it... but he couldn't do anything with jelly. He sighed in frustration. It was no use speculating if he could've moved it with his full strength or not. Hang on, Ellie, just let me go take a nap and eat a can of soup and I'll be back later. Try not to die in the meantime.
"What if I help?" Sophie offered.
"Still can't." He wasn't even going to waste his time on that. He'd heard of people in life or death situations performing superhuman feats like lifting cars and shit like that, but it sounded like bullshit to him. "An' there's prob'ly jus' more crap behind there anyhow... I'm gonna see if I can get in from the second floor. Keep tryin' to talk to Ellie, would you?"
Joel could go up a floor easily enough, and there were some holes in patches here and there, but nothing that clearly led to the interior of that rubble. Frustrated, he scrambled back down and around to where they'd heard Ellie. "Did you talk to her?" he asked Sophie.
"She's not answering!" Sophie had tears in her eyes. "What are we gonna do?"
Joel's half-hour-dead thought flitted through his mind, and he shoved it aside. It had been like ten or fifteen minutes now since they'd heard her. "Hang on, Ellie! Stay with me, all right? Jus' have to figure out how to..." ...get in there without crushing you... He turned to Sophie. "I don' wanna jus' start diggin' all willy-nilly an' make shit fall on her. I think I gotta start from the top... somewhere..."
"I'll help you! Where?"
"I think... from the second floor. Go get me the ax. Hurry!" One of the motherfuckers he'd killed had had one, and it was with their little arsenal up in Sophie's 'bedroom.' While he was waiting for her to return, he studied the debris. He wanted to choose the ideal spot to hack through the floor, in the hopes that the hacking wouldn't be helping him dig out Ellie only to make the entire second floor collapse into the first. He'd gone through this building several times already, and it appeared to have settled into a fucked-up stability at some point like the hospital across from it had, although it wasn't leaning as severely. But that didn't mean he couldn't threaten that stability... he had to be extremely careful.
He kept calling to Ellie while he waited as well, trying not to feel discouraged when she didn't answer him. This was the closest he'd been to getting her back safe and sound in two days, and he actually had a plan now, instead of just haphazard aimless wandering. She has to be okay, she HAS to be okay, she has to be...
It took Sophie approximately forever to return with the ax, even though he knew she'd been moving as fast as she could. She wanted to come up and help him, but he told her to stay down there and keep talking to Ellie -- and to watch out for falling shit.
He could chop through the floor, but not through the chunks of brick he encountered beneath the floor. And... some scrunched metal objects, furniture of some kind... like lockers or filing cabinets... nothing he could lift up to start clearing a path below. This ain't going to work!
Then he had a crazy idea. Actually, not crazy -- brilliant.
He pitched it to Sophie, and she seemed skeptical. "But if it's so heavy... could Poppy actually pull it?"
"Yes! Horses are real strong. An' I really think that machine is the key... that there might be a way to get to her behind that. Maybe pull some of that other shit out on this side. It's worth a try, ain't it?" And he'd just picked up a fair amount of rope from scavenging, too! "Go get the horse, I'll go get the rope." He called over his shoulder, "I'll be right back, Ellie! Hang on!"
He ran across the street and bolted up the fire escape like he was running for his life; in a way, that's sort of what he was doing. He didn't feel tired at all now, running on pure adrenaline. He grabbed the rope, then hauled ass back to Ellie, moving so quickly that he startled Poppy when he got back down there.
He would rather have tied the rope around the belly of the vending machine, but he couldn't lift that fucking thing, so he had to settle for tying its length. It was good, sturdy rope, but would it be enough to hold? He didn't know the best way to hitch it to Poppy, either; he was sure it wasn't that comfortable for her, the way he'd done it, but he promised her it was only for a very short while, and while he didn't think she understood him, her demeanor was calm... uncomplaining as ever. Sophie would be the one to lead the horse into pulling the weight. Joel idly wondered if he could have pulled it himself with the help of the rope, but his spasming muscles protested the thought, whereas he had no doubt the horse could do it.
He looked everything over. Poppy was positioned at the midpoint of the machine. Joel would try to help ease the thing over the broken patches of concrete if needed. "Okay, Sophie, all set -- go!"
To his relief, it not only worked -- the horse was able to tug the machine away from the walls and debris -- but he didn't think he'd need to get her to tow anything else away, because there was a hole there! A small one, but when he lay down on his stomach and shined his light in it, he could see it was some kind of tunnel. He couldn't see Ellie, though... "Ellie! ELLIE! Come on, baby girl, I think you can get out over here... if it ain't blocked... Ellie! Can you hear me?" he called to her desperately. Who the hell tipped that machine over to trap her in there?! And why?
Sophie rushed up to him. "Is she... ?"
"She ain't answerin' still." Joel pulled himself up to his knees. There was no way he could fit through there. And the mound of rubble still didn't resemble anything he could easily pull apart, like a pile of scraps or something -- it was chunks of wall and metal, beams and bars and 'building guts,' basically. He had to wonder how the hell that tunnel had been created. The blocks and beams and shit would have had to land just so -- no, he didn't think it was accidental. "I'm afraid if I try to move any of this shit, it might collapse an' block the way again. But... maybe if I jus' go slow enough to--"
"I'll go in there," said Sophie.
"...What? You can't fit in there..."
"Sure I can! I think? It'll be tight, but... I'm not that much bigger than Ellie, and she could fit through that, right? I mean, that must be how she got in there, isn't it?"
"I think so. But you're a bit... wider. No offense."
Sophie chuckled. "Only a little! I've gotta at least try, right?"
He couldn't argue that. Well, he could... he could point out that it was dangerous. They didn't know what had caused Ellie to become trapped, and how it had affected the rest of the area. The tunnel could collapse and crush Sophie, or trap her... but for Ellie's sake, he sure as hell wanted her to risk it anyhow. If the situation had been reversed, he never would have let Ellie go in there after Sophie. "Go ahead," Joel urged.
He watched as she wriggled her way into the tunnel. Her hips just barely cleared it, and she must have been scraping up against at least one side. But she was in! "Careful! Don't... don' hit the sides, if you can help it..."
And then he just stood there, helpless.
She came wriggling back out -- backwards -- way too soon. "It's too dark! I need a flashlight..."
Joel unclipped the one he was wearing and handed it to her. He knew Ellie didn't have hers... poor baby girl, have you been in there in the dark this whole time?! I'm so sorry it took me so long to find you... hang in there! Joel was sure he'd yelled her name from out here, at least once. Had she answered him, and he hadn't heard? But... I was LISTENING... maybe the wind drowned her out before... If he hadn't been in such a goddamn hurry to search every room of every building on every street in the area, maybe it would have occurred to him that she could very well be--
That's when it hit him -- because there was another time it hadn't occurred to him that she might be in this spot. Holy shit -- IT'S MY FAULT. I DID THIS. He'd lobbed that bomb down to the street, at the other end of this building... which might have been enough on its own to dislodge the vending machine, if the thing had been leaning so precariously, but one of those fuckers had had some kind of dynamite or a similar explosive on them as well, amplifying the blast... I BLOCKED HER IN THERE. OH GOD-- IF SHE'S--
No, don't think about that now -- he could ruminate to his heart’s content later. He didn't have anything useful to do right this second, but he needed his wits about him. He waited in sheer agony for Sophie to report something back to him. "Do you see her?" he called to her.
Joel waited impatiently through another ten seconds of silence. "What's goin' on? What do you see?"
"Um... okay, I see her! It sort of opens up in here after you get through the--"
"Does she have a pulse? Is she breathin'?"
"Ummmmm... wait a sec... yes! Yes! And she's not like, crushed or anything, Joel, she's... I think she has a fever... oh God, her leg... her leg looks really bad, but she seems... okay? ...if she would just wake up! Ellie, wake up!"
She's OKAY! Joel's heart sang in relief. "Okay! She won' wake up? Even if you shake her or somethin'? You got room to move around?"
"She... sort of mumbled a little? But no, she won't wake up. Ellie! Come on, girl, we gotta get out of here!"
The mumbling was good. He'd take it. "All right. If she won' wake up..."
"I can wait in here until she does."
"No! No, I want her out of there." Sorry, baby girl, but... "...can you drag her? Don' hurt her... do it careful-like... maybe that'll wake her up!"
"Okay... there's this annoying rod or something in the way--"
"Don't move anythin', Sophie!" He'd had enough close calls from shit like that himself. "You gotta go around it all! You hear me? DON'T MOVE ANYTHING!"
"Right right -- I get it! I'll get her out, don't worry!"
He couldn't not worry, but he was feeling much better, knowing that Ellie was alive, and not pinned under something, and had even stirred a little bit in the past couple of minutes. He started pacing anxiously, itching to do something but not knowing what he could do to make this easier. He tried to imagine what the scene might look like in there. "Pull her on her back, if you can!" he suggested. "And don' bang her head -- can you pull both her arms up... an' sort of cradle her head in 'em?"
"Take it slow... but hurry up!"
Yeah... maybe I've run out of helpful things to say. He began pacing faster. His body felt like... water. He was afraid if he sat down, he might not be able to stand again.
"Joel! I can get her over to the tunnel but I don't know how to pull her out! I can barely move... I can't... get any leverage to... uugghhhhh!"
Shit! Ellie was small, but she was completely dead weight, and Sophie wasn't that strong -- and if she couldn't even lift herself up at all, it would be difficult to tug Ellie through the opening she could barely squeeze through herself while laying flat on the ground.
"We'll figure somethin' out. Come on out of there, all right?"
Sophie wriggled out of the hole and started brushing herself off. Joel retrieved the flashlight from her and got down on his stomach to shine his light in there again. He couldn't see anything, since it wasn't a straight shot, but the putrid stench of an infected wound wafted toward him. He had to get some antibiotics in her system -- fast. Once the infection spread, it could turn deadly pretty quickly. Even though he knew he couldn't squeeze through there, he tried anyway. He managed to get his head inside, then just one arm, if he positioned it perfectly. Not helpful. His shoulders were too broad.
"I think we should try Poppy again," said Sophie.
Joel was about to agree when it dawned on him that they didn't need a horse's strength. "I can pull her out, if you can get back in there an' tie the rope around her." Water or jelly or whatever-the-fuck, surely he could pull a girl who probably only weighed like ninety pounds.
"Oh! Of course! Duh. I could probably even pull her with a rope, huh. Yeah, so... around her... where, do you think? Her chest?"
"Uh... yeah, under her arms would prob'ly work best. Or her wrists-- no, do her chest." He stood up and handed the flashlight back to Sophie, then stripped off his top layer of clothing -- a long-sleeved flannel shirt that would probably cushion Ellie's head adequately. His undershirt clung to him in sweaty patches, even though it wasn't all that warm out. He hadn't really been feeling the temperature for the past couple days, he realized. "Here -- find some way to tuck this around her head... tuck it into her shirt or somethin'... or jus' through her arms... I don' know..."
"I'll figure it out. So... the rope...?"
"We'll need a decent length..." Joel cut the rope that was hugging the vending machine and freed Poppy from the other end, leaving what appeared to be more than enough length to reach from the mouth of the tiny tunnel all the way in to Ellie, judging by the distance of Sophie's voice when she'd been with her. Ellie was so close... yet so far! "How are you with knots?"
"What, tying them? Eh..."
That wasn't very reassuring. "I'll do it, then you can jus' work it under her arms... it don' have to be the exact right size." But I've had my arms around that girl enough that I should be able to get the loop pretty damn close anyhow... Again, he tried to visualize what would happen in there... "We should get a blanket you can roll her onto. Like a stretcher." That should've been the first thing he'd thought of. His mind was racing, bombarding him with thoughts that he had to sift through and analyze their relevance. If I do something that hurts her more just because my brain is TIRED...
He sent Sophie to fetch a blanket while he thought and re-thought of what he needed to tell her about wrapping Ellie in it -- keep her back and neck straight -- hands at her sides -- no, on her stomach -- tie the shirt under her chin like a bonnet, not around her neck -- hook one leg over the other -- tuck the blanket around her tightly... Sophie returned quickly with the thick blanket from the hunters' camp, and he told her everything he could think of. She kept assuring him she'd be careful. Joel was most concerned about Ellie's head, since he didn't trust that he could keep it from banging into anything while flying blind. He laid it all out for Sophie, demonstrating the type of knots to tie, first with the chest knot -- which perhaps wasn't needed after all, but what if Sophie didn't secure the blanket enough and it slipped off of her? -- and then by securing the rope to the blanket.
I don't think she needs to tie any more knots, actually... if she threads the blanket through the chest loop, it should hold pretty well. Joel thought about doing a trial run with Sophie in the blanket, but decided it wasn't worth wasting time on -- he would send her in with extra rope and the knife, just in case, and then he'd just have to trust her judgment. She said she understood, that she could do it... and finally, he watched her begin to navigate the tunnel again, a little more slowly now with the supplies she had to roll or push in front of her, and the helpless feeling returned. Hang in there, baby girl... God, I'm so sorry... if I had known... if I'd looked out that window earlier, maybe, or... I don't know...
But he was here now. He could help her in a matter of minutes. All he could do for the moment was wait. Wait, worry, second guess himself, worry some more, and pray to God that they weren't too late.
~Continue to Chapter 39~