A few hours later, they'd found no clues to go on whatsoever -- and they'd checked out another Sands country club (Crystal Sands), which had turned out to be as deserted as the first (more so, actually, because it had no Infected). But there was something different about the place they were headed... it was Joel who saw it first -- or rather, he sensed it, somehow. They were following a rock formation close to the coast... Sophie on the horse, Joel and Ellie on foot. Joel beckoned Sophie over and shushed all of them, telling them to listen.
It was quiet for about ten seconds before Ellie said, "I just hear the wind and the ocean, like always." Sophie seconded this.
"I hear... ... ...the wind an' the ocean," Joel conceded. "Maybe nothin' else. But... I wouldn' be surprised if there's people on the other side of this thing."
"Normal people or infected people?" asked Ellie.
"Either one. Sophie, hang back a little... let me an' Ellie go ahead." He would have reduced that to only himself, but he knew Ellie wouldn't stand for that -- and besides, he didn't think he could bear to let her out of his sight with possible dangers lurking. This was the lesser of two evils, as he couldn't protect her when he wasn't with her. More likely than not, if some unseen sniper got a little trigger-happy, the bullets would fly toward himself before Ellie, buying her maybe just enough reaction time to save herself. Given the choice, he knew he would certainly take aim at some grizzly dude over a slip of a girl, even if she was armed.
He wasn't planning on getting shot today, though. He'd rather not deal with any flying bullets whatsoever. Hell, Ellie had practically burned her hand off for him -- he wouldn't put it past her to try to take a goddamn bullet for him as well. Even though she knows full well that ain't how that shit's supposed to go down... if she died, so would he, so her gallant gesture would be in vain. But he could prevent that scenario simply by doing his job. He surveyed the area in every direction, including behind them. "There's some kind of facility up there... up the hill..."
"A big one," Ellie remarked. "And a parking lot, over there... look, there's a minibus..."
"A shuttle. Looks like another fancy resort."
"Ooooohhh! Look at the sign!" Ellie exclaimed. "See it, Soph?"
Sophie squinted at the sign Ellie was pointing to. "My eyes aren't as good as yours, girl. Yet you're the one with the binoculars." And Ellie wasn't even using them currently.
Joel couldn't read it, either... it don't matter -- I don't think Ellie will be able to contain her excitement long enough to make us guess at--
"It says Golden Sands! SANDS! And Joel's spidey senses were tingling -- this could be it!"
Joel always found it amusing when Ellie referenced things from the old world that he didn't think she really knew much about (especially when she referenced them incorrectly; this time, though, she was pretty spot on). He saw the smile start to spread across Sophie's face. Before she could kick the horse into gear, he called to her, "Hold your horses -- literally -- we don' know what-- Ellie!" He lunged forward and grabbed her arm, catching her in the moment she'd started to bolt. "You, too."
"We have to go look in there, Joel!" she complained, jerking her arm free.
"We will. Cautiously. Even if these are friendlies, they might not take too kindly to us runnin' in there, guns blazin'--"
"Okay, well, can't we be cautious just a little faster?" Ellie started tugging him onward by the hand.
Sophie continued to let them take the lead. "It's okay. Might just be more Infected, right?"
When they reached the grounds of the country club or whatever it was, Joel borrowed the binoculars Ellie wasn't even using to see if he could see anything. The parking lot was straight ahead of them, the building off to the right. There was a circular drive leading up an incline to the main entrance, although there was an entrance on the ground level, too, nestled in the 'arms' of that drive. The ground floor doors appeared to be boarded up or otherwise blocked... actually, the second floor's did, too, but if the architecture was any indication, that was meant to be the primary entrance. He handed the binoculars back to Ellie. "Let's go up the drive there..."
"Is that a church bell?" Sophie mused as she looked at the... well, it had to be a church bell. It looked very out of place, strung up somewhat haphazardly between two gigantic palms beside the walkway. There was a rope wrapped around a... something jutting out from another palm behind the bell.
"What the fuck?" Ellie studied it, too, as they got closer. "Can we ring it, Joel?"
Joel was pretty sure he could hear the thrum of voices, of human sounds, as an undercurrent of the wind and water sounds now... nothing distinct. "Well... I reckon if we were thieves, we wouldn' ring the bell when tryin' to get inside. Maybe they'll reckon the same. Go ahead."
Ellie undid the rope and very enthusiastically rang the thing -- and the motherfucker was loud. Joel was suddenly reminded of the bell that had been ringing in that town in Colorado -- yet another time when he'd been looking for Ellie. He shoved the unpleasant memory back into the box it had sprung from.
She rang it a few times, then he shooed her aside. "Be ready to take cover," he cautioned. "Stay by that tree." He had his hand poised over the Shorty, but didn't draw the weapon; hopefully whoever answered the bell wouldn't assume the worst of him.
"I should wrap the rope back on the--"
"Don' worry about that right now. Both of you -- look around, 'cause I ain't sure where they'll be comin' from."
They waited... and waited...
"Should I ring it again?" Ellie wondered.
Movement in a window two stories up -- well, technically three, if you counted the story beneath them -- caught Joel's eye; it was the top story of the building. He saw a man... a man with bushy gray hair and a beard as long as Santa's. "Top left window, you see that?" Joel said to the girls. The man held up his index finger in what Joel assumed was a 'just a minute' gesture, because he abruptly disappeared.
"People!" Ellie squealed. She turned to Sophie. "If that was your brother, he sure got old fast!"
Sophie laughed nervously. "I don't recognize that guy..."
Joel figured the only place the guy could come out to greet them was the wrought-iron gate he'd spied to the south, but he was wrong -- the man walked out on the roof of the second/first floor, to the parapet. "Can I help you folks?"
Joel noted that the guy wasn't pointing a gun at them, which put him just a smidge more at ease. "We're lookin' for a man," he replied. Then he noticed the top of something that could have been a rifle, leaning against the parapet, within the guy's reach.
"His name is Alex," Sophie added excitedly. "Alex Larson. He's my brother. He was looking to join a group in Monterey, so..."
"Your brother, you say?" The man studied her for a moment. "What's your name?"
"Huh. I do believe that may be the right name, but Alex said there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell you'd ever show up here."
Both girls let out a delighted whoop. Sophie scrambled down off of Poppy, and Ellie practically jumped on Sophie by way of a hug. Joel wasn't ready to join in the celebration just yet; he kept watching the man warily. He didn't get a bad vibe from the guy... but still. Sophie could've given him any name at all, and the man could say it was the right one, that there was an Alex there...
"I had a little help!" Sophie explained. "I never could've done it alone."
The man looked the trio over appraisingly. "He didn't mention that you had yourself a man, though..."
Sophie laughed and disentangled herself from Ellie. "Oh, he's not mine -- he's hers."
Joel watched Ellie try -- and fail -- not to look shocked by that announcement. It made him raise an eyebrow himself.
"Beg your pardon. Alright, you just hold on a second and I'll go get him for ya. We'll come over to that gate on your left." He disappeared from the parapet.
"Why did you say that?!" Ellie stage-whispered to Sophie, as if the dude could hear them.
"It doesn't have to be like that," Sophie said airily. "I guess it sounds like that, but I mean... you guys are joined like family. Whatever way you wanna look at it, he's yours, not mine. I can't believe we finally did it! Omigooooooood you guys!" She tried to pull both Joel and Ellie into a brief group hug, but Joel resisted.
"Don' celebrate 'til we know for sure that it's Alex."
Ellie whacked him in the arm. "How many other Alex Larsons could there be, Joel? Relax already!"
"Maybe he's never even heard of Alex or Sophie. He didn' give us any information; we gave it to him." Which was smart of the man. Joel respected that. "It's prob'ly fine. We jus' don' know for sure."
"If he was gonna shoot us, he would've done it already, right?" Ellie reasoned.
"Or he could've invited us inside to get his hands on Poppy first," Sophie suggested.
"You're starting to think like us!" Ellie declared, laughing. She turned to Joel. "This is it, Joel, can't you feel it? This is it!"
Joel knew Ellie was happy for Sophie, but he was pretty sure she was also thinking about another possible benefit of finding Alex -- a more self-serving one. "Sit tight, kiddo."
"I'm not gonna sit, and I don't even know how to do that... tightly," Ellie teased. She wrapped her arms around Joel's waist. "So cuz of Sophie's little comment, is everyone gonna think you're my man?" she asked happily, looking up at him with a coy smile.
Joel hugged her close, but he still felt uneasy enough to stay alert and not let himself get completely distracted by her. "I think it's like she said... it could mean... whatever." Ellie's so pretty when she's happy... she's pretty all the time, of course, but when she's happy, it just completely lights her up. He forced himself to look back through the gate, and up at the parapet, and even that window on the top floor. "Maybe they will assume it, though. Maybe we'll let 'em. It's the truth."
"What? Are you serious?!"
He looked at her again... and gave her a quick kiss. "I don' know. Maybe?" He started walking her to their left, to get a better view through the bars of the gate.
Sophie walked with them. "Maybe if you don't even give people the chance to think you're father and daughter, they'd just accept it? I mean... it's kinda creepy to think of it like you're father and daughter and then somewhere down the road, it just... changes."
"Even though that's... sort of how it happened?" Ellie said, giggling.
Sophie snorted. "Yeah. But they don't know you. Even Alex doesn't really... Joel, you worked with him for like, what -- a month, before he left?"
"And I don't even remember exactly what he looks like," said Ellie. "I only saw him like once or twice maybe?"
"We didn' know each other well, no, but he definitely thinks I regard Ellie as my daughter," Joel remarked. "So I don' know what he would think." Or if I give two shits what he thinks... "First things first, though. Let's jus' see how this thing plays..." Before he finished that thought, a man came into view, running toward the gate from inside, with a woman in tow. This guy was younger than the one who greeted them... COULD be Alex...
"Oh my-- heyyy!" Sophie rushed up to the gate and grabbed the rungs, as if she could just yank it open.
"Sopieee!" the guy called as he too rushed toward the gate -- and now Joel could see it was indeed Alex. Sophie started chattering to him excitedly, not letting Alex get a word in edgewise.
"Did he just call her Soapy?" Ellie asked Joel.
"That's what I heard, too." Joel relaxed enough to put his arm around Ellie. His right hand was still a split second away from pulling a gun if needed. The young woman caught up to them, and Sophie seemed to know her, so Joel assumed she was the one Alex had gone looking for.
"It's over!" Ellie declared gleefully. "There's supposed to be a fat lady singing somewhere, right?"
Joel smiled a little at the memory of her face the first time he'd used that expression. "That's right."
Alex and the Santa guy worked the gate open, with some difficulty, as it was a rusty old gate and not electrically powered like Jackson's. As soon as it was open enough for Sophie to fit through it, she yanked her brother into a hug. Joel thought they might hug for a good long while, seeing as how they hadn't seen each other in months, but Sophie seemed to have had her fill of that after approximately five seconds, and she pulled back. "I should smack you, you know!"
"Here we go," Joel said under his breath as he heard Alex start defending himself.
"I would smack you if you did that to me," Ellie remarked quietly, though she needn't have bothered lowering her voice with the siblings conversing so loudly. "Leaving like that? No 'should' about it, either -- I'd just do it."
"You would? Damn, I guess I better reconsider my plans," said Joel, smirking a little... and resisting the urge to give her a kiss, as Santa had opened the gate a little further and was now walking towards them.
"Name's Raymond," he announced, extending a hand to Joel. "Call me Ray."
"Joel." Joel shook his hand firmly. "An' this is Ellie."
Ray offered his hand for Ellie to shake, too, which seemed to surprise and delight her. "Nice to meet you folks. Why don't you come on in -- bring your horse -- and I'll give you a tour while these two duke it out. Or kiss'n'make up. Whichever." The two were hugging again, so perhaps it would be the latter.
"Okay!" Ellie looked at Joel for a second, and when he didn't raise any objections, bounced over to fetch Poppy.
Alex extracted himself from Sophie's clutches and stepped outside the gate to come and clap Joel on the shoulder -- in what Ellie liked to call a 'man hug.' "Joel! Talk about above and beyond the call of duty. I never meant you had to..." He made a vague hand-wave-y gesture. As Ellie approached with the horse, he tossed a "hey, Ellie" her way. "I mean... damn, dude."
"It's all right. Ellie an' I were happy to do it," Joel assured him. No need to explain WHY we were happy to leave Jackson... it was nice to meet (or re-meet) people who hadn't heard any ugly rumors.
Ellie stopped leading Poppy to the gate and looked at Alex suspiciously. "You're talking about the trip?
Why would he have to?"
"Yeah, he didn't have to -- I asked him to," said Sophie.
"Well, sure, but-- -Holy crap. You didn't even tell her?" Alex laughed, dumbfounded.
Joel gave a little shrug. "You didn't, so I reckoned she didn' need to know."
"Know what?" Sophie and Ellie asked at the same time, which made them each giggle a little.
"Why don' we talk about that later," Joel suggested.
"Later!" Ray agreed. "After the grand tour. Right this way." They all filed through the gate after him.
"I'm coming, too!" cried Sophie.
"Hang on, now, we gotta close this thing," said Alex. "And it's a real bitch."
Joel could see that the gate was indeed a pain in the ass. The rusty hinges and the fact that it dragged on the pavement made it difficult to budge. "We could prob'ly--"
"I know," Alex cut him off with a smirk. "But they like it that way. When in Rome, I guess. Go ahead, though, I got it. I'll catch up."
"Rome? Aren't we in Monterey?" Ellie asked, but before anyone could explain, she was gasping and pointing at things in every direction, flushed with excitement. "I can hear the ocean from here! Are those all like houses down there? It's so pretty-- I don't remember seeing any of those pink flowers outside-- oh, you guys have horses! And a paddock! You don't happen to have a palomino that like... just recently showed up, do you? No, that's dumb, of course you don't." But she looked at Ray hopefully anyway.
"Can't say we do. Those two you can see there... those are the only ones we got. We should head that way first, get your horse settled."
"Can we see the beach first?" Ellie requested instead. "Pops likes the beach."
"That's the horse," Sophie clarified quickly. "Poppy, actually."
"Who else would-- oh, you mean like, Joel?" Ellie giggled. "He's definitely not my... papa."
Joel liked Sophie's suggestion of not letting people even get the father-daughter idea in their heads before making it clear what their relationship was... but that didn't mean he was eager to announce it to everyone, either. Plenty of time to sort that out later. "If you don' mind," he said to Ray, "I'd like to keep her with us for now. What with all the bags an' everythin'."
"Not a problem -- your life is packed up in there," Ray said agreeably. "On your backs, too, looks like. Changing course -- right this way, then..."
Joel wanted to tell Ellie to stay alert; they'd only been here a few minutes and she was acting like they were in Jackson. But -- it was refreshing to see her let her guard down (outside of the ocean, that is)... to see her become animated at the prospect of new people to talk to... and as long as he was watchful, it wasn't an issue. He certainly wasn't getting bad vibes from the place. If they were going to stay there for any length of time, he'd have to check the perimeter and see how secure the place really was, if there were any exploitable weaknesses...
Ellie eagerly drank in their surroundings, happily peppering Ray with questions she could barely wait to hear the answers to before asking more... she also drifted back to add to the conversation between Sophie, Alex, and Alex's girl, Nina... she grabbed Joel's arm to squeal about this or that (oftentimes just repeating what Ray had told her -- as if Joel hadn't just heard it as well)... she wanted to skip ahead to get to the beach... she was a bit overstimulated, to say the least. Where the hell is she getting the energy from? he mused. Joel took Poppy from her so she could bounce around more freely.
They walked through a very Californian courtyard, replete with palms and overgrown shrubs, glimpsing hotel suites on either side of them (Ray said all the bungalows were closer to the beach). The place had running water, no electricity. Joel was curious about that, but figured those questions would keep. And it was huge; they couldn't see everything that Ray referred to from where they were. Apparently, to their left was the paddock and stables, a chicken coop, and buildings that used to form a sort of interior strip mall, with shops and cafés, a spa, a gym... and to their right, a pool (another empty one -- and again, Ellie had to wonder why anyone in the old days would swim in a dinky pool when the ocean was right there), an entertainment pavilion... even a goddamn golf course. Only six holes, but still. Ray said it was functional, maintained with the help of a goat (Ellie squealed when she caught sight of said goat in the distance, chowing down on some weeds by the tennis court) -- although they didn't have many golf balls, so it was kind of a pain in the ass if you lost one in the rough because you'd have to hunt it down and retrieve it before continuing. This was the sort of establishment Joel never would have patronized in a million years, back in the day. The beach had a boardwalk that wasn't in as sad of shape as most that they'd seen along the coast, and the terrace where residents usually took their meals was just off of it, adjoining the main restaurant.
Ellie did bound ahead of them to get a good look at the beach, which she stared at for about ten seconds before bounding back to drag Joel by the hand toward it, chiding him for being so slow. "Look! Look!" she exclaimed when they reached the end of their path, pulling up against the railing beside a staircase that descended to the beach, some twenty feet or so below them.
They'd seen plenty of beaches by now... plenty of ocean. But Joel knew what Ellie was marveling at this time -- this one had people: plain old regular people -- not hunters, not Infected. Two kids building a sandcastle (or some variant thereof). A woman near the kids, lounging under an umbrella. Three people in the water. A couple of guys tossing a football to each other in the surf. Everyone down there made up about a third of their population, according to Ray. It was hardly what anyone would call crowded -- but it was something.
It's something, all right... Ellie looked like she could cry. Joel didn't exactly get choked up himself, but he wasn't completely unaffected. It was a scene straight out of a movie, or a dream. And though it was too early to know for sure what sort of place this was -- how safe it was, how welcome he and Ellie would be... especially after they know... Joel had a good feeling about it. Not just a not-bad feeling, either -- a good one.
Ellie turned and pulled him close to her so she could hug him -- actually, more so she could murmur to him without anyone hearing. "Joel, I wanna stay here for the winter. Can we?"
He chuckled. "How 'bout we wait for a dinner invitation first, kiddo."
She grinned. "Oh yeah, huh. Well... that's a technicality. Hey can I kiss you real quick before the others catch up? We're sort of hidden behind Poppy... okay, so not really..."
Joel held her face in his hands and gave her one sweet little kiss... a kiss that lingered a bit too long to be perfectly chaste. If they're gonna throw stones -- literally -- let 'em do it now.
Ellie was beaming at him. "Love you," she whispered before he lifted his head. He wrapped his arms around her.
Ray pulled up beside them first, as Alex was a few paces behind; Joel was sure they'd both seen the embrace. Alex started saying something Joel didn't catch because Sophie was shushing him with promises of "later"... Joel didn't look at any of them. Ellie, he noticed, was looking at Ray expectantly. Maybe even defiantly. Like "I dare you to tell me this is sick and wrong." Joel even found himself holding his breath, waiting for the man to lay into him... or whatever he was going to do...
"Gorgeous view from up here," Ray remarked. "Especially at sunset. You'll see at dinner. You're planning on at least staying the night, I take it? We'll get a place ready for you. What's your pleasure: north, south, or bungalow?"
~Continue to Chapter 43~