They rounded a wide wooden staircase with a rusted water heater underneath. They appeared to be in some sort of unfinished garage with metal basins stacked on a far table, paint cans lining the near wall. A cylindrical metal pole stood in the center.
At the top of the stairs stood an open door. Joel flipped on his flashlight and saw they were entering a commercial kitchen with white tiled walls covered in grime. Except for some bakery racks, metal shelves with empty glass jars and a kitchen sink, the room was empty. To the right was a gray metal door. Marlene made her way straight to it.
Marlene paused to fish a key out of her pocket and then tried the door, pressing her weight against it but it wouldn’t give. She looked to Joel as if she’d finally run out of steam.
“Joel,” she sighed. “Gimme a hand with this.”
Joel stepped to the door and together, the two of them pushed…
The door opened easier than expected and he watched as Marlene groaned and fell to the floor.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, surprised by her collapse. “C’mon now, get on up.”
He was about to help her to the feet when the flash of a knife caught his attention.
“Get the fuck away from her!” came the unseen voice charging at him from behind.
Before he could react, Tess was between them in an instant. She grabbed the wrist holding the knife and stared down the attacker with a fierce grimace. “Hey, hey, hey!” Tess hissed; she was in no mood to be trifled with.
To Joel’s surprise, it was a young girl wielding the knife.
The girl struggled under Tess’s iron grip, but it was no use and then Marlene’s plaintive voice came from behind Joel.
“Let her go.”
Irritated, Tess obeyed, shoving the girl’s arm away, her smoldering gaze revealing just how close to physical harm the girl had come. Not many people pulled a knife on Tess and her friend and lived to talk about it.
They were standing in an old eatery, with tables and counters, napkin holders and condiments. An old chalk menu hung on the wall. Joel shared Tess’s rage as he lowered himself to Marlene and hissed, “You’re recruitin’ kinda young, aren’t you?”
With a grunt of effort, Marlene struggled to her feet. “She’s not one of mine.”
Joel got a good look at the girl as she went to Marlene’s side.
She was a teenager, or just barely, with chestnut hair partially tied back in a ponytail. She had freckles and green eyes and a slight stature. She wore a faded tee and blue jeans, a small backpack and sneakers.
“Shit,” she said, seeing Marlene in distress, going to her. Joel noted the ease in which she single-handedly folded her knife and slipped into her back pocket, a feat perfected with practice.
“What happened?” the young girl asked,seeing the wound and helping Marlene to a nearby table.
“Don’t worry. This is fixable. I got us help,” she said, resting on the table’s edge.
The girl turned to register the help Marlene had secured and by her reaction, she seemed less than thrilled. It was healthy not to trust strangers, Joel thought, especially these strangers. Marlene had taught the girl well.
She turned back to Marlene who leaned on an elbow, fixed her eyes upon her and said, “But I can’t come with you.”
There was silence in the room as the implication slowly sank in… into the girl… and into Joel and Tess.
The young girl registered the news and then sighed and shook her head. “Well then I’m staying.”
“Ellie, we won’t get another shot at this.”
Joel wasn’t the most quick witted, but he quickly understood what was going on. “Hey,” he said, approaching, pointing at the child. “We’re smuggling her?”
Marlene immediately sought to ease the alarm: “There’s a crew of Fireflies that’ll meet you at the Capitol building.”
Tess quickly chimed in and said, “That’s not exactly close.”
The sun coming in from the window above framed Marlene’s face in light. “You’re capable,” Marlene hissed.
So this was it, Joel thought. This was the package Marlene wanted delivered. But the question why nagged at his back.
“You hand her off, come back, the weapons are yours,” Marlene stated, and before Tess could object, added quickly, “Double what Robert sold me.”
Joel turned his back on them, trying to reconcile the mountain of doubts piling up. There were too many negatives -- with very little positive. He heard Tess ask, “Speaking of which… where are they?”
“Back in our camp.”
Tess grunted in disbelief, turned to her partner and Joel just shook his head and folded his arms. No fucking way. Like always, they were on the same page. She turned back to her adversary.
“We’re not smuggling shit until I see them.”
Marlene’s shoulders sagged, she sighed and said, “You’ll follow me. You can verify the weapons. I can get patched up.” And then she paused for emphasis, pointed at the young girl and added, “But she’s not crossing to that part of town.”
A moment of silence passed before she dropped the next bombshell.
“I want Joel to watch over her.”
The two concerned parties immediately voiced their objections, with Joel saying, “Whoa, whoa! I don’t think that’s the best idea,” and the girl, Ellie, announcing: “Bullshit! I’m not going with him!”
“Ellie,” Marlene said forcefully, causing the girl - and Joel - to fall silent.
Ellie’s shoulders slumped in resignation, then she approached the wounded woman and asked in a small voice, desperate for reassurance, “How do you know them?”
These two had a history, Joel gathered from their exchange. He could sense the bond between them, and now the young girl was confused because it seemed her protector was handing her off to strangers…
“I was close with his brother, Tommy. Said if I was ever in a jam, I could rely on him.”
At the mention of his brother’s name, hairs rose on the back of Joel’s neck. “Was that before or after he left your little militia group?”
“He left you too,” she reminded him. “He was a good man.”
Tess, sensing her partner’s rising unease, came over to him. “Look. Just take her to the north tunnel and wait for me there.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, turning aside.
“She’s just cargo, Joel.”
Ellie took a deep breath, “Marlene…”
“No more talking,” Marlene said softly. “You’ll be fine.” And then she looked at her in a way that conveyed she’d never let anything bad happen to the girl. She rose and said, “Now go with him.”
Joel, watching the exchange, cursed his bad luck. He looked Tess in the eyes and said, “Don’t take long.” And then he turned to the girl. “And you,” he said, his voice cold. “Stay close.”
He turned and walked toward the far exit - “Let’s go” - and held the door open, giving Ellie no time for long goodbyes. The girl gave one last look at Marlene before turning to follow.
Joel was now back outside, with the girl standing beside, and he took a moment to gather his bearings. They were on a brick-paved street peppered with weeds and dead bodies. Storefronts of tall buildings were behind and in front, their signs weathered and aged. Most of the windows of the buildings above were broken. Parking meters lined the street.
The girl seemed impatient but resigned. Not wanting to engage her, Joel trotted off to his right down the street, but the bodies elicited a reaction. “Whoa,” she said. “I heard all the shooting but…”
Joel paused to stand over one of the fallen Fireflies whose brains were blown from his head.
“What happened?” Ellie asked.
He looked at the surrounding carnage of the military’s brutal slaughter. “The Fireflies,” he sighed. “Same thing’s gonna happen to use if we don’t get off the street.”
“You’re the pro. I’m just following you.”
His eyes caught sight of something shiny and he jogged over to another fallen member of the resistance and picked it up. It was a dog tag emblazoned with the iconic FF logo. He’d developed a habit of picking these up. For what reason, he couldn’t answer. Maybe it was to remind himself that he was still alive.
He caught sight of some concrete steps leading down to the street below and headed for them. Up ahead was a checkpoint entry no longer in use. As he reached it, as if right on cue, the PA system issued a routine pre-recorded warning: “Attention. Harboring or aiding wanted criminals is punishable by death. Do not place yourself at risk. Report any suspicious activity immediately.”
Go fuck yourselves, he mumbled to himself.
The chain-link fence surrounding the checkpoint was open and he hurried through it, finding himself in an empty parking lot with orange cones and overgrown weeds. On the other side was the thoroughfare and he watched as two military vehicles drove past.
Instead of heading for the opposite side of the fence, he turned left, toward a narrow gap created by a wrought-iron gate and the building beside it. This revealed a long stairway leading down, which he quickly descended, with the young girl, Ellie, following close behind.
“Down here,” he said. There were headed toward a short, concrete tunnel beneath the thoroughfare. Joel flipped on his flashlight.
He traversed the tunnel in silence and came to another turn to the right, steps leading up to the street on the other side. Joel paused impatiently to let his cargo catch up.
“C’mon,” he admonished her. “Keep up.”
“I am,” came the typical teenage response.
Now they were jogging along the walkway adjacent to the main street, with a low concrete wall and a wrought-iron fence beside them, partially blocking their view. As the PA repeated its warning, more military trucks barrelled past. Joel kept low to avoid being seen.
They reached a corner where the walkway turned right, between the buildings. At the end of this was another fence, its double-doors wide open. Joel headed to the gate, maintaining his pace and found himself emerging onto a courtyard surrounded by apartment tenements long since abandoned.
“Where are we going?” asked Ellie.
“Up there. That’ll get us to the north tunnel,” he said, pointing to the top floor of a building to his left, where a metal staircase zig-zagged its way up. The only problem was, the staircase didn’t zig-zag to the ground, only to a steel platform far above their heads.
“How are we supposed to reach that?”
Joel sighed as he took stock of the situation. “Just gimme a minute.”
He looked around, searching for a way up, something to climb on. Unfortunately, the little courtyard they were in was empty, but Joel was determined to find something, so he jogged around the corner of the building and found a storage area hidden from view. He felt a sense of relief as his eyes landed on something they could use: a beat-up dumpster with wheels.
He grabbed the yellow handle, and pulled. It was heavy, and with effort he dragged it out and then pushed across the brick courtyard covered in moss as Ellie waited patiently nearby. Grunting, he managed to shove the thing next to the iron platform with a bang, providing them a way up.
He climbed atop of it, then jumped up to the lower landing and struggled his way on top. He stood on the corrugated steps and watched as the girl quietly retraced his actions. She seemed agile, which was good; he didn’t want to baby this kid all the way to the tunnel.
Once she was safely up, he resumed his progress. Quickly he ascended the steps up to the next landing, where a metal door hung open.
“This tunnel,” he heard the girl’s voice behind him, “you use it to smuggle things?”
Great. A conversation. “Yep,” he replied tersely. He entered the building’s hallway which was dark and barren.
“Like illegal things?”
He walked down the hallway toward the entrances to its inner rooms. The floor was wooden and scattered with debris.
“You ever smuggle a kid before?”
Even the kid appreciated the absurdity of the situation. “No,” he replied. “That’s a first.”
He rounded the hallway and flicked on his torch. The way ahead was long and dark. Most of the doors on his right were sealed with the familiar locking device used by the government in the months following the outbreak. Their metals bars extended vertically, securing the door to its jam in such a way that entry was almost impossible.
His curiosity got the better of him and against his better judgment he heard himself asking as they walked: “So what’s the deal with you and Marlene, anyways?”
“I don’t know,” Ellie sighed. “She’s my friend I guess.”
“Your friend, huh?” Joel guffawed. “You’re friends with the leader of the Fireflies.” His words were thick with sarcasm. “What’re you, like twelve?”
“She knew my mom, and she’s been looking after me.” Then she corrected him, as teenagers are apt to do, saying, “And I’m fourteen, not that that has anything to do with anything.”
Morbid curiosity - it wasn’t concern - managed to escape Joel’s lips: “So where are your parents?”
Ellie sighed, and sounding philosophical, said, “Where are anyone’s parents?” They were now in a walkway stretching the street below. “They’ve been gone a long, long time.”
“Hmm,” Joel said, weighing her response. “So instead of just staying in school, you just decide to run off and join the Fireflies, is that it?”
He was beginning to sound like a parent, traces of a nature he had long since buried. He felt irritation with himself as they reached the end of the long hallway, heading up a flight of stairs to the floor above. Forget it, Joel! Why do you care?
“Look,” the girl replied, remembering the directive Marlene had given her. “I’m not supposed to tell you why you’re smuggling me if that’s what you’re getting at.”
Joel reached the top of the stairs and said, “You wanna know the best part of my job? I don’t gotta know why. I could give two shits about what you’re up to.”
He prayed that was true. He flipped off his torch in the sunlit hallway.
“Well great,” Ellie quipped.
Joel was agitated. Why he had gotten into a conversation with this girl, his cargo, was beyond his comprehension. He needed to shed whatever concern he had and focus on the task at hand.
“Good,” he said, managing to get the last word.
They walked the remainder of the hallway in silence, passing more government-sealed doors, until finally coming to rest before the last door in the hallway, a door where the seal had been broken.
Joel opened the door and stepped in. “This is it,” he stated, shutting the door behind her.
The room was bare except for a few pieces of furniture. A stained sofa sat in its middle, refuge for a weary traveler. Joel saw it and immediately plopped himself down after swiping away some debris. He adjusted the pillow and then stretched out, making himself comfortable. It could be hours before Tess returned.
Even though his eyes were closed, he could feel her questioning gaze upon him.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked.
“Killing time,” he sighed.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
Joel felt an odd sense of enjoyment as he said, “I am sure you will figure that out.”
He heard her exasperated sigh and as he felt her move past, she said, “Your watch is broken.”
Don’t say a word about my watch! It was a sharp pain that shot through him, the threat of an old memory he had spent his life avoiding. He shook his head to rid himself of the anger. She didn’t mean it - she was just a kid - but this turn of events was the last thing he needed in his life. He took a deep breath to calm his mind. Soon, with any luck, this nightmare would be over.