~Continued from PART ONE! READ THAT FIRST!~
They hit the road again a little sooner than he'd expected, just with more frequent breaks than before -- and with Joel sticking closer to Ellie. "I'm not going to just pass out and slide off the horse, Joel," she would scoff at him. But he didn't want her to overdo it, and since she was like a goddamn animal about hiding her pain most of the time, he had to use his best judgment.
At some point when they were alone, he had asked her about the singing, and she said she didn't remember any of it. Joel couldn't resist teasing her a little:
"That's how we found you, you know. We heard you singin'. You don't remember that?"
"Yep. You were singin' 'I Want Your Sex.' Which surprised me, considerin'--"
"Shut up! I was not!"
"You jus' said you don't remember. How do you know?"
"Cuz I wouldn't be singing that, that's how!"
"...You sound a little uncertain of that."
"No, I'm certain you're a fucking liar who's just fucking with me!"
"Aww, don' be like that. I love you..."
He thought she had been at least mildly amused, but she hadn't laughed... and she had withdrawn after that. She was quiet for so long that he almost asked her if she was mad at him (before reminding himself that it wasn't ~all about him~). He wasn't used to this new, muted version of Ellie... all she really needs is time, he would tell himself. Often.
Joel could tell when they were getting close to the coast by the change in the air. It was still chilly when the wind blew, but the crispness was gone; Sacramento had been a bit humid as well, sure, but San Francisco felt more so. Or maybe it was the fog that made him feel that way. It rolled in come morning, sometimes lingering into the afternoon. Ellie thought it was creepy. She said she was excited about seeing the ocean, and Joel hoped it would restore some of the childlike wonder he'd missed seeing in her lately. She said she was excited... Joel hadn't seen her show real excitement about anything in a long time. Not like she used to.
They'd seen a train -- a real, running, smoke-spouting coal train, which he knew she'd never seen before. They had watched it from afar, just to be on the safe side... he and Sophie were impressed. Ellie, not so much. He encouraged her to sneak in for a closer look, without the horse... she passed on that. Said it was cool, with no more enthusiasm than she might muster over a bowl of oatmeal.
They'd also spent a night in a minor league baseball stadium -- which, granted, wasn't anything special to Ellie since she didn't harbor Joel's long lost love of sports, but still, it was unusual... they may as well have been in another crummy old house, for all she cared.
Passing through some fairgrounds, he and Sophie could reminisce about carnival games and roller coasters... they tried to bring it to life for Ellie, who had never been on any of those sorts of rides -- Joel knew this from a conversation they'd had back in Jackson. As it so often did, thinking about all the things Ellie had missed out on by virtue of being born in 2019 -- things he knew she would love -- made Joel sad for her. She listened without really hearing them (he could tell when she was engaged and when she was spaced out)... until they passed a merry-go-round. She'd looked at it so wistfully that Joel asked if she wanted to 'ride' one of the horses -- and instead, her face had gone stony, and she insisted they leave there right now.
The night they'd stayed in a mansion, he thought surely she would be gawking at the cavernous rooms, the number of bedrooms, the obscenely large baths... he waited for her to pretend to be some rich person with servants. She used to play little games like that. Not just in posh places, either -- she'd done it out on the road, too. She had a way of making even the dullest things look a little brighter. But everything about her now was more... subdued. More somber. She still made snarky remarks, still joked around at times... she just... didn't play. Didn't giggle -- just like before they'd settled in Jackson last spring. He'd had to earn those giggles she eventually gave him, and now he missed them something fierce. She just plain wasn't showing her silly side these days. Joel wondered if it was gone for good.
Maybe he shouldn't expect the ocean to work any miracles on her, either.
Sophie begged to quit traveling along the freeways and just let the ocean guide them the rest of the way south. Joel was amenable to it, and Ellie didn't much care what they did. They didn't need a map -- or the Pacific Coast Highway -- to lead them south; even Sophie couldn't get lost with the ocean right there. Since it was Sophie's trip, he let her make the call... so, off to the nearest beach it was.
Ellie was feeling much better by now, at least. Joel could tell by her movements that she wasn't just faking it, either. Her physical wounds were healing decently -- which was a good thing, because he'd used up all the penicillin, and they weren’t likely to stumble upon more. She hadn't put her ordeal completely behind her, however. It saddened Joel that her panic attacks had all but stopped, before, and now they were back, occurring more frequently. Especially at night. She was like a child who's afraid of the unknown terrors lurking in the dark.
Being out in the open by the river hadn't helped the way Joel had thought it would. He tried to get her to talk about those two days, thinking that might help chase the demons away -- Ellie had always sorted things out better through talking -- but apparently, she'd said all she wanted to say on the subject. She did seem a little frustrated that she couldn't remember things, but Joel also believed she remembered more than she let on -- because if she couldn't remember any thoughts and feelings from the time she was trapped, why was her demeanor affected so much?
She was having nightmares again, too. Joel learned -- or re-learned -- the signs... when she was just sleeping a bit restlessly versus when she was having an actual nightmare. He tried to catch it and wake her up before it could get really bad, and then he would soothe her back to sleep. And she wasn't the only one having nightmares; Joel was having them more than usual now, too. He would dream about looking for Ellie, or chasing Ellie... never quite being able to get to her. Not like his mind was recreating the search itself, but every dream would devolve into some variation of that theme by the end, and it was pure torture. Once, his nightmare had woken up Ellie -- and Ellie mimicked what Joel did for her: she held him, stroked his hair, and cooed to him that he was okay... that he was safe. He thought that was cute as hell (and it certainly did soothe him back to sleep).
Sometimes she was moody... she would get unusually quiet, like she had on their first trip. That tended to scare him a little. When they traveled, they were relatively quiet anyway, which maybe didn't help matters, in her mind... she wasn't like Joel in that way. She thrived on talking to people... interacting with others. Introspection didn't suit her. Now, she never wanted to tell him what she was thinking, when he asked. 'Nothing' was her stock answer, sometimes amended with their 'nothing I want to tell you' phrase. Joel didn't push her. He missed the way she used to keep him up at night, wanting to talk while he just wanted to sleep (and actually, it seemed that he used to sleep better when she was talkative than he did now).
He wanted her to be happy, and had to remind himself they were damn lucky that she was even okay.
Today, he grew hopeful as they followed the signs to Rockaway Beach. The closer they got, the more animated Ellie became. She wanted to walk rather than ride the horse; she said she could keep up just fine -- and she did. With the first beach parking lot on the horizon, she actually started running, turning to look over her shoulder from time to time, yelling, "Come on!"
Sophie urged Poppy to gallop, and Joel reluctantly started running himself, which wasn't all that easy, considering how much shit he was carrying; Ellie had only her backpack. But he wasn't entirely reluctant -- he wanted to see her face when she got her first good view of the ocean, and he was excited that she was showing so much excitement over it (hell, he was also excited to see that her leg was obviously functioning properly -- it was the first time she'd used it to run since the injury). "Ellie! Wait up!"
She paused to catch her breath, and then it was Sophie calling to them, "Vamonos, you guys!" as she rode Poppy right up to the end of a patio area, at the edge of the sand.
Ellie stopped only briefly. When Joel caught up to her, she tugged him by the hand. "Come on! It's right there! I can see it-- I can see... Whoa... Joel, look at it! Look! " She stopped and stared for a full ten seconds before speaking again. "The waves are like... I dunno... the gates of heaven spreading open or something. I can't even describe it!"
...The gates of heaven? Joel glanced at it, but the ocean would still be there in another minute. He felt more inclined to watch the awe and wonder blossoming in her face... the spark that he'd been missing so much, once again dancing in her beautiful green eyes. Can't deny that view.
~Continue to C41~