There were no barricades in this building, military or otherwise. Most of the apartment doors were unlocked and those that weren't Joel easily popped open with a sharp blade. The building smelled old, but not rotten or decayed, which to them both was refreshing.
Whenever he found something in the kitchen cupboards, like a can of beans, or corn, or tuna, he'd pass it over his shoulder to Ellie who would drop it in her pack and make a comment like "Awesome," or "Sweet," or, on very rare occasions, "Yummy."
When they reached the top floor, he checked the rooms, deciding on the one in the corner with the most windows.
He went inside, ushered Ellie to enter, and locked the door behind him. Then he appraised the bedroom situation. He dragged a mattress back into the living room and asked which she preferred, bed or sofa.
Ellie pointed to the mattress and said, "This works for me."
When he awoke, it was early, the room was cool, and the light of dawn rose in the east. He sat up, saw the empty mattress and looked around the room. Ellie was curled up in a chair by the window, looking out at the soft glow of the horizon, her chin resting on her hand.
"You get some sleep?" he asked.
"Alright, then," he said, more to himself than to her, and then he left the room to answer the call of nature. When he returned, he checked the shirt he'd hung on the back of the chair in the kitchen. It was nice and dry.
For the first time in days, Joel felt fully restored. The town they were headed to was a healthy distance away, probably a good eight hour walk. Knowing that, it was refreshing to have his strength back.
Ellie walked by the table and put an open can of peaches down for him and laid a spoon beside it.
Joel glanced up at her. "You eat?" he asked.
She went back to the window and resumed her silent reverie while he spooned peaches into his mouth and slurped juice down his throat. Afterward, he let out a satisfied belch. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and pushed back from the table.
It was time to get a move on.
The road to Lincoln was a long one...
Up to this point, he hadn't allowed himself any time to think about Tess. But on the long walk toward the smuggler's town, the image of her kept creeping into his thoughts. They'd had a pretty good run together over the past five years and he remembered fondly the first thing she'd ever said to him.
There was an old man - old for this day and age anyway - known as "Doc". He helped anyone who wanted to avoid attention with their non-infectious wounds, and Joel had been clubbed in the head by a trio of thugs who had wanted his rations and whatever else he owned.
He was lying on a lumpy mattress in a makeshift hospital room with a few other bandaged souls, and one of them was Tess, who was busy applying a new bandage to a nasty gash above her hip.
He absent-mindedly watched as she redressed the wound and noticed she barely grimaced.
She caught sight of him staring and said, "So what's your problem?"
He looked away and laid his head back down on the mattress.
He then heard her chuckle and watched out of the corner of his eye as she retrieved a shiny unlabeled canned good from her pack. It looked like she had several.
Without even knowing what was in it, his mouth watered. He swallowed. "Where'd you get that?"
"I have my way of getting things. Guns, ammo..." she tossed him a can, "peaches."
He looked over the can in his hands and licked his lips.
He glanced back at her. "Smuggling?"
She stood up, walked over to him and extended her hand. "Tess," she said.
He accepted her firm grip. "Joel."
"Where you from?"
He snorted. "Does it matter?"
"If you weren't Texas born and bred, I'll eat my own bra."
He rose up on one elbow. "Do you even own a bra?"
She tugged the collar of her shirt a little way down her shoulder, revealing a dingy white strap.
"Give the lady a gold star."
"Ha!" she said. "I knew it. So what happened to you, Tex? You piss somebody off?"
She leaned forward and locked eyes with him.
"Do you want to?"
That was how they met. And now she was gone, and it was just him and the girl. It was with relief when they finally arrived at the highway sign late in the afternoon, welcoming them to the outer limits of a tiny town called Lincoln.