“Thank you,” Joel said quietly as he ran a hand through his hair and glanced around the ransacked saloon. “Ellie, take a look around and see if there's anything we can use.”
Joel noticed an opened door to a small office near where they had entered. As he stepped inside, he caught a glimpse of the anger still simmering in his young companion’s eyes. We all just need a moment to cool off, he concluded, and he entered the office to see what he could find.
Inside the office was a desk and phone covered in dust, and above it, a cluttered bulletin board. Some cracked leather furniture sat sagging against the walls of the office which were plastered with old paintings of nature and wildlife. A small television set on a console table, and an empty blue watercooler stood ajar in the corner. The windows were hastily boarded from the inside and the tiny room felt cramped and stuffy.
Ellie followed him in and then stood beside him, and he could sense the pain of her lingering humiliation. Out of earshot of their prickly host, she hissed, “Man, he’s gotta fuckin’ stick up his ass.”
That was an understatement, Joel thought. He caught an unexpected glimpse of her child-like innocence and an unusual feeling of sympathy swept over him, which he quickly brushed aside.
Just… stay out of his way,” was all the advice he could muster.
On a nearby table, he spotted a handwritten scrap of paper and picked it up. It was another of the countless reminders Bill left for himself:
“Need to remember to clear the infected by the fences. Third time this month that too many of them were stacking up against the fence, knocking that shit over. - CLEAR THE FENCES!”
Joel left the office and returned to the saloon. A few white ceiling tiles lay in chunks on the floor, which was hardwood and littered with broken glass and debris. In front of the bar, that stretched along the room to his right, were a few bar stools still intact and a few that weren’t. On the opposite side, under a row of boarded broken windows where the afternoon sunlight filtered in, were wooden booths and tables lining the wall. The first two were piled high with junk, but on the third was an unexpected sight that caught his eye: a chessboard with hand-carved wooden pieces.
He strolled over to take a look; the undisturbed relic reminded him of a time long ago, a time when civilized people played civilized games, a time without the stench of blood clogging his nostrils.
Ellie must have notice his interest, because she joined him and motioned to the pieces.
“Hey, you know how to play this?”
“Yeah,” he admitted, “pretty badly, but yeah.”
She chuckled at the remark, and the sound of her childlike innocence struck Joel because of its suddenness and authenticity. After what they had just gone through, it was a nice distraction, the sound of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal world.
She sighed. “I always wanted to learn.”
Ellie leaned forward to examine a piece and that’s when the dreamlike state of their revelry was abruptly ended. With a commanding rebuke, the sheriff at the end of the room yelled at her.
“Hey, Bobby Fischer!” Don’t touch anything on that board!”
They both turned, the brief spell of normality shattered.
“Bobby who?” Ellie asked.
“Just let it go,” Joel said with a dismissive wave of the hand.
He could feel the flash of her anger return and he wished to God Bill would keep his big trap shut for once in his life. Reluctantly, they joined him as the man stood watch near the entrance to the saloon at the far end of the bar.
“Found everything you need?” he asked cordially.
“We’re good,” Joel declared.
Joel grunted to himself; Bill was just like that, ready to fly off the handle one minute, completely cordial the next. The problem was guessing when he would fly off again. He wasn’t going to condemn his friend for his erratic behavior; maybe that’s how he had survived alone for so long. Being a little crazy just might have been the very thing keeping him from full-bore, stark-raving madness all these years. Whatever he might think of his hot-headed friend, he had to admire his perseverance to stay alive.
Bill unbolted the heavy door behind him and exited. The hallway behind the door led up a flight of stairs and Joel held the door open for the girl, saying, “All right, Ellie. Come on.”
“Don’t leave the door open,” their guide grunted over his shoulder as he clumped up the stairs.
“I got it,” Joel said, shutting the door behind him.
From the top of the landing, Bill turned and looked down at the two unwanted intruders. “We have to cross to the other building,” he said gruffly. “Up the stairs. Let’s move it.”
The sheriff barked his orders and Joel willingly complied, being just as anxious as their host to get what they needed and get the hell out of Bill’s town.
Ellie issued a disgusted response under her breath that he didn’t quite make out.
“Just stay with me,” he advised in a hushed whisper.
Soon, the man guiding their way was rambling to himself. “Can’t believe you agreed to this bullshit, Bill. What you shoulda done was just left them back there.”
Walking up the stairs beside Joel, the girl shook her head. “You weren’t kidding about him.”
“Yeah,” Joel chuckled, nodding in agreement. “He’s one of a kind.”
They emerged onto the top floor of the saloon where a large chunk of the roof was missing. A few rooms fed off the hallway in two perpendicular directions. Joel looked over his shoulder, saw a breakroom at the end of one of the hallways, headed down, and ducked inside to take a look.
Here, he found another one of Bill’s handwritten notes:
“I saw a group of hunters coming dangerously close to town. Luckily a pack of infected chased them off. - Reminder: put up more warning signs. Let them know you're serious.”
He left the breakroom and hurried back to catch up with Bill.
“So what kind of trouble you in?” Bill asked over his shoulder as if he hadn’t noticed Joel’s absence. “Where the hell’s Tess?”
“It’s a job,” he answered matter-of-factly. “A simple drop-off.”
“What are you delivering?”
Joel chuckled to himself, anticipating the ridicule if he were to answer.
“That little brat?” Bill said, motioning to Ellie.
“Haha,” the girl retorted. “Fuck you, too.”
Bill laughed mockingly. “Y’know,” he said to Joel, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Joel was a man who preferred silence and never understood why others seemed fit to open their mouths and throw fuel on a raging fire. The question he constantly asked himself was why it had to be this goddamn difficult?
“Are you kidding me with this guy?” Ellie said, as if reading his thoughts.
No, unfortunately, he wasn’t kidding. But in his defense, he had tried to warn the girl about his friend even before they sat foot in this godforsaken town.
Trying to change the subject, he asked loudly, “Where we going, Bill?”
“My other safe-house.” He clarified: “It’s more of an armory.”
Ellie’s brow knitted and her forehead wrinkled. “Wait. I thought we were gonna fix up a car?”
“We? You know how to fix a --”
Joel sighed, his patience thinning, and said, “Bill, just --”
“It’s like I said,” Bill interrupted as he vaulted through an open window at the end of the room. “What I need is on the other side of town. Now that side I don’t ever go to cause it’s filled with infected. So we’re gonna need more guns.”
Finally, Joel heard something interesting for a change.
They were now outside the building, on the second floor, edging along a metal walkway just behind the giant letters of the storefront’s neon sign. At the end was another open window.
Joel glanced at the waning sun and his mood soured. There wouldn’t be much daylight soon.
He followed Bill through the window and found himself in another office with the typical clutter of desk and shelves. A large pile of mildewed cardboard boxes sat piled up in one corner.
Bill was waiting for them just inside a stairwell beyond an open door at the end of the hall. He casually brushed away a piece of lint from his sleeve as Joel and the girl caught up. Together they descended two flights of stairs with Joel and the girl sticking closely to the heels of their guide.
They entered a kitchen area comprised of aluminum surfaces and bread racks on the ground floor. Joel heard a noise in the outer room. Immediately he dropped into a crouch as adrenaline surged through his veins. He said in a quiet hush: “Shhh. There’s one inside.”
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to take care of that,” Bill remarked casually. “Relax, it’s nothing.”
The ‘nothing’ in the outer room to which Bill referred was a runner - female - who had fallen victim to one of Bill’s many booby traps scattered throughout the town. This particular trap had caught an infected trying to get in through a boarded window, and a large metal basket filled with rocks and bricks had dropped on the runner from above, pinning her in place. All the creature could do now was growl and helplessly flail her limbs.
As if it were just a routine operation, Bill continued chatting as he unsheathed his machete and adjusted his grip. “So, you didn’t answer my question about Tess. I mean, I thought the two of you were inseparable.”
“She’s busy,” Joel replied as he watched Bill place a heavy boot on the window where the woman was trapped.
“Yeah,” Bill snorted sarcastically. “Busy.”
Bill raised the machete above his head and took careful aim.
“Seems to me...” he said, with a violent swing at the woman’s exposed neck, “...like…” he swung again, creating an arc of blood spatter against the wall and ceiling, “...there might be trouble in paradise.”
As he spoke the words, the infected woman’s head ripped free and rolled to the floor and a bright red geyser spewed forth in tremendous spurts, covering Bill’s boots in a widening pool of blood.
“Aw, gross,” Ellie said, half covering her eyes with her fingers, her lips twisted.
Joel watched as the gush of blood began to trickle and the corpse fell limp. He admitted morosely, “Yeah, something like that.”
Without missing a beat, Bill grabbed a set of keys off his belt and used one to open the locked metal door. He stepped aside waiting impatiently for Ellie and Joel to pass. “Alright,” he said, sucking in a deep breath with an unintended air of bravado, “Here we go.”