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Sunday, August 18, 2019
Standing at the bottom of the crater beside the subway cars, in the shadow of the tall buildings that loomed above, Ellie said aloud what Joel was thinking.
“Holy shit,” she gasped. “We actually made it.”
Joel sucked in a breath and looked around. “Everyone okay?”
“Yes,” Tess nodded. “Let’s move.”
They began the arduous climb out of the crater, making their way to the street above. Joel raked his fingernails against his bare arm. Moving through the bombed-out building had covered him with dust particles that now irritated his sweat-soaked skin. He cursed. The gritty coating made his tongue thick and mouth dry. It scratched his eyeballs when he blinked.
What he wouldn’t give for a swim in a clear cool pond.
After, he reminded himself. After he and Tess handed the girl over to the Fireflies. Then he’d find a nice large puddle of rainwater. He’d wallow in it.
And a soft mattress too, he thought, somewhere in one of those empty tenement buildings above… Somewhere in the outskirts of the city was a quiet room with a door and a decent bed to flop himself down upon. He could close his eyes and sleep for days - that’s how tired he was.
Ellie spoke, jarring him from his thoughts. “You guys are actually good at this.”
“It’s called ‘luck’,” Joel groused. “And it is gonna run out.”
They continued to climb in silence.
He considered the girl. Was she the key to putting an end to this hellish nightmare? Find a cure, wipe out the disease, rebuild civilization as the Fireflies fervently hoped? He snorted. Talk about pipe dreams. The whole thing sounded crazy. But then again, he’d grown so used to his existence he wondered if he could ever imagine life any other way.
Ah, but who cared, he thought to himself. In a few hours, the girl would be someone else’s problem, and he and Tess could take a long-deserved breather.
Maybe they wouldn’t return to the quarantine zone after dropping her off. Maybe they would live for a while like their contact outside the city. Find a little town some place where they could hole up. It was his own pipe dream, he knew, but with Robert dead and with the Fireflies riling up the military, maybe it was time to go someplace different for a while. Do what Tess said: lay low.
Lay low, he thought.
He reflected on Tess, how they’d met, the bond they shared. She was a strange mix to him, not quite a lover - he wasn’t about to risk that pain again - more of a sister than anything else.
She knew his wound and stayed clear of it, and for that, he was eternally grateful. She had wounds of her own, and his silent acknowledgment of the fact suited them both perfectly. She wasn’t looking for a lover; she’d had her pick of those and never drank from the same well twice. It amused Joel how she frightened her male admirers. No one messed with her, and it wasn’t because of Joel. It was because the girl could handle her own.
They had finally clawed their way back to the street and were heading for an intersection dominated by a large, red-bricked colonial building to their left.
Tess reached the intersection and stopped.
‘Which way we goin', Tess?” Joel asked impatiently.
“Uh…” Tess glanced around, trying to get her bearings. Finally, she pointed down the dark narrow street in front of them. “Capitol building's in this direction.”
They picked up their pace and Joel heard crickets chirping in the predawn stillness. They started down the narrow street but stopped. A large white truck had jack-knifed and was wedged lengthwise, blocking their path. Joel could easily make out the giant red lobster painted on its side.
Tess sighed at the obstacle. “How do we get up over this truck?” she asked with irritation in her voice. She was standing ankle-deep in a large puddle of rainwater. She looked around. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Joel turned his attention to the gaping hole ripped into the side of the red-bricked building to his left. He crept around to the entrance as thunder rumbled miles away. He slipped past the colonial pillars, up the front stairs, and passed through a doorless entry.
The human shapes standing in the darkness caused him to freeze.
There were three of them, hunched slightly together, moaning and croaking, almost as if they were in communion with each other. He glanced around in the darkness. He was standing in a lobby of some sort: the brass velvet rope stands against the wall gave it away. There was a counter and a few wooden cabinets, a bookshelf, and what looked like the hulk of a large mahogany push-cart squatting in the middle.
He thought now was a good opportunity to try out the Molotov cocktail he had found earlier near the body of the dead Firefly. He knelt, slipping off his backpack and retrieved it. He then fished a metal zippo lighter from his pocket, flipped it open, thumbed a flame, and lit the doused strip of cloth hanging from the bottle’s mouth.
The flame grew large and bright in his hand, and then he took aim, hoping to land the bottle in the middle of where the three stalkers stood. He tossed it in a lazy arc, and when it smashed against the floor, the volatile liquid spread and caught fire, and instantly the three shapes were bathed in flames.
They screamed and writhed as the searing inferno consumed them. It was a gruesome sight, seeing them die in a literal baptism of fire. But, Joel conceded, at least their suffering was finally over.
To his surprise, the fire didn’t spread but died out quickly. It must’ve been due to the several gaping holes in the walls and the cracks in the ceiling; the entire room was rainsoaked through and through. He went around the smoldering bodies, coughed from the smoke of the glowing embers, and searched through the few cabinets for supplies.
Ellie appeared in the gap where the wall used to be with her hand over her mouth. “Jeesh,” she muttered, staring at the smoking mounds. Tess appeared behind her.
“They’re recently infected. Those soldiers must have just turned,” she told the girl.
“Which means there’s more in the area,” Joel added. “We gotta go.”
He hurried to the wooden pushcart, grabbed the slime-covered handle and pushed it to where Ellie was standing. She stepped aside, and Joel wiggled it outside, pushing and pulling it toward the truck. Finally, he had it in place.
He was the first one up the side of the truck. When he reached the top, he stopped to have a look. From where he stood, he had a good view of what lie ahead. The dark clouds had parted, and a tip of the white moon peeked over a building in the far distance.
His heart sank. Not more than fifty yards away, the overhead walkway connecting the buildings had collapsed and now formed a barrier blocking any egress down the street. He dropped down the other side anyway, hoping there was another way.
Tess and the girl were right behind him, making their way up and over.
The side panel of the truck was open; Joel turned on his flashlight and ducked inside to have a look. Something slick reflected the beam and he bent down to scoop it up. It was a torn page from a medical pamphlet that had been widely circulated at the start of the infection.
A helluva lot of good it did, Joel thought, shaking his head.
Tess and the girl had gone ahead, moving toward the barricade. He jogged to catch up. Now Tess had her light on and was shining it against an enclave in the wall to her left.
“Joel, over here,” she called out in a hushed whisper.
As he approached, he saw the chain first, then the closed metal door beside it. “Maybe we can cut through here,” he said.
“Yeah, that worked out great last time,” Ellie said abruptly. Tess shot her a look. “Sorry,” she said with a meek shrug. “I’m just saying.”
Joel gripped the chain firmly with both hands and pulled. It made such a noisy racket that he grimaced, knowing he was giving away their position.
It was too late to stop, and even though he thought he heard something in the distance, he kept tugging. Progress was slow but he kept at it, pulling one hand over the other, grunting from the effort. He felt Tess’s hand touch his shoulder.
“Shh,” she hissed.
He froze, straining not to let the chain slip.
“What?” he asked in a hushed whisper. “I don’t hear anything.” He may not have heard it, but Tess’s hearing was better than his.
“Okay,” she said, motioning quickly with her hands. “Double-time.”
Joel resumed yanking down the chain, trying to move faster. With every inch, the door got heavier, and he was struggling to maintain his grip. “Oh shit,” he cursed, as the sounds grew louder. He put his all into it, focusing on nothing else but opening that goddamn door.
“They’re coming,” Ellie gasped, looking at Joel with panic in her eyes.
“I know,” he shouted. He grimaced and pulled and pulled and pulled.
“Okay, that’s good, that’s good,” Tess said quickly. She grabbed Ellie by the collar and pushed her toward the door. “Go!”
His hands still gripping the chain, Joel glanced over his shoulder and saw the arms flailing in the shadows. The sound of their groans told him they were almost upon them.
Tess and Ellie slipped under the small gap under the door and he saw fingers emerge from the other side, gripping the bottom, lifting it for him. Tess shouted, “Okay, Joel!” and he released his own grip and moved to slip underneath.
He was tugged backwards.
He felt hands gripping his backpack, arms wrapping around his legs. He tore himself loose and rolled underneath just as the girls released their grip. The heavy metal door closed with a thundering crash.
Joel was quickly on his feet, backing away. The room echoed the sound of bodies throwing themselves against the metal door, banging, screaming and moaning, desperate to seize their prey. Ellie and Tess were beside him, backing away as well.
After a moment, the maddening noise subsided. Ellie tapped Joel’s shoulder and pointed.
“Uh, you got something on your shoe.”
Joel looked down. In a circle of light he saw a severed hand that had refused to let go of his boot. He grunted with disgust and shook the disembodied limb free. It landed with a cold slap against the concrete floor.
“Gross,” Tess said.
They collectively exhaled a sigh of relief, glad to be safe, and together they turned to see where they were. The crisscrossing beams of their flashlights revealed that they were now standing in a small warehouse of some sort. A large transportation truck sat with its back bumper against a loading dock.
“Okay,” Joel said with another sigh. “How do we get out of this place?”
Tess was busy searching for the answer. “Let’s find out,” she said.
Joel walked along the length of the truck and hoisted himself onto the dock. All he saw were wooden crates lining the back wall. What he heard was a conversation between Tess and the girl:
“So Marlene thinks you’re immune?”
“Well, that’s what she believes.”
Joel held his tongue. Against another wall, beside a gray metal door, he spotted a workbench with a light attached to a car battery. He went to it and discovered with satisfaction that the thing still had juice.
“Here we go,” he said. He slid off his backpack in preparations to make improvements to his kit.
“Well, how were you bitten?” Tess persisted. “I mean, you must've been somewhere you shouldn't to find an infected in the zone.”
“Yeah, I'd sneak out. I was in this military boarding school.”
“You'd sneak out?” she asked, her voice incredulous.
“You know, explore the city. I was in the mall when I ran into infected.”
“That place is completely off-limits,” Tess told her. “How the hell did you get in there?”
“I... had my ways,” Ellie said. “Anyways, one of those -- what you guys call runners -- bit me. And that was that.”
“I see,” Tess said. She didn’t reveal anything from her tone, but Joel knew the wheels were spinning, truing up the pieces.
“Were you with Marlene when you were bitten?” she asked.
“No. I went to her for help afterwards.”
“Knowing her,” Tess chuckled, “I’m surprised she didn’t shoot you.”
“She almost did.” Ellie sighed. “Hope she’s alright.”
“I told you,” Tess said sharply. “She’s gonna be fine.” Now Joel chuckled to himself. If the girl hadn’t guessed it: when Tess said something, she meant it.
Satisfied with his modifications, Joel flicked the battery-powered light off and slipped his pack back over his shoulders. He tried the door next to the bench and to his relief, it opened. He went through and the girls followed him.
They were in a dark storage room. He saw a long desk with a computer on it, lots of boxes and crates. A foul odor hung in the air. The walls were covered with posters and corkboards and other miscellaneous office junk. White fragments of broken ceiling tiles littered the floor.
The room had two other doors. Joel went to the one on his right and opened it. He entered another office room like the one he had left. There were a few desk drawers and he search through each of them.
He saw another door and went through it and entered a larger room. Part of the floor above had collapsed. The air here was heavy with mildew and rot. There was no other unchecked exit from the room, so he moved to the base of the collapsed wooden floor and slowly made his way up.
Rainwater poured down from above. The unbroken section of the floor sagged under its own weight. Joel wasn’t sure it would support him, so he stepped on it gently, testing it with the pressure of his foot.
His focus was broken when he heard a small crash behind him and then heard the girl curse in response. He spun to see what it was and caught her guilt-ridden face in the beam of his light.
“Sorry, sorry” she said, raising her hands. “That was me.”
“Tess,” Joel cursed, looking at the girl.
“Sorry,” Ellie said again, for the third time.
“C’mon.” Tess led the girl away from Joel’s angry glare. “Stay close to me.”
He took a deep breath and resumed studying the floor above him. He reached up and tested the sturdiness of a section of the wooden floor and, feeling satisfied, lifted himself up.
Through a set of open double-doors, he spied a hallway with a well-worn, blue carpet running down its center. More open doorways fed off the hallway with shadows beyond. The walls of the hallway were white; dingy chair rail molding ran along its length.
He went through the double-doors, turning to his right down another hallway. He immediately discovered that the way was blocked with fallen rubble. “Shit,” he cursed under his breath.
He turned to his left where another door stood cracked open. This place is a damn maze, he cursed to himself. He heard Ellie’s voice as she and Tess followed in his footsteps:
“What is this place?”
“It’s an old museum,” Tess informed her. “Some of these things are hundreds of years old.”
“Really?” the girl replied. “Wow.”
Joel kept moving through the rooms, over floors covered in debris. Whenever he came to an antique case or cabinet, he’d open the glass doors or slide the drawer open. Sometimes he found something useful, like a piece of sharp metal, or an oily rag. Most of the time they were empty, but in one he found a Firefly dog tag and slipped it into his pocket.
In one of the glass cases stood a mannequin dressed as a revolutionary war soldier. The figure was tilted, leaning halfway out of the broken glass, as if trying to escape. He ducked through a doorway that was partially blocked with wooden planks that had been nailed into place as a makeshift barrier.
He entered a room where the ceiling beams had collapsed, but he could see a viable path through the opposite door, and he crouched, trying to make his way through. Ellie and Tess kept close behind him.
The exit was again blocked, this time by a giant gray wooden beam, but there was a long four-by-four wedged underneath. If he could use the four-by-four as cantilever, he might be able to create a gap wide enough for the girls to slip through.
“Alright,” he said, gripping the four-by-four. “Watch your head.” He bent at the knees, keeping his back straight and lifted with a loud groan. The heavy wooden beam rose.
“Hurry,” he urged, straining under the weight. “Go, go, go.”
He cursed at the force needed, and just as Tess followed Ellie through, the cantilever broke in two and the beam collapsed with a thunderous crash, raining splintered wood particles and debris down upon him. He feared for a split-second the entire ceiling would come crashing down on him, crushing him underneath.
He gasped and blinked his eyes. Lucky for him, the ceiling held.
He heard Tess’s frantic cry from the other side. “Joel, Joel!”
“I’m alive!” he called out. Barely! He caught his breath, shook the dust from his eyes. “I’ll… I’ll make my way around to you.”
“Oh!” Ellie’s voice cried out. “Look, they’re here!”
“Goddammit!” he cursed. He couldn’t see what they were facing. “Tess?!” he cried out.
“Run,” he heard Tess tell the girl. “RUN!”
He heard the clicking sound and felt an icy chill run down his spine. “Shit,” he cursed again, pulling himself from the rubble. He had to make his back way to them.
He got to his feet quickly, staying crouched under in order to move under the low ceiling. His beam caught sight on an exit he hadn’t noticed before and he hurried to it, staying quiet. He slipped into stealth mode as adrenaline filled his veins.
He came out into another hallway.
“Tess,” he whispered loudly.
There was nothing but silence.
He moved down the hall, saw a door leading to an adjacent room, saw and heard the clicker simultaneously a dozen feet away, and without hesitation, pulled a makeshift shiv from his back pocket.
Without stopping, he moved through another open doorway and entered. The flashlight told him the room was empty. It looked like a concession stand, with a display counter for candy and the relic of an old popcorn machine.
He called out again for Tess and again there was no reply. “Shit!” he cursed.
He found the next door locked and he jimmied it open with his shiv. It was a small storage room and here finally his luck changed. He found ammo matching his pistol, along with a few other articles of value which he quickly shoved into his backpack.
He realized he had enough ingredients for another Molotov, which he quickly fashioned.
He left the room and headed through a door to his immediate left and found himself staring at the back of a clicker who was swaying drunkenly in the corner of the hall. Following his instincts, he spun back around and slipped through another open doorway behind him.
He found himself in a high-ceilinged room with a giant display at its center: a soldier on a saddle horse. All around him he heard the hideous clicking noises; the room was full of them. It could be that Tess and the girl were not far off, hiding like himself in the shadows. If he knew Tess, she was trying to make her way up, looking for an exit.
Unfortunately, the clickers roaming through the halls made it impossible to speak, so he had no way of knowing for sure.
He turned another corner, saw a doorway - had he passed here before? As he edged closer, a clicker jerked aimlessly past him, unaware of his presence. Again, he let the threat slip by. He wasn’t making any rash move until he knew where the girls were hiding, and he swore to himself he would find them.
As the clicker passed, he spotted a closed set of double wooden doors on the other side of the hallway. This was new, he told himself. He snuck across the hall and slowly turned the handle…
He found himself in an outer hallway with a stairway at its far end. Light from the emerging dawn strained in through mildew-covered windows. He quickly made his way down the white-walled hall, turned to his left and up the stairs.
When he reached the middle landing, he heard a sound. Pounding. He girded himself and continued up, fearing what he might find. There was another set of double doors, closed, and he reached out with one hand and carefully turned the handle. The door creaked open and he slipped through, finding himself in yet another long hallway, now on the floor above.
At the end of the hall, a runner was throwing himself bodily against a locked door, desperate with rage to get through. Joel instinctively released a sigh, knowing what it most likely meant: Tess and Ellie must be on the other side.
He lunged up at the creature, gripping its neck in his stranglehold, crushing its windpipe. He let the body fall aside just as he heard Tess’s frantic voice behind the closed door:
“Ellie, stay back!”
Gunshots followed, and Joel rose and kicked the door open, splinters flying in all directions. He busted in, drawing his revolver at the same time.
“Tess!” he yelled, looking around in panic.
He saw her desperately fighting off one of the infected. She managed to push it away and swing a heavy two-by-two at its chin, sending the runner reeling to the ground. She lifted the weapon above her head and brought it down hard, smashing the skull to bits.
He ran to her and relief filled her eyes. “I’m fine,” she gasped, anticipating his question.
She threw the splintered piece of wood to the floor. As he took a moment to register her face, he heard Ellie’s voice shouting from the other room:
“Guys, get in here!”
“The girl!” Tess exclaimed. She raced through the open doorway.
“Shit!” Joel cursed.
He raced into the room, could see the girl struggling with a runner. Both he and Tess raised their weapons simultaneously, knowing what it meant. He was careful to aim high, and in the next instant, bullets rang out in blinding flashes.
His shots landed on target, sending brain fragments into the air, and the body of the dead runner flopping to the ground.
Ellie was crouched low with her hands over her head. She quickly regained her senses and ran to Joel’s side. They were coming now, all of them, attracted by the sound of gunfire, and Joel without hesitation ignited the oily cloth hanging from the neck of the bottle in his hand.
He hurled the Molotov into the hallway just as the thundering footsteps arrived.
The left side of the room was set ablaze. The infected kept charging, and he fired into the flames, gunfire ringing in his ears. Down they went, one after another. Tess was firing madly to his right. He had no idea where Ellie was; he only hoped the girl had managed to get behind him.
When the last runner fell, the place grew silent. The room was filled with nothing but sputtering flames and lingering gun smoke. The only sound, their own heavy breathing.
Joel couldn’t believe they had survived. “That was too damn close,” he gasped.
With heaving shoulders, he joined Tess and Ellie over in the far corner of the room. They were standing in front of a window beside billowing drapes with a golden ray of sunlight angling in.
Tess was bent over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Ellie was standing quietly beside her.
Tess expelled a breath and said, “Oh, shit.”
Joel’s thoughts exactly.
The breeze coming in through the window felt good against his sweat-soaked shirt.
He looked over at his partner and asked, “Tess, how are you holding up?”
“Just a bit winded,” she said. She caught her breath and motioned to the open window. “This way,” she said, abruptly before slipping out. “This’ll get us to the roof.”
Alone with the kid, Joel looked at her. He felt compelled to say something.
“How ‘bout you, kid? You okay?”
“Define okay,” the girl panted.
“Are you still breathing?”
She wiped the sweat from her eyes with her forearm. “Do small, panicked breaths count?”
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “They count.”
“Alright.” she said. “Then I’m okay.”
Satisfied, he climbed through the window, went up the fire escape, and joined the woman standing at the edge of the rooftop. She looked exhausted.
“There she is,” Tess said, pointing toward the dome. “That’s our building.”
He turned his head to the horizon. Standing on the wide, corrugated panels, they had a clear view of the capitol building from the rooftop. Behind it, the sky was painted in a gentle pink and fringed by thin, purplish clouds.
The air felt cool and refreshing. It blew through Joel’s damp hair, it filtered through the tee-shirt soaked in perspiration.
Glancing to his right, he caught sight of the Firefly emblem painted in black on the brick facade on the adjacent rooftop. Someone had spray-painted a dripping white circle in its center, adding the impressing of a shining star.
Joel leaned over the metal railing and looked down. It was quite a drop and there were no exits in sight. They needed to make their way across, to the ivy-covered rooftop several yards away.
He looked around the rooftop on which they were standing. Over in the corner was a long wooden plank lying along the cracked concrete surface, not far from the rusted metal railing.
He went over and picked it up - it was heavy - and he carried it to the edge where Tess stood, still peering silently at the horizon.
“Stand back,” he warned her. She was jarred from her thoughts and stepped aside.
He placed one end of the plank on the railing of the roof and let the other end fall to the ledge of the building facing them.
“Alright,” he said, positioning it carefully. To Ellie, he said: “Now watch your step as you’re going up ‘cause it’s going to be a little --”
The girl looked at him and made a “pssh” sound with her lips. She walked past him and stepped up on the board without hesitation. Joel turned to Tess, but she just shook her head as if to say, “Kids”.
The girl walked across the board with her arms outstretched. Dust fell where the plank groaned under her weight. She reached the other side safely and hopped down.
Joel went next, and even though the girl wasn’t watching, he felt compelled to match her bravado. He’d done this a hundred times, but feared if he slipped now, he’d suffer the embarrassment worse than the fall.
He crossed and dropped down beside her. She was staring at the horizon.
“Well,” he said, motioning to the glinting dome and the pink horizon beyond. “Is that everything you hoped for?”
“Jury’s still out,” she conceded. “But man,” she sighed, “you can’t deny that view.”
He looked at her a moment and a vague feeling swept over him. It was equal parts warm and terrifying. He didn’t like nor understand it.
Tess moved past them. “C’mon,” she said. “This way.”
Something caused him to look down at the arms folded across his chest. His eyes went to the busted watch on his wrist, and for a moment, he was lost to himself.
“Hey,” Tess said with unnecessary hostility. “Pick it up.”
He was jerked out of the comfort of a distant memory. In its wake he felt a strange melancholy.
He followed her to the edge of the rooftop where the curved handles of a metal ladder stood waiting for them.
Tess suddenly turned to him. “Look,” she said in a serious tone. “We’re almost done. Stay focused.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, matching her tone.
They descended the metal rung ladder and landed in a small grassy landing enclosed on all sides by buildings. There was a set of concrete steps nearby with an iron railing that offered a way down.
“It’s right around this corner,” Tess said urgently. “C’mon.”
He noticed the girl’s slumped shoulders and sensed her exhaustion. “Keep moving, kid.”
They walked down the steps in silence.
They made their way all the way down, past three landings, until they finally reached the point where the stairs ended. They found themselves in a small grassy plaza surrounded by buildings. In front of them stood a walkway: a narrow gap between two of the buildings. Joel saw that it was blocked by a heavy iron gate.
They took a moment to get a handle on what to do next and that’s when Joel spotted the dark splotches of blood coming from the locked gate.
The trail of blood went past him, back toward the concrete steps they had just descended. He hadn’t noticed any blood on the steps coming down, so when he turned around and peered to his right, he saw that the trail disappear around the steps, and moving to follow it, saw that it ended in an area where garbage cans lay strewn.
That’s when he noticed the body.
“Look at this,” he called over to Tess.
A dead Firefly sat amid the garbage with his back against the corner of ivy-covered walls.
As Tess and Ellie approached, Joel saw the blood-stained note lying beside the man. He picked it up and read the typed words:
“ORDERS: Patrol the rendezvous area. Ensure no military presence before moving the girl to the next safehouse.”
Below it, written in cursive handwriting, the blue ink read: “Make sure the girl is well fed and in good health. Her safety is of the utmost importance.”
“There’s a Firefly logo on his arm,” Ellie said, pointing at the corpse. She stood beside him; her young voice filled with worry. “What if we get there and they’re all dead?”
“They won’t be,” Tess said sharply.
“But, how do you know?”
“I just do,” she exclaimed. Joel noted the odd look on her face and suddenly was filled with unease.
Tess sighed and released her shoulders. “Look,” she said softly to the girl, “it’s gonna be fine.”
“Okay,” Ellie said, lowering her head.
Joel heard Tess mumble something to herself. It almost sounded like, “It has to be,” but he wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, it didn’t ease his growing concern that something was amiss.
He turned his attention back to the exit.
The iron gate was the only way out and it was firmly locked. He glanced up and saw the wooden platform above it, just slightly out of climbing reach. Looking around, he spotted an aged dumpster near the base of the stairs.
He grabbed the handle and rolled it over to the locked gate.
It clanged noisily as he pushed it against the iron doors. Looking through the walkway, Joel could see that they only had a short distance to go to reach the street.
“Up and over,” he said, hoisting himself first onto the dumpster and then scurrying up to the wooden platform.
The edge of the platform had a yellow strip of caution tape nailed to it. Joel traversed the short platform, stepping over several old cans of paint. He dropped silently on the other side and turned the corner. The dome appeared just up ahead.
“There we go,” he said with relief.
Their destination was just a short distance away, at the end of a sloping wide lane where a few cars sat in rusted ruins. At the end of the lane spawned a large moss-covered pond which surrounded a roman-columned gazebo.
The building was late eighteenth-century, majestic in size, light brown, with handsome porticoes and balustrades in front. The pillars stretched from the steps all the way up to the highest floor. Capping the giant neoclassical structure was the bright gold dome that still retained some of its luster.
He headed down the middle of the lane, with a regal brick and iron fenced gate surrounding the capitol grounds on his right.
“Home stretch, Tess,” he said, his heart filled with encouragement.
They picked up their pace, being so close, with Tess hurrying to the lead. It was almost over, thought Joel; this perilous journey was soon coming to an end. He was anxious for it to be over, anxious to hand over the girl and rid himself of the persistent nagging sensation that had plagued him since leaving the quarantine zone.
There would be plenty of time to rest and relax afterwards, maybe even spend a few minutes bathing in that pond. He licked his dry lips. And then, after that, find a nice quiet hole to curl up in and fall asleep.
The girl’s tentative voice jarred him from his thoughts.
“Um,” she said, “just so it’s out there… I can’t swim.”
Tess grunted and said, “Look, it looks like it’s shallow on the right side. Follow me.”
They entered the murky green water and Joel braced against the sudden chill. A gray mist hovered over the pond as they waded past the car roofs that were still visible.
“I’m glad Marelene hired you guys,” Ellie said abruptly.
“What do you mean?” asked Tess.
The water reached Joel’s waist and he shivered from its bite.
“I know you guys are getting paid for this, but…” she hesitated, “I’m trying to say thanks.”
“Yeah,” Tess replied. “Sure thing.”
Swishing through the pond, with their arms above the water, they made their way past a delivery truck of some kind, slipped past a partially submerged Yellow Cab, and finally emerged sopping wet on the wide set of steps leading to the majestic front doors.
The sun had cleared the horizon, and now, walking up the long steps, Joel welcomed the warmth of its rays on his back.
Being so close to the end of their journey, they hurried up the steps, passing short, square columns of stone. The base of the pillars was covered in thick, spongy moss. Just ahead lie the entrance columns and double doors. The surrounding area was eerily quiet.
They reached the pillared entrance, Tess first, and they looked around. No other living soul was in sight; they heard absolute silence. Without a word of preamble, Joel placed his hand on the doors and pushed them open.
Immediately his heart sank.
“No,” came Tess’s strangled cry behind him. “No, no, no.”
Spread out on the cracked floor of the main hall lay the bodies of three Fireflies. Each had fallen in gun battle, and each lay motionless in a wide pool of their own dark blood.
Joel saw the look of confusion on Ellie’s young face and he sighed. All this way for nothing.
Now, what the hell were they going to do?
Tess scampered to one of the bodies on hands and knees, oblivious to the congealed blood that soon covered her hands and knees. She frantically searched a body as Joel hovered over her, watching dumbfounded.
Ellie looked up at Joel and raised her shoulders: “What happens now?”
He sighed. He didn’t want to be the one to have to tell her.
He walked over to Tess, saw her frantically going through the pockets of a dead Firefly, her hands and arms painted red.
“What are you doing, Tess?”
“Oh god,” she panted frantically. She scurried on all fours to the next body and started another search. “Maybe they, ah, maybe they had a map or something to tell us where they were going.”
Joel was taken aback by her actions. “How far we gonna take this?” he asked with exhaustion.
She jerked her head and stared up at him. “As far as it needs to go.” She glanced quickly over at the girl. “Where was this lab of theirs?” she asked in desperation.
Ellie seemed caught off-guard. She shook her head. “Uh, she never said. She only mentioned that it was someplace out west.”
Joel again leaned over Tess as she searched a body looking for some sliver of hope. “What are doing here?” he asked. “This is not us.”
“What do you know about us?” Tess spat, rising to her feet. She stared at him hard. “About me?”
“I know that you are smarter than this,” he said firmly, pointing down at the dead body lying at her feet.
“Really?” she said, cocking her head at him. There was an odd cruelty in her voice. “Guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time.”
“No,” he shouted. “We are survivors.”
“This is our chance --” she continued, pleading with open, blood-stained palms. Joel interrupted her, raising his voice so that it echoed through the chamber. “No! It is over, Tess!”
She looked at him and shuddered, surprised by his vitriol. He took a deep breath to regain his composure. “Now we tried,” he said, his tone softening. “Let’s just go home.”
Tess looked at him and shook her head. With an uncharacteristic sadness in her eyes, she told him: “I’m not-- I’m not going anywhere.” She swallowed hard. “This is my last stop.”
“What?” he asked, trying to grasp her meaning.
She lowered her head and turned away. He saw her shoulders slump. “Our luck had to run out sooner or later.”
“What are you going on about?” He reached out to her so that she would turn to face him.
“No, don’t!” she screamed, knocking his hand away.
Lowering her gaze to the floor, she said softly, “Don’t touch me.”
Joel recoiled. He was shocked and confused by her words, her demeanor. None of this made any sense. And then he heard the girl speak behind him.
“Holy shit,” Ellie gasped.
He turned and saw the young girl’s face turn ashen white. She looked at him and nodded slowly at Tess.
Bewildered, Joel turned back to his partner.
“Joel…” Tess stuttered, her moist eyes rising to meet his. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Let me see,” he said, as a hard lump formed in his throat.
“I didn’t mean for this…”
“Show it to me!” he ordered.
She reached up with one hand, grabbed the collar of her shirt, and yanked it to one side.
Her collarbone was clearly broken, the skin punctured. Surrounding the wound were deep red gashes trickling with blood. She hadn’t just been bitten; her bone had been broken in two.
And she had never said a word about it.
Joel felt consumed by fire, a flash of white searing heat swept over his body.
“Oh christ,” he gasped.
Tess, his friend, his partner… the only thing in this world worth caring about… She had been mortally wounded, brutally, and he hadn’t even realized it.
“Oops,” she said. “Right?”
He turned away, swallowing the lump.
Tess rushed to the girl. “Gimme your arm.”
She grabbed the girl’s wrist, dragging her along with it, over to Joel to confront him.
“This was three weeks,” she said, pointing at the scarred wound. “I was bitten an hour ago and it’s already worse.”
He tried to turn away again, but she wouldn’t let him.
“This is fucking real, Joel. You’ve got to get this girl to Tommy’s. He used to run with this crew, he’ll know where to go.”
Joel reeled on his heels. “No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. He jabbed a finger at her: “That was your crusade,” and then at the girl: “I am not doing that.”
“Yes, you are,” she told him.
“Look,” she said, moving in close, close enough he could feel her breath on his cheek. Her hands rose to him and she spoke to him in a hushed whisper: “There’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me.”
She pointed at the girl and said firmly. “So you get her to Tommy’s.”
A noise from outside made her curse and she spun to face the door: the sound of a vehicle screeching to a halt outside. There was no time…
Tess ran to the window, stood on her toes to peer out.
“Watch the exit!” Joel heard a soldier cry out. The order was followed by the sound of shouting, boots smashing the ground, the metallic click of weapons being armed.
Joel didn’t have to see outside to know that a truckload of soldiers had just arrived.
“They’re here,” Tess said calmly, her gun drawn. She turned and stared at Joel.
“Dammit,” he cursed under his breath.
“I can buy you some time, but you have to run.”
“What?” Ellie asked, incredulous. “You want us to leave you?”
Without hesitation, Tess said “Yes,” and nodded.
Joel started. “There is no way that --” he began, but Tess cut him off.
“I will not turn into one of those things,” she told him.
Sensing his hesitation, she moved in on him. “C’mon,” she whispered. She looked pleadingly into his eyes. “Make this easy for me.”
And for the first time in his life, he saw something he’d never seen before…
Tears filled her eyes.
“I can fight,” Joel said, his voice cracking.
“No, just go!” she shouted through her tears, shoving him away. “Just fucking go!”
He gave her one last look. Without shifting his gaze, he croaked, “Ellie --”
“I’m sorry,” Ellie rambled. “I didn’t -- I didn’t mean for this.”
“Get a move on,” he scolded her, fighting back his own tears. He still hadn’t released Tess from his gaze.
When Ellie hurried past him, Joel slowly followed, walking backwards, his eyes still locked on Tess. It was the last time he’d ever see her alive, and he didn’t want to turn away, not until he absolutely had to.
He finally turned and hurried after the girl, wiping away the wetness from his eyes, knowing he’d left Tess to die on her own, to sacrifice herself so he and the girl could escape, and he was crushed by the guilt.
Heavy footsteps rushed to the steps of the entrance. Tess watched as Joel and the girl dissolved into the shadows and were gone, and then she exhaled a long-suffering breath and her shoulders relaxed. A strange calm came over her as she turned to face the doors.
“We know you’re in there!” a soldier’s voice cried out. “Drop you weapons and come out with your hands up.”
She stepped backwards toward the center of the room, taking up position, raising her weapon. She took a deep breath; a quiet peace filled her in the solemn stillness of the cathedral-like building. If she had to die, this was as good a place as any.
She steadied both hands on the weapon, cocked her head to one side, and aimed the muzzle at the opening door.
I grew up in Plano, Texas. Entered the US Army when I was seventeen, right out of high school. I worked in a factory for six years building communication shelters for the military. Did a brief stint as a flight attendant for TWA. Worked for a bank a few years.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
They were standing on a grassy slope near a broken overpass, the sky above them dark. The rain had stopped and a black stream raced along the edge of where they now stood, water racing past the rusted hoods of long abandoned cars. Streams cascaded here and there from the cracks and crannies in the broken bridge above.
Joel held his breath, listening for movement above. Hearing nothing but the rush of water, he said, “They’re gone,” and released the pent-up air in his lungs.
With no soldiers in sight, the tension in Joel’s shoulders eased. Still, something continued to pester him, a nagging sense of unresolved danger that had plagued him since entering the sewer.
He glanced over his shoulder, saw the young girl plant herself on a rock, her head down, body bowed. That was the source of his irritation. The girl. She was infected and she knew it. He’d seen the wound. She was a ticking timebomb, a walking corpse waiting to strike.
But the wound wasn’t fresh… and she seemed unconcerned... How could that be?
She fidgeted nervously on the rock as Joel tried to fit the pieces together. It didn’t make sense. If Marlene was trying to trick them… why had she gone to such elaborate lengths? Why would she go to the trouble of harboring someone infected? Why take the risk?
Tess must’ve been reading Joel’s mind. She went to the girl after shooting Joel a look which confirmed his suspicions. She took a knee close beside Ellie, and when she spoke, her tone was quiet and maternal, but her words were pointed. Clearly, she wanted answers.
“Look, what was the plan?” Tess asked. “Let’s say that we delivered you to the Fireflies, what then?”
“Marlene,” Ellie began, speaking breathlessly and gesturing nervously with her hands. “She said that they have their own little quarantine zone, with doctors there still trying to find a cure.”
“Yeah,” Joel said, arms folded over his chest. He shook his head. “We’ve heard that before, huh, Tess?”
Ellie shot him a hurtful glance, wounded by his accusatory tone. She forced herself to continue. “And that…” she looked down at the fingers that were twitching nervously and sighed, “...whatever happened to me is the key to finding a vaccine.”
“Oh Jesus,” Joel exclaimed, turning away in disgust.
Ellie clucked her tongue, her face red with defiance. “It’s what she said.”
“Oh,” he said, staring down to her, “I’m sure she did.”
“Hey, fuck you, man!” her young voice raged. She rose to her feet. “I didn’t ask for this!”
She stood defiantly before him, and Joel moved closer, letting his shoulders tower above her. “Me neither,” he growled. Tess rose to her feet and stood between them.
“Tess,” Joel pleaded, fighting to hold his temper. “What the hell are we doing here?” He motioned to the girl to make his meaning clear, but when he opened his mouth to continue, Tess interrupted.
“What if it’s true?”
He took a step back in utter shock and said, “I can’t believe…” He searched her face and saw the look of determination in her eyes. He turned away in disgust.
“What if, Joel?” Tess persisted. “I mean, we’ve come this far, let’s just finish it.”
Joel grabbed her by the arm, pulled her away from the girl and brought her to the edge of the rushing stream. His hand jabbed a finger toward the city, toward the dark buildings that loomed in the distance. “Do I need to remind you what is out there?”
Tess looked at him for a long, painful moment before glancing back at the girl. She nodded, as if registering his meaning and then turned back to him. “I get it,” she said.
And that was that. She moved silently past him and entered the stream, moving toward the danger that lie ahead.
Joel was flabbergasted. He took a wavering step back. Ellie slipped sideways past him, letting her smoldering gaze singe his eyes. Once their backs were to him, he sighed heavily and shook his head in defeat. The facts were in. He was along on this suicide mission whether he liked it or not.
Tess crossed the stream and titled her head up to an interstate sign that read East 90 hanging limply from the ruptured overpass. Beyond the concrete bridge lie the helter-skelter ruins of downtown: a jagged collection of skyscrapers and buildings that had all but collapsed upon themselves.
“This way,” she said. “If we cut through downtown, we can hit the capitol building by sunrise.”
Joel paused and looked up at the giant ruins silhouetted against the dark sky. “We hope,” he muttered to himself. He wasn’t having any of Tess’s optimism. This was a lost cause and he knew it. He merely prayed that when the final blow was struck, it would be quick, for his sake and the others.
He felt a chill wind pass through his damp clothes as he followed the two into the lifeless corpse of the city. Tess led the way, scurrying over the exposed car roofs partially submerged by the swiftly flowing stream.
They climbed up the concrete rubble of the ruptured overpass, moving over cars and debris, slipping past the torn curtains of gushing water, trying to keep as dry as possible.
In the wake of the departing storm, the air was fresh and cool, and Joel felt invigorated as it flowed through him. It was time to let go of his frustration before it clouded his judgment or hampered his reflexes.
They climbed their way up the ragged end of the overpass that was still intact and soon found themselves with a surreal panorama of the war-torn city. Tall skyscrapers loomed before them, some leaning on others for physical support. Joel registered their massive size. It looked as if Salvador Dali himself had the scene for his own amusement.
“Holy moley,” Ellie exclaimed in awe. “I guess this is what these buildings look like up close. They’re so damn tall.”
They entered the metropolitan area using the main street through the heart of downtown.
The street was broken and uneven; tall grass rose from the cracks. Looking down the street, Joel could make out traffic signals, lampposts and telephone poles. Lining the thoroughfare were the burnt wreckage of trucks, buses and cars.
Joel spotted something lying on the ground near a telephone pole and picked it up. It was a flyer: a FEDRA warning. An ominous row of bombs were printed in stark black and white, making its meaning clear.
“So what happened here?” Ellie asked.
They kept moving as Tess replied matter-of-factly: “They bombed the hell out of the surrounding areas to the quarantine zones, hoping to kill as much of the infected as possible.” She sighed. “It worked… for a little while.”
They kept advancing down the street, making their way to a huge crater in the middle of the road. Overhead, a bolt of lightning was followed by thunder. And then, out of the eerie silence that followed, a strangled cry off in the distance.
“Uh, what the hell was that?” the girl asked, just as Joel spoke.
“Tess, do you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Tess said, continuing forward. “Sounded pretty far away though.”
“Shit,” Joel muttered. Who was she fooling?
Tess led the way up a concrete ledge jutting over the crater to the right. She scampered up the edge, ascending quickly. The girl and Joel followed. “Are we safe?” the girl asked nervously.
Tess glanced back at her over her shoulder. “For now,” she said. She motioned for her to keep moving forward. “Come on.”
They had reached a narrow gap where the path had become wedged between two buildings on their right. Tess moved to the edge the crater. Below them stretched more remains of the war-torn city. Unafraid, Tess hurried to a jagged section of the ledge that jutted even further over the dark abyss. Tess, Joel reminded himself, had no fear of heights.
They heard rushing water below them, and above them the distant rumble of thunder. The storm was moving off. She took a knee and peered down.
“Damn,” Ellie said, moving closer to Joel. “That’s quite a drop.”
Joel wasn’t as bold as Tess and hung back a few feet, but he still got a good look into the blackness below. He glanced off to his right, through a gap between the buildings in the distance and his spirits lifted. A gold dome was silhouetted against the gray sky. “Well,” Joel said, pointing. “There’s the capitol building.”
“Yeah,” Tess sighed. She rose to her feet. “We need to get around this mess.”
“This is the downtown area?” Ellie asked.
“It was,” Tess replied. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the rush of rainwater. “Now it’s a giant wasteland.”
Joel looked to his immediate right and saw a narrow path leading in the direction of the dome. He carefully made his way along the ledge, then entered a stone enclave that had withstood the aerial assault. He climbed inside and went up and over another ledge. When he landed on his feet, he realized he was in a plaza of some sort, with the sideways-leaning building to his left.
He saw a row of trees in large concrete planters with wooden park benches beside them. He glanced up, and that’s when he spotted the silver medallion hanging from a nearby branch. He edged closer to have a better look.
“You find anything over there?” he asked over his shoulder.
“No,” Tess called back.
He grabbed a brick lying on the ground, took aim, and threw it at the medallion. The necklace broke free and fell. He went over and he picked it up - it was a Firefly medallion. It was a strange hobby of his, collecting the dog tags of the dead, and he had amassed quite a collection. He was always surprised when he came across one; they were often found in the unlikeliest of places.
The girl spoke up: “Should I do anything?”
“You just stay close to her for now,” Joel told her.
“Roger dodger,” the girl replied as thunder rumbled in the distance.
He turned his attention back to the building and saw a sign planted in the ground: The Goldstone Building. Beyond the sign appeared tall dark shadows. An entrance perhaps?
“Over here,” he called to Tess.
He stood facing giant crumbling columns covered with thick green ivy and white dandelions. It struck Joel as an odd metaphor; life consuming death. Looking closer, he could clearly see a path through an opening where a pair of glass doors had once stood.
He moved inside. Thick vines and heavy foliage gave the impression of entering a jungle cave, but once inside the trappings of an office building gave itself away, despite the building being at an angle. Joel brushed the bushes aside and saw a gap where windows had once been, and he hoisted himself up, leaving the rushing water behind him.
“Hey, Tess!” he called.
“Comin’,” her faint voice sounded from the courtyard.
Joel flicked on the flashlight and approached a light brown door. The floor was tilted at an absurd angle, and he had to lean to his right to maintain his balance. He pushed the door open and entered the room.
Desks and debris were piled up in one corner of the room. The place smelled of mildew and rotting furniture, the walls were plaster-scarred. Whereas the air outside had been fresh and breezy, the air now was foul and breathless. The whole place smelled of death and decay.
Tess and the girl had now joined him, and they were going through the room, turning things over, looking for anything worth saving.
Joel noticed an open gray door to his right. He traversed the crooked floor and entered the hallway and froze. In the beam of his light, he saw the body of a dead soldier lying lengthwise against the wall in a pool of blood. The soldier was dressed in standard military blue, and his clothes were torn and bloodied. His vest and riot gear helmet were intact, but his face was a gooey mess. An ammo clip and several brass shell casings lay scattered around him.
Tess appeared at Joel’s shoulder. “He’s been ripped apart,” she said solemnly.
“Yeah,” Joel agreed. His tone conveyed what they both felt: this was an ominous sign.
“Body’s pretty fresh,” Tess said.
“Is that bad?” asked Ellie from behind.
“Yeah, might be…” Tess said. “Let’s not stick around.”
They needed to go through the building to get to their destination and the sooner they were out, the better. Joel ducked his head in an open stairwell and saw concrete steps leading up, the other way being blocked by debris. He climbed one landing and stopped.
Another soldier lay slumped against the wall.
“Another one,” Tess sighed. “Shit.”
The man’s left arm had been chewed off at the elbow. He sat, chin on chest, defeated; all around him were spent shell casings. His battle must have been futile, Joel thought, because there was no other victim in sight. Near him lie a metal clipboard with a yellow notepad attached. Joel bent down and picked up the pad. It was a Field Ops Log.
He sighed. There was nothing else to do but continue up the staircase.
As they reached the next landing, he saw a large number 5 hanging askew. He turned the landing and kept going up. On the sixth floor, he saw where desk and office chairs were piled up against the door, serving as a makeshift barricade. His intuition told him to go back down, back to the fifth floor, where an unexamined door had been left open. That’s exactly what he did.
Exiting the stairwell of the fifth floor, he saw yet another body and froze again, because it was no soldier. It sat upright against a gray metal door, glued to it by a spawn of dried fungus. The wall beside it was covered with vines sneaking their way in from outside.
Joel looked down at the body and cursed. “Goddammit. Clicker.”
A lot of fungus surrounded the body, once female, and it adhered to the metal door behind, welding body and door together. Joel approached cautiously. It was obvious that the fungus had turned to dry rot, so he was not hesitant to touch it.
Pink-tipped fungal plates protruded from the clicker’s head, obscuring the eyes and other facial features. It was a hideous sight, seeing what appeared to be human from the neck down, but inhuman from the neck up. The plates fanned out in a shell-shape, and in this case had grown brittle. The body which sat at their feet was harmless, but just looking at it sent chills up Joel’s spine.
As Joel bent forward to pry the corpse loose, Ellie noticed the plates. “Geez,” she said. “What’s wrong with its face?”
“That’s what years of infection will do to you,” Tess replied.
It took two swift tugs to free the body loose and when he was done, a cloud of dust hung in the air. Joel pushed the body away from the door and tried the handle.
“So what--? Are they--blind?”
“Sort of,” Tess said. “They see using sound.”
She nodded. “Like bats. If you hear one clicking, you gotta hide. That’s how they spot you.”
The door was stuck, and Joel put his shoulder against it and pushed. It gave after the second try. and he found himself standing into another room. They moved through this room and the others on the floor, checking desks and shelves, finding a piece of cloth here, some alcohol there. Sometimes they found pieces of scissors and metal shards. Sometimes rolls of tape. They eagerly snatched anything that might prove useful.
The building shuttered, like a restless giant. “Shit,” he exclaimed at one unnerving rumble. “Whole building feels like it’s about to fall apart.”
“Watch your head.”
Every time the building groaned, office chairs would roll across the floor as if occupied by ghosts. The effect was nerve-wracking. Joel heard Ellie struggling to maintain her calm. “Totally cool,” she spoke to herself. “Everything is totally cool.”
Upon confronting another stuck door, Joel motioned to Tess. “Gimme a hand with this.”
The two shoved once, twice, and finally the door gave, sending them reeling from momentum through the doorway. A heavy metal cabinet had been shoved against the door and now it clamored loudly down a gaping hole in the floor. Joel’s attention was momentarily distracted by the noise, and before he knew it, the clicker had its claws on him. It was only Tess’s frantic shout as she drew her gun that caused Joel to spin and raise his arms. The clicker pinned Joel to the ground, desperate to rip him to shreds.
With a grunt, Tess kicked the clicker aside, placed a heavy heel on its chest and fired two bullets into its brain at blank range. Joel struggled uneasily to his feet, breathing hard. “Thanks,” he managed to say.
Ellie, standing by the open door, stared at Joel in shock. Her face was white with terror. “You alright?” she asked.
“It’s nothin’,” Joel said, swallowing a gulp of air and wiping away a bead of sweat from his eyes. He pulled on his shirt, trying to create a little separation between the sweat on his chest and the clinging fabric.
“Let’s search for supplies,” Tess said.
“Shit!” Ellie said. “Oh, that was intense.”
“You said it,” Tess agreed. She exhaled a long-suffering breath.
They next entered a breakroom of sorts, with a faded yellow fridge lodged between broken countertops. They went through the drawers quickly, snatching up whatever they found. As Joel neared the broken windows, he could hear the rush of rainwater runoff from outside. The building shuddered again, and all three reacted, but by now they had grown used to it.
They exited back into the hallway which was sloped toward the hall’s end.
“C’mon,” Joel said. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
They entered a large room with a curved desk: a reception hall of some sort. The ceiling rose to match that of the floor above. Water poured from up above in a heavy stream down the center of the room.
“Up there,” Tess said. She pointed. “Look.”
His beam followed her finger and he froze.
“Oh, boy,” he said, at the same time Ellie said, “Yeesh.” They were all staring at the same grisly sight: a dead soldier hanging from the ledge above, his arms drooping down, one of his feet twisted on the busted railing.
Joel glanced around. There was a wide wooden stairway leading up to the ledge that had collapsed, and ivy covered the corner of the room near the windows. Strips of yellow caution tape draped from the edge. Joel treaded up the wooden steps, getting a better look at the fallen soldier. The corpse looked like the others: gashed and covered in blood.
Joel realized the gap in the railing led to a possible way out. He put his back against the ivy-covered wall and motioned for Tess. “Just see if there’s a way through.”
He made a stirrup with his interlaced fingers; Tess moved like a cat, springing into the stirrup and leaping upward with a boost from Joel. She struggled over the rail.
She stood, and the shadow from Joel’s flashlight made her appear as a giant against the ceiling above him. He could see her taking a careful glance around the room.
“It’s clear,” she said. She bent down on one knee and outstretched her hand. “Come on, Ellie.” She hauled the girl up first and then Joel. He clamored up, elbows and knees scraping the edge, and after several seconds of sweating and grunting, he was soon standing on the ledge beside them.
Before he had a chance to catch his breath, they heard something outside the hall. Ellie’s eyes widened with fear. “Clickers?” she gasped.
“Oh, shit,” Tess cursed. She grabbed Ellie’s shoulders, forcing her into a crouch, and pointed her in the direction of an open doorway to their immediate left. “Go, go, go.”
The trio ducked inside the doorway and hurried to get behind a table just as an orange, fungus-headed creature darted into the room. It moved in spurts, relying on sound rather than sight. It stood at the doorway listening just a few feet from where they hid.
Although they were deathly still, it jerked to the table, bounced against it, and Joel’s adrenaline went into overdrive. Ghastly grunts and clicks filled the quiet space, and Joel knew from the wretched stench that it was hovering directly over them.
They sucked in their breath and finally the clicker moved away. Joel watched as Tess reached for a bottle by her feet. She tossed it across the room toward another open doorway. The clicker spun, clicking and grunting, and followed the noise out into the hallway.
The three quickly moved, staying low and quiet, shifting over to an ivy-covered table to their left. They were near a section of a wall that had been gouged out and the opening was fringed with ivy. A breeze swept by them. Avoiding the debris covering the floor, Joel followed Tess and the girl around the table to the far corner of the room.
They continued around the perimeter, staying behind desks and office furniture, listening intently for the clicker’s return as it rumbled down the hallway. With its head bobbing like a chicken, it used its own echo to find its prey, but Joel and the others kept themselves moving away, and soon had reached the next corner of the room.
Tess tapped Joel on the shoulder and pointed. He followed her gaze and saw a large gap in the wall above a weathered, wooden platform. “That’s the way out,” Tess mouthed silently to Joel. “Over the scaffolding.”
Joel nodded. The clicker was still circling the far corner of the room and remained blind to them. It was their chance to creep silently toward the exit.
Tess climbed over the platform with Joel and Ellie right behind her. “Over through here,” she whispered urgently to Ellie. Tess dropped down, followed next by Joel and then the girl. They now found themselves in a stairway marking the sixth floor, with yet another dead soldier sprawled at their feet.
They took a moment to catch their breath and collect themselves. “I think that’s it,” Tess exclaimed. “Ellie, you okay?”
“Other than shitting my pants?” She swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m fine.”
“Let’s go,” Tess said with a jerk of her head.
There was only one way to proceed. Down. Debris blocked the stairs, but Joel circumvented the blockage by slipping over the rail to the stairs down below. A heavy filing cabinet had been wedged in the stairway and he took hold of it and pulled on it. It screeched loudly in protest, but with effort he managed to create just enough gap to slip through.
“Here you go, ladies,” he said, breathing hard.
“Alright,” Tess said. The two hopped down into the space Joel had created. “Come on.”
He climbed over the cabinet and followed them down to the fifth floor.
Ellie looked around and said, “This stairwell’s blocked too. Should we go back up?”
Joel looked at Tess for her input but saw her attention was on the window-washing scaffolding hanging outside the broken window. Without hesitation, she leaned out to get a better look, her hair fluttering in the wind. “Ahh, this is crazy,” she said aloud before vaulting herself into space.
She landed on the scaffolding and it rocked under her weight. She turned to Ellie whose face was white with disbelief. “Just don’t look down,” she told her.
“What?” she asked incredulous. “Are you serious?”
Moving with care, she followed Tess out onto the rocking platform. Joel was the last to go, and when he landed on the platform, the whole contraption rumbled in complaint.
They were now outside, hanging from a scaffold several hundred feet off the ground. Joel glanced at the skyline. The clouds had parted to reveal a bright moon beaming down at him. His eyes caught sight of the gold dome in the distance and he felt a sense of relief.
There was another scaffolding next to them, only lower, and Tess had already made her way toward it, followed by Ellie. When Joel jumped down, the platform buckled again, and Ellie shot him a fearful look. For a split second, he was afraid the damn thing would collapse. Luckily, it didn’t.
In a soothing voice, Tess urged, “C’mon, Ellie.” The young girl followed her.
Tess had already made her way off the scaffolding and was now standing on a corrugated ledge, sticking to the outer wall. The moon was full and bright and cast them in a silvery glow. Even the wind had momentarily died down. Ellie joined Tess at her side, repeating aloud, “Don’t look down. Just don’t look down...”
Joel moved along carefully. He was glad the rain had stopped and when he spotted the rusted cables that held him aloft, tried not to estimate how old they were. As he climbed to the building’s ledge, Tess and Ellie sidestepped their way around the corner and ducked inside.
He heard Tess giving the kid words of encouragement, like: “You’re okay. We gotta way through.” He hated to admit it, but for a kid, she seemed to be doing better than he’d expected.
When he had reached the opening around the corner’s bend, he exhaled and said, “Oh boy.” He entered the broken window and realized they had made their way to the stairwell on the building’s opposite side. Hopefully this one permitted a way down.
Tess and Ellie were waiting for him at the bottom of the landing. Again, the rest of the way down was blocked with rubble, and he found himself following Tess through an open doorway that led toward the interior of the building.
As soon as he was through, he heard the suffering moaning and right away the muscles in his neck tensed. He happened to glance down and something in the rubble by his feet caught his eye. He bent down and picked it up. It was a .357 revolver... with three bullets still in the chamber. Surely, it was one of the weapons the soldiers had left behind.
He saw Tess, saw her gun raised, saw her crouching in the nearby darkness. “Runners,” she hissed.
Yeah, he’d figured that. It was the sound of the shuffling footsteps that gave them away. As bad as runners were, he’d face a horde of them over a clicker any day of the week, especially with a decent gun in his hand. The difference in tone and variety of the agonizing moans indicated more than one, and one of them was female, not that it mattered at all.
“I’ll go check it out,” he said, his voice low. He saw Ellie, couched behind a desk, near Tess. “Stay with the girl,” he told her.
The hallway was wide and dark, with most of the plastered wall missing, revealing iron studs and crossbeams in its absence. The moans were coming from the floor below, and he backtracked his steps, choosing to drop behind them. He reached a broken gap in the floor and flicked off his flashlight.
Being as quiet as he could, he dropped, landing with his knees bent. He stayed crouched, edging through the darkness. The key to runners, he reminded himself, was stealth. When not activated by sight or sound, runners usually stayed passive, as their struggling hosts fought a losing battle against the disease, hence their agonized groans and screams.
Trying the perimeter first, Joel moved to his right, down the hallway to the edge of a room missing two of its walls. When he turned the corner, he saw the first runner: a soldier with his back to him standing just beyond the long shadows. The man’s hands were gnarled, and his limbs jerked spasmodically. This one should be easy…
Joel moved in silently, wrapped his arms around his victim’s neck and squeezed until the soldier’s arms went limp. He laid the body down and retraced his steps, choosing to enter the infested room from the opposite side. He saw a clicker, standing alone in a corner of the room by a wall, and decided to avoid her if possible.
One by one, he preyed on the unsuspecting runners. They walked unknowingly past him, babbling incoherently, and he grabbed them from the shadows, planting a firm knee on the ground for support. He ended their suffering, and their tortured moaning ceased.
It was tiresome business and his arms were getting heavy, along with his breathing. He left a trail of bodies behind him but eventually he turned his attention to the last remaining threat - the clicker who stood motionless in the fluorescent moonlight. He’d remained keenly aware of her presence - she hadn’t moved nor made a sound. He would’ve left her, were not for the fact that Tess and Ellie were still above, waiting to drop down.
Standing only a few feet away, he picked up a brick and a wooden two-by-four lying nearby and prepared himself for the attack. He threw the brick, raced forward, and when the stunned clicker came to life, he bashed in its skull with a ferocious swing. It collapsed to the ground in a bloody heap. Joel straightened, wiped the sweat from his brow with his arm, and exhaled in relief.
“Alright,” he called out. “Come on down.”
He saw Tess’s flashlight beam and heard her footsteps approach. She whistled. “I’m impressed, Joel,” she said, admiring his handiwork.
He grunted a thanks. Panting made speech too difficult. Finally, he caught his breath and said, “Let’s just get out of here.”
There was a fallen concrete slab that offered a way up to the floor above and he climbed it, seeing a door in the far corner of the room. As he ascended the slab, he noted the door was blocked by a large metal filing cabinet against the wall. He also spotted another dead soldier. The military had lost quite a few here recently, he thought, as he grabbed the handle of the cabinet and pulled.
The damn thing was surprising heavy - or his strength was depleted - and it made a racket as he dragged it away from the door. He realized he was fighting gravity; the floor was tilted away from him. If he let go, the thing would slide across the floor and lodge itself back against the door.
Holding it with all his might, he urged Tess to hurry.
“Alright, hold on,” she said. She and Ellie entered the next room, looking for something to wedge in the doorway. Joel could spot them through the narrow-paneled window as they glanced around, looking for help. Finally, Tess’s eyes landed on a large copier.
“This should work,” she said.
She got Ellie to give her a hand, and together they pushed and pulled it into place. Once they had the door wedged open, Joel released his grip and the cabinet slid and pinned the door against the copier.
“Alright, that should do it,” he said. He scampered over the copier and joined the two girls in the next room.
“See?” Tess said when he had joined them. “We’re doing alright.”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
They quickly searched the room for supplies and then slipped through the doorway near the far hall. They were back where they had started when first entering from the scaffolding from outside. Tess knelt beside the ruptured floor and the three of them peered down into a vast chasm, dimly lighted by the glow of their beams.
“Whoa,” Ellie gasped.
Tess said what they all were thinking: “Down we go.”
“Let’s get to it,” Joel said, turning to his left where the hallway floor had collapsed. He hopped down and looked at the gap between the two floors. “I think we can get through here,” he said.
He had to crouch low, but the narrow gap was passable.
“Watch your back,” he warned as Tess and Ellie slipped down behind him.
Moving a little faster, he traversed the lower hallway, heading in the opposite direction, and once again he discovered the crumbling floor offered a path down.
He dropped a short distance and found himself standing in a large vacant space with moss and weeds growing along the walls and across the tiled floor. Instinctively, he moved to the end of the room where a portion of the floor had been churned to rubble. Again, it looked like a way down.
The building groaned and shifted, but Joel was unperturbed. He knew there was a path down if he just kept following the trail of debris. He reached another doorway half mired in sludge and ducked through it. He heard rushing water ahead, but more importantly, he felt a breeze rushing past him: that was a very good sign.
“You know, I was thinking,” Tess said from behind, startling him. “After we get back, we can take it easy for a little while.” There was relief in her voice.
Another gap. Joel ducked easily under it, seeing a pool of water at his feet. “You want to take it easy?” he said skeptically. The air felt cool against his sweat-soaked shirt.
“Hey, you’re the one always going on about laying low.”
“And you always brushed me off.”
“Well,” she said. He was faced away but that didn’t stop him from picturing her endearing shrug. “I won’t this time.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. He followed the airflow and came up to a welcomed sight: a wide ventilation shaft. He climbed through it, past the skeleton who greeted them. The sound of rushing water grew louder and when he dropped from the shaft, narrow streams of water ran past him.
He glanced around, saw the ledge at shoulder height, and hoisted himself up. He saw the same tiled floor which they had spied from above, only now they were standing on it. He could see the iron girders crisscrossing underneath. There was a small pile of rubble to his right and he walked past it, having to crouch low to avoid a heavy crossbeam.
They entered an open area with lots of debris and a large metal sign on its side that read “Oliver LLF.” The air here was cooler. He turned a corner and saw a massive concrete slab sloping down, and beyond it, darkness. The air told him everything he needed to know.
“Through here,” he said. He ducked past another cascading waterfall. By his own calculations, they had probably descended by now to ground level. Or even lower. His spirits rose.
They crawled down the last remaining slope and soon found themselves in the subway entrance to the building. A bank of pay telephones stood against the wall to his left. The walls were tiled, as was the floor, and the air was cold. Joel took a moment to rub his chin. They were at the basement level.
“Joel,” Tess said sharply. “Over here.” She had spotted something and was moving toward it.
Joel followed her beam. He saw the dead figure at her feet and noted the green band around the man’s light-colored jacket.
“Look at his sleeve,” Tess said breathlessly. “Firefly.”
“Yep.” He nodded. “These guys aren’t doing well in or out of the city. He knelt to search the dead man’s pockets. “Now let’s hope there’s someone alive to meet us at the drop-off.”
“There will be,” Tess assured.
Around the corner they spotted a wide set of stairs bordered by two escalators and a directory kiosk greeting new subway arrivals. The stairs were blocked with concrete rubble. A body lie slumped against the escalator on the right: it was another dead firefly.
Joel noticed a paper beside the dead man’s body and picked it up. Shining his light on it, he noted it was a hand drawn map. On it, the written words: “Meet up with second firefly team at capitol building.” There was also a handwritten reference to a girl: “five foot three inches, fourteen years old, with red hair.”
He didn’t know what to make of it, but something in his gut caused him to grimace. “They’re from the quarantine zone,” he said grimly.
“See?” Tess said, her voice hopeful. “They’re not our guys.”
“Uh huh,” he muttered to himself.
He glanced around, looked down the hall and saw where several heavy concrete beams had fallen and become wedged, leaving a narrow gap. He headed to it, passing a row of defunct candy and soda machines on the wall to his left. He had to duck low to get through the wedge and as soon as he turned the corner, he heard the telltale signs of the infected.
Down the hall, several figures loomed in the shadows. “Over there,” he whispered to Tess who was right behind him. “See them?”
“Shit,” she hissed. “God, we’re almost out.”
They edged up to a desk. “Okay,” Tess said. She took a deep breath. “Joel, you take point. I’ll watch the rear.” She looked back over her shoulder at the girl. “Ellie, no matter what, you stay right on his heels.”
“Sure,” Ellie whispered.
Tess turned back to Joel and locked eyes on him. “You stay sharp.”
“I got it,” he said.
To his left was a bank of cubby holes used for personal storage. Out of habit, he quickly searched them. He was lucky: he found a metal shard that would serve nicely as a shiv.
They were in the subway station beneath the building which housed an inner sanctum: a waiting area used for traveling commuters. Circling this waiting room were the remains of shops and newsstands. He started his way clockwise and immediately came to a runner who was hunched over a corpse, tearing away at the flesh. He killed the runner in the usual fashion and continued stalking his prey.
He moved silently, dispatching each one with brute force. After each kill, Ellie and Tess would move up, not making a sound. When he had cleared the outer perimeter, he moved inside the waiting room and killed the occupant there.
The clicking sound that echoed in the distance told him he still had one more to go. He followed the sound and it led to the turnstiles. Beyond it was the exit. The damn thing was standing there, blocking their path. Joel picked up a brick and hurled it against the wall a few feet from the fungus-plated head. The clicker jerked to life, raced after the noise, and in a blinding flash, Joel was behind it, wrapping his arm around its neck and sending the makeshift shiv into its throat.
He stood and released a long-held breath. A metal gate blocked the entrance, and as he glanced around, he spotted the tip of a ladder lying on the ledge up above. Tess saw it too.
“Alright,” he said, motioning to her. “C’mon.”
She slipped her foot into his hands and he heaved her high enough to reach the ladder. She managed to get a grip and pulled it down. Quickly, the three of them scurried up the ladder.
They passed through a hole in the concrete wall directly above the locked gate and shuffled down an old subway car resting on the tracks on the other side, leaving the building and its horrors behind them.
I grew up in Plano, Texas. Entered the US Army when I was seventeen, right out of high school. I worked in a factory for six years building communication shelters for the military. Did a brief stint as a flight attendant for TWA. Worked for a bank a few years.