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Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Chickens Are Coming!

Logline: 

Citizens of a small town become convinced they are under attack by a horde of giant, genetically-mutated, flesh-eating chickens!

Synopsis:

The citizens of BRADY, Colorado are becoming slowly but surely convinced that a horde of giant, genetically-modified VELOCIRAPTOR CHICKENS have invaded their small town.

First, there’s the strange arrival of chicken expert ELLIE SUMPTON, a pretty young woman from Kansas who works for the National Poultry Institute, looking for a colleague sequestered at a hidden research lab just twenty-five miles south of Brady.

Next, the daredevil cropdusting pilot, FINLEY, spots a mangled body from the air. Upon closer inspection, the body belongs to RANCHER MCGINTY and it’s been violently torn to shreds.

And then there’s the video captured at a birthday party that shows a grainy but unmistakable image of a giant ROOSTER traipsing across the backyard.

Sheriff Gibbs, the easy-going lawman, refuses to buy into the hysteria. He works with Ellie to examine a mauled cow out at CARUTHERS FARM, where they find more evidence to support the town’s accusations.

At last, Gibbs and Ellie stumble across the hidden research lab set up by the PLUCKETT CORPORATION, the largest supplier of poultry in this region. Here they discover a strange glowing substance, and even more evidence that genetic research is at work.

But without seeing the beasts with his own eyes, the doubtful Gibbs believes the entire thing is a hoax. When they catch the mad scientist in town, it is obvious he has gone insane. The Pluckett CEO and his right-hand man fly in to dispel the rumors of giant, flesh-eating chickens and put the town at ease.

The MAYOR and other town citizens are sorely disappointed, because despite the threat to physical harm, they had planned on catching the giant beasts and turning them into an attraction which would put their quiet little town on the map.

Pluckett’s CEO and aide leave, and the town tries to return to normal, heading off to the high school stadium where a giant FOURTH OF JULY FIREWORKS CELEBRATION is just underway.

But much to Gibbs’ surprise – as well as the other shocked citizens – the beasts DO exist, and they cause chaos and havoc at the celebration, attracted by the fireworks overhead. It’s a battle of man against veloci-chicken, in the thrilling climax to this 108 page comedy action-adventure.

Read the screenplay: THE CHICKENS ARE COMING!

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Twenty-Seven: an Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

Joel stepped outside, squinting from the bright sunlight.

They entered a large open area, a parking lot with a handful of abandoned vehicles, one of which was a squad car which presumably belonged to the actual Sheriff, before Bill unofficially assumed the position. One glance told Joel everything he needed to know… finding a working vehicle among these rusted relics was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Directly across from the lot, sitting on a hill, he spotted a tall-steepled, clapboard church, its stained-glass windows set aglow by the rays of the afternoon sun.

He saw an ambulance sitting far off to his right. Looking around, he saw dumpsters and debris, and then he noticed the familiar red and white evacuation sign leaning against a stone wall on the opposite side.

He approached the vehicle nearest him where a decaying corpse, more skeleton than flesh, hung outside the passenger side window. With its arms hanging down and the skull resting against the doorframe, the poor corpse looked as though it had just given up, resigning itself to its fate.

He spotted some broken scissors and a swath of cloth and scooped them up.

Ellie, noticing the half dozen or so cars sitting idle, asked the obvious question.

“So… why don’t you fix one of these cars?”

“Oh my god, you’re a genius!” Bill replied, laying on the sarcasm. “I mean, the whole time, why on earth hadn’t I thought about fixin’ one of these cars?”

Joel had to stop himself from letting go a chuckle.

“Okay,” Ellie conceded. “Don’t be a dick.”

“Their tires are rotted and their batteries are dead,” Bill said perfunctorily.

“Are you done?” Ellie sighed.

He wasn’t. “Can’t even begin to think what the inside of the engine blocks look like.”

Joel continued walking around the perimeter, looking for supplies. He noticed grimly the long length of the shadows at his feet.

Bill continued, “Only ones making new car batteries are the military.”

A familiar cry in the distance informed Joel they were not alone in the lot. Almost immediately, he heard Ellie’s high-pitched cry: “Infected!”

“Goddammit,” he cursed under his breath, moving quickly to her and drawing his revolver.

From behind the ambulance, a small herd of infected came racing toward them. He took aim and fired at the nearest target, a woman in a baseball cap with a bandage of duct-tape wrapped around one of her forearms. It took three shots before hitting paydirt and she dropped on her back after the back of her head exploded.

More runners were on her tail and he knew he didn’t have the buffer needed to aim carefully with his pistol, so he holstered it and unhooked the metal pipe from his backpack and began swinging it wildly.

The hoard was upon them now, with Ellie maneuvering to stay behind Joel. Bill began blasting away with his revolver, aiming carefully with two hands, and amid the sharp, ear-splitting explosions of gunpowder, Joel swung fiercely at everything within reach, catching one runner firmly in the temple, sending it reeling away.

A set of jagged teeth lunged for his throat, but he managed to stave her off long enough to step aside and land a reeling blow into its midsection. The runner doubled over, and Joel used that opportunity to sink the curved end of his weapon into the creature’s skull, which shattered in a gush of blood.

Bill dispatched the remaining runner with a gunshot blast to the chest, finishing off the fallen assailant with a close-range blast to the head. As quickly as it had started, the attack was over, and the three battle-wary survivors stood triumphant over the dead, their shoulders heaving as they sucked in gasps of air.

“Alright,” Joel panted, throwing the broken pipe to the ground. He reloaded his revolver and glanced over at Ellie who was bent over, hands on knees, regaining her breath, but thankfully still alive.

Bill holstered his weapon as he headed toward a shed on the other side of the street. He was mumbling to himself again, saying, “You gotta check the barricades again. You neglect the simple shit and now you’re paying for it.”

He sucked in a deep breath and continued his one-sided conversation: “You know what that means? Taking all the supplies from the warehouse and lugging it to the east fence again…”

“Okay,” Ellie sighed, following Joel as he followed Bill. “Now he’s talking to himself again.”

Bill continued, “Then it’ll take you…”

“Bill!” Joel called out, trying to snap him back to reality.

“Joel,” he replied, annoyed. “This way.”

He led them to a gated archway covered in vines where a small wooden shed sat inside the shadows, and beside it, a set of stone steps leading up to the church above. He pulled the keyring from his belt and unlocked the iron gate.

“And up we go,” Bill announced.

Joel quickly ducked inside the shed to poke around and was glad he did. He found some rubbing alcohol and a small roll of gauze.

He stepped outside and motioned to the church at the top of the stairs. “You picked a hell of a place to hole up, didn’t you?”

“Well, you know” Bill sighed, “as bad as those things are, at least they’re predictable. It’s the normal people that scare me.”

And then he turned to face Joel and said, “You of all people should understand that.”

Ellie, waiting patiently near the steps, looked at Joel with a funny expression and asked, “What does that mean?”

Joel sighed and simply said, “Nothing,” but it did little to ease the look of confusion on the young girl’s face.

Feeling a sense of mild irritation, he walked past the girl - and the man with the big mouth - and headed up the steps. The steps were narrow, and the adjacent brick wall was covered with vines and undergrowth.

“You sure that gate’s gonna hold them?” Joel asked over his shoulder.

“Well, I locked it and they don’t have a key.”

He reached the landing and turned right, taking more steps up the hill where the church towered above them. He slipped under another brick archway and waited for the others to join him.

With the row of stained-glass windows ablaze with sunlight, it looked as if the church was well lit from inside, as if power were still fueling electric lights.

“So which way?” he asked, glancing around and not seeing a visible entrance.

“We’re here,” Bill announced. “It’s in the cellar.”

Joel glanced off to his right and saw the wooden doors near the base of the clapboard structure. He strolled over and, with effort, pulled one of the doors open. It was heavy, fitted with large oversized iron latches covered in rust.

“Alright,” Bill said, leading the way. “Down here.”

Ellie followed him inside, down a few wooden steps as Bill stood in the shadows and announced, “Well, here we are.” He pointed a finger at her and said, “You don’t touch anything,” and then he aimed his finger at Joel as he followed Ellie inside and said reproachfully, “And you close the door.”

Joel caught a glimpse of the man shaking his head at the thoughtlessness of his guests, he snickered, and went back up to pull the door shut. He could feel his patience wearing thin.

The door slammed shut and soon they were shrouded in darkness. He heard Bill fumbling around nearby and moments later, he saw the glow from a kerosene lamp gradually give light to their surroundings.

They were in a large cellar beneath the church, the edges cloaked in shadows. He heard Bill announce, “Let’s gear up,” and then saw him move over to a large wooden crate where presumably weapons and ammo were kept, waiting for use. Ellie made a beeline for the crate just as Joel reached out and grabbed her wrist, stopping her in her tracks.

“Huh-uh,” he said, shaking his head.

“What?” she asked, looking at him incredulously. “I need a gun.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Joel,” she said with an exasperated sigh, keeping her voice down to avoid the inevitable embarrassment coming from Bill, “I can handle myself.”

Joel stood his ground, repeating his decision on the matter: “No.”

Seeing the look of disappointment in her eyes, he put up his hands and said calmly, “Just... stay here.”

“Fine,” she snorted, throwing up her hands and raising her voice. “I’ll just wait around for you two to get me killed.”

“Well,” Bill said, kneeling before the crate as he removed a pump-action shotgun. “This goes on record as the worst fuckin’ job you’ve ever taken.”

“Yeah,” Joel was forced to agree. “It’s up there.”

Bill carried the shotgun over to a large wooden table sitting in the middle of the room. “How in the hell is Tess okay with this suicide mission?”

“It’s actually her idea.”

“Really?” Bill asked, looking at Joel in surprise. He dropped the shotgun on the table. “Then the broad’s not as smart as I thought she was.”

Joel turned away as a wave of anger made his ears burn hot.

“But,” Bill continued undeterred, bending down to retrieve a large bucket of shells from the floor, “Fuck her.”

Joel felt his hands tighten into fists. What he wouldn’t give to beat the shit out of Bill right here in his own gloomy dungeon. He fought to keep his cool, forcing his hands open, closing his eyes.

“Seriously,” the idiot rambled, “you gotta take that kid back to where ya found her.” He turned the shotgun over and began feeding shells into the chamber.

Joel sat gloomily on the edge of the table, his back to the man. “Bill,” he sighed, “I can’t just ‘take her back’.”

“Then send her packing,” Bill said, and feed another shell. “Let her find her own way.”

Joel just shook his head.

Bill grabbed another shell and loaded it. “Let me tell you a story…”

Joel dropped his head, closing his eyes once again, struggling again to maintain his cool…

“Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about…”

At this, Joel raised his head and looked at the man in disbelief. Bill ignored the inference and continued…

“It was a partner,” he clarified. “Somebody I had to look after.” He racked the pump-action for emphasis. “And in this world that sort of shit is good for one thing.” He tossed the loaded shotgun on the table and walked around the table to a metal shelving unit against the wall. “Getting you killed.” He grabbed a second shotgun and brought it over. “So you know what I did? I wizened the fuck up. And I realized it’s gotta be just me.’”

“Bill,” Joel sighed, looking away, “It… it ain’t like that. It’s....”

He was about to say, “complicated,” but Bill cut him off.

“Bullshit. It’s just like that.” And then he yelled at something in the corner of his eye with a loud “Hey!”, practically right in Joel’s ear, causing Joel to jump.

Joel turned to his right and saw Ellie quietly snooping through a stack of papers on a credenza in the far corner of the room. She was frozen in mid-snoop, her face white in the glow of the kerosene lamp.

“What’d I say to you when we walked down the steps?” he barked. “What’d I say?”

Ellie stepped away from the junk, motioning to it innocently with her hands. “I’m just fixing your stupid pile.”

“Don’t. Touch.” he shouted, separating the words for emphasis.

Ellie sighed and then did the only thing natural. She shot him the finger. Joel felt the corner of his mouth start to curl, but he caught it just in time.

“Goddammit,” Bill cursed, returning his attention to the second shotgun. “You keep babysittin’ long enough and eventually it’s gonna blow up in your face.”

Finally, Joel had had enough. “Bill,” he said in a pleading tone, exasperated, getting off the table. “Can we please just get on with it?”

Bill loaded the remaining shell and tossed the shotgun at Joel. “Here,” he said, mocking Joel like a petulant child. “Let’s get on with it.”

Finally. Joel looked over the weapon, racking the pump-action before sliding it over his shoulder. He was anxious to get a move on, to get hell out of this crazy man’s cellar, but Bill had something else on his mind.

“Alright,” Bill said, his voice surprisingly cordial. “Before we go any further, I got something I gotta show you.”

“What’cha got?” Joel asked, as he followed the man to a workbench near the back of the room.

“New toy from the toy box,” he teased.

Joel snorted. Knowing Bill, whatever he had to show Joel was bound to raise an eyebrow.

“This,” Bill said with pride, filling a small metal canister with nails and planting it on the table, “is a nail bomb.” The man took several steps back. “Now, you gotta be really careful. This thing blows, it shreds anybody standing nearby.”

“Yeah,” Joel sighed knowingly. “I’ve seen your handiwork.”

“Pretty good, huh?” he beamed.

Joel walked over to the table, picked up the canister and turned it over in his hands. Nails and scissor blades protruded in all directions. He looked at it admiringly… it was indeed a clever piece of handiwork.

“So we got shotguns and bombs,” Joel summarized. “What the hell we doing with them?”

“Well,” Bill explained, “every few weeks this military caravan rides through town. I assume they’re out looking for supplies. I mean, you’d be amazed at the shit they overlook. Anyway, few months back, they were rolling through and they get overrun by this horde of infected. They were all over the truck. It plows right into the side of the high school. Still sittin’ there with the battery in it.”

Joel was way ahead of him: “So we take that battery and put it in another car.”

“Bingo. I wanted to get it, but it seemed too dangerous with all the infected on that part of town.” He continued, adding with sarcasm: “But fuck it… Joel needs a car.”

Ignoring the barb, Joel asked, “What if it’s damaged?”

“Nah, those trucks are like tanks. It’s just sittin’ there.”

“Hmm,” Joel said, thinking it over. “Actually might work.” He nodded an approval at Bill who took that as a sign to move forward. The two men headed toward a wooden staircase to the right of where they had descended earlier into the shelter.

Ellie was standing near the credenza where Bill had last scolded her. “Kid,” he said menacingly, “I swear to god, if you took anything…”

“Hey, man,” Ellie retorted, arms folded across her chest. “I don’t need any of your shit. Trust me.”

He stormed past her, heading up a wide wooden staircase, but not before cautioning Joel over his shoulder: “You are keeping an eye on her, right?”

“Like a hawk,” he replied, giving the girl a quick wink.

They went up the stairs, down a long hall, before finally reaching the nave of the church. The pews had been stacked upright against the walls, walls that contained tall, arched stained-glass windows, windows where the sun now poured in, crisscrossing beams aglow in yellow and red.

In front of the nave was the raised sanctuary and above it, a circular window where a cone of light, the presence of God to the now-dead parishioners, descended from Heaven. Dust mites floated in the air, accentuated by the golden light, and Joel couldn’t help but feel a certain reverence as they traveled along a narrow red carpet with gold fringe toward a cross at the top of the altar.

“Wow,” he heard Ellie mutter in awe from behind.

“Nice place you got here,” Joel said.

“Well,” Bill acknowledged, “if you got anything to confess, this would be the place to do it.”

Bill went straight to one of the windows beside the altar, and Joel was about to follow, but he caught a glimpse of a room off to his right and quickly ducked in to look around.

“That’s not the confessional,” he heard Bill admonish. “That’s my room.”

“Alright,” Joel hollered back. “I’m not touching anything,” and as he said this, he smiled, scooping up a vial of pills, a small sack of gunpowder, and a half empty bottle of alcohol from the shelves beside the mattress on the floor.

He returned quickly to find Bill waiting for him beside the window.

“Alright,” Bill stated. “Time to sack up.”

He unlatched the windows, swung them open, and out he went. Joel followed him outside, to the edge of the rooftop, where they saw the sun resting on the distant horizon.

Joel turned and motioned to the girl, saying, “Ellie, c’mon.”

She soon joined them and there the three stood, facing the sun, standing on the edge of the eave, looking out toward the distance. It was a spectacular sight, seeing the breadth of Bill’s domain under an orange sky with a brush stroke of purplish clouds, a soft breeze at their backs.

“Look,” Bill said, pointing just to the left of the setting sun. “There’s the school.”

Joel followed Bill’s gaze and saw the high school scoreboard towering in the distance, then his eyes drifted down and he saw the familiar shape of a flat-topped gymnasium nearby. “Alright,” he said, relieved to be in sight of their objective.

“Ready?” Bill asked.

“Guess we’ll find out,” he replied, moving to the edge of the eave and hopping the short distance to the ground.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Last Of Us Novelization - Chapter Twenty-Six: an Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

Bill stood in the middle of the room, like a sheriff standing watch over his town, a town with a population of one, a sheriff who hated outsiders more than he hated the diseased maniacs lurking behind every shadow, desperate to rip him apart.

With a show of disdained generosity, he made a gesture with his hand, presenting the room to his unwelcomed guests. “All right. Whatever supplies you may want or need, I suggest you grab them.”

“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.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Last of Us Epilogue

Joel stood outside on the porch, holding the screen door open, saying goodbye to the woman caller. Ellie could only hear one side of the conversation and it seemed the woman was reluctant to go. It wasn’t until Joel said, “Well, okay then. Guess we’ll see you tomorrow,” that the woman finally said goodbye and left.

He stepped back into the house, looked at Ellie and shrugged. She was sitting on the floor next to the sofa, a cup of tea in her hands.

Joel plopped himself into the cushions. Their eyes met… she was waiting for him to say something, to address this latest turn of events. He fidgeted uncomfortably. Finally, he made a gesture to where the woman had stood on the porch.

“You sure you’re okay with this?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes and said, “Puhlease. It’s about time.”

Joel considered her response and eased himself into the sofa cushions. She watched as he seemed to struggle with a decision. Finally he nodded to himself and rose abruptly to his feet. Ellie lifted her head, her curiosity piqued.

“Wait here a sec. Got somethin’ I wanna show you.”

She watched anxiously as he disappeared into his bedroom, heard him fumbling around in his closet. When he returned, he was holding something that filled her heart with joy.

“No way!” she said.

In his hand was a guitar.

“Easy,” he warned her. “Don’t go gettin’ your hopes up.”

“Is that your old one?” she asked excitedly, propping herself up on her knees.

“No, no,” he said, sighing. “I’m afraid that one’s long gone. Tommy gave me this one.”

“When were you gonna tell me?”

He looked at her and shrugged.

She settled back, her heart full of anticipation. Finally, after all this time, Joel was ready to make good on his end of the bargain.

He was going to sing for her.

The den was dark, the evening air filled with the sound of crickets. A cool summer breeze swept in from the porch. They were alone, living in his brother’s compound, and for the first time in a long time, they didn’t have survival on their minds.

Joel plucked a chord, it resonated in the air, melodious. He tilted his head to concentrate, his hand poised expertly on the tuning screw. He twisted it a fraction of an inch, plucked again. Then, satisfied, he nodded to himself.

He took a deep breath and began to play, and Ellie watched his hands move in a way she’d never thought possible: delicate and gentle. She watched as the tips of his fingers danced across the strings. The music rose slowly at first, and soon it had a life of its own. It filled not only the room, but her aching heart as well.

And then Joel sang.

Delta Dawn,” he sang, slowly, in a voice so mellifluous she didn’t think it belonged to Joel, “What’s that flower you got on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say, he was a’meetin’ you here today, to take you to his mansion in the sky…

And as the tears welled up in her eyes, she knew he was singing for her.

He filled the empty den with a soulful melody and his voice carried across the room.

He sang for Sam and for Henry. He sang for Tess. He sang for all the people who had suffered so deeply and had lost so much. He sang for those who had grieved and those who had died.

He sang for Sarah, his little girl.

But most of all... he sang for himself.

She couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. She thought of Riley and the funny way she felt when her best friend looked at her with that mischievous smile. And although she cried, her heart wasn’t filled with sadness, but rather with joy. She felt a peace within her lungs she hadn’t felt in a very long time...

The last of Joel’s lyrics lifted in the air and in her heart, and he sang the words slowly, lost in them, and lost in his own memory: “To take you to his mansion in the skkkkkyyyyy.

The note lingered in the air, slowly fading into silence.

Joel put the guitar away and looked down at the girl kneeling at his feet, the tears rolling down her cheeks. He padded the cushion next to him.

“C’mere, kiddo.”

Ellie rose and slid under his waiting arm, and they sat together and she cried. She could feel Joel’s chest shudder, heard his stifled cry. She felt the warmth of his tears roll down her arm.

He had fulfilled his end of the bargain, and now at last, he was whole.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Last of Us Novelization - Chapter Twenty-Two: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

After they left the subway station, they shuffled toward the outskirts of the city and finally came across an old, five-storied tenement building made of brownstone. They entered and wearily climbed the creaking wooden stairs, checking each floor.

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.

She nodded.

"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 nodded.

"Good."

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?"

"Yep."

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.

He grinned.

"Well?"

"Give the lady a gold star."

"Ha!" she said. "I knew it. So what happened to you, Tex? You piss somebody off?"

"Not exactly."

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.

The Last of Us Novelization - Chapter Twenty-One: An Example of Turning Your Screenplay into a Novel

They entered a large chamber, the floor heavily cracked, and with a heavy heart, Joel closed the door behind him, closing it on Tess, his partner, his friend…

...Forever.

Ellie, standing beside him, cried out in shock. "What the fuck! I can't believe we just did that."

"Stop," Joel told her as he tried to get his bearings.

"We just left her to die."

"Stop!" he barked. He lowered his voice: "You stay close to me. We need to move."

"Oh man…" Ellie gasped.

He turned numbly. There was a large tree growing in the center of the cavernous chamber. All across the enormous rear wall were faded murals, painted depictions of historical events.

Joel saw the flight of concrete steps to his left leading up and immediate made for them.

"We'll go upstairs. We can probably get out from there." As he spoke in a hushed whisper, he heard distant shouting, a man's voice. Then gunshots. His body quivered.

"Oh man…" Ellie gasped again.

"Just keep pushing forward."

He reached the hall of the great room. To his left hung the balcony overlooking the front entrance… He had to see what they had done to her.

He hurried down the hall, saw the opening to the edge of the balcony. Staying low, he approached, creeping up slowly behind an outcropping of broken stone.

He peered down.

He saw Tess's dead body lying now in a pool of her own blood as he heard a soldier announce: "Target neutralized. She took out two of my men. Copy that. You, take out that door. You, with me."

"Yes sir!" another soldier acknowledged.

"Oh my god," Ellie gasped. "Tess…"

Joel watched as the soldiers ran past him underneath, oblivious to his position, their sidearms raised.

"There gonna be here soon," Ellie panted.

The balcony circled the perimeter of the inner room and Joel saw a framed passageway to the far right and moved toward it. He was careful to stay crouched behind the broken stone railing.

Below him he heard loud pounding: soldiers using a battering ram against a locked door.

"We're through!" a voice rang out.

"Proceed with caution! There's still at least two more of them in here."

A momentary thought crossed his mind, nagging him about what the soldier had said, but Joel pushed it aside.

He turned to his right, through a crown-molded entrance and entered the next room: green carpet, law-maker desks, arched windows with tiled panes. The room was bright with sunlight. Immediately he saw the gaping hole in the wall directly facing him. He passed a wooden lectern, a cracked leather sofa against the wall…

"Hallway clear!" came a distant voice, somewhere below and behind him.

Across the hole in the wall was the adjoining wing of the capitol building and beyond that, another gaping hole. A makeshift wooden platform provided a jumping off point from which to leap, a way to traverse the wide gap between the two rooms.

There were high up, and Joel sucked in his breath and jumped, landing hard into the adjacent room. He turned to usher Ellie to follow him, but she was already in the air. He grabbed her to brace her fall and together they moved silently into the room.

It was a great hall. Furniture sat covered in faded drop cloths. Elaborately framed paintings hung askew on the walls. This place, like the one they had just leapt from, had narrow squared-paned windows with arching tops.

Near the front of the hall were two large doorways, side-by-side, surrounded by colonial-style molding and framed on the ends and in the middle by inset colonial pillars. Against the middle pillar, they found the body of a dead Firefly, slumped. Joel approached, and saw the bolt-action rifle leaning against the dead man's shoulder.

He pried it from the icy grip and pulled the bolt back. To Joel's relief and astonishment, it still contained half a dozen brass rounds in its clip. He chambered a round and, staying crouched, slipped through one of the two pillared entrances.

The middle of the great hall had chandelier lighting hanging from the ceiling. It was a tall ceilinged hall and the windows on his right were the same as the others, but with faded green drapes. Harsh sunlight poured through. Vegetation covered the floor and he saw more of the drop-clothed furniture dotting the room. Up to his right, a balcony ran the full length of the hall.

He heard a soldier's voice shout: "They're escaping into the hall! Go around!"

Joel ducked through an arched doorway to his left, stepping over the body of another fallen Firefly.

"What'll we do?" asked the girl in a panicked voice.

He caught sight of a guard descending steps at the far end of the hall.

"Joel?" Ellie asked again.

"Ssh," he told her. "I got this."

He moved up to a pillared column beside a blood-stained drop-cloth. From his vantage point, he could see a handful of soldiers approaching from the opposite end.

There was an arched doorway now to his left, just ahead, leading into another room. Joel slipped his pack off, reached inside and withdrew an empty bottle he'd been holding onto. He took aim and hurled it as far as he could to the balcony on his right.

The bottle shattered and the guards turned. "What the fuck was that?" one exclaimed.

Now was his chance. He motioned to Ellie and they hurried through the arched doorway.

The small room they entered had display cases with broken glass, and standing placards describing their once-held contents. A doorway stood at the far end. Joel moved toward it with Ellie close on his heels.

He came out into a darkened hallway and found himself staring at the profile of an armed soldier facing the end of the hall where they had first entered. Out of reflex, he turned and moved away toward the opposite end, ducking into another room which was cloaked in darkness.

As he crouched behind a desk, he saw the shadow of a guard pass by, followed by another. Both had their pistols at the ready. He could feel Ellie's frightened breath on the back of his neck as she clung to his side.

The second guard froze, as if startled by something. He could sense the man peering around in the darkness. Joel swept up behind him, grasped him in a silent choke hold and snuffed the life out of him. With the man's death rasp came the sound of a pistol falling quietly to the carpeted floor.

"Holy shit," Ellie gasped.

Joel picked up the revolver and emptied the rounds into his sweaty palm. "Stay with me," he told her. "C'mon."

He followed in the footsteps of the first soldier, leaving the room they had just entered.

In the adjacent room, a patrol-capped soldier stood with his back to Joel listening for movement.

He didn't hear Joel slip up behind him and it was too late for him to react. Joel lunged up, cutting off the man's airflow with a forearm against the windpipe. The man struggled a few seconds before the last gasp left his body.

Two down, he thought to himself.

They retraced their steps, ending up at the hallway facing the end of the great hall. Joel saw another soldier there, this one in riot gear. The man's attention was to his immediate front, and Joel slipped around the man's periphery to approach from behind.

He killed this soldier in the same manner, and as the man silently struggled, Joel caught a glimpse of the other soldiers moving away from him down the main hall, oblivious to his presence behind them.

The rear of the hall brightened to his right, through an archway with more of the crown molding. He leaned to get a better look and saw a brightly sunlit hallway flourishing with plant life. Sun poured in from two sets of windows at the far end where a stone staircase led the way down.

Quickly, he and the girl made his way down the end of the hall.

Not hearing a sound other than their own racing footsteps, they descended the steps. They passed one landing, turned, passed another. The third landing and steps had been turned into rubble, so they had to drop about ten feet to reach the ground floor.

The end of the hallway they were in opened into another large room, sparse with furniture. He moved inside and spoke over his shoulder in a hushed whisper: "Stay down. I don't know how many more there are."

They crept up behind a desk facing a long hallway leading to another room. They could see a handful of armed soldiers searching the room carefully. One soldier said in an authoritative tone: "They have to come through here. Comb the area."

"What're we doing?" Ellie whispered frantically. "Joel, how are we gonna get out of here?"

"We're gonna go through that hall," Joel said, indicating the one on the far left.

They slipped into the dark hallway, stopped, and listened.

The acoustical nature of the next room made it easy for Joel and Ellie to overhear the conversation taking place. One soldier said, "They still haven't found the last two." Another said: "I heard one of 'em was a kid."

"Does it matter?" replied his comrade with agitation. "They took out a bunch of our guys."

"Jesus," one of the soldiers said. "Well, hey. After today, this whole Firefly bullshit will be behind us."

"Amen to that, brother."

Joel grimaced. He could only come to one logical conclusion based on what he'd overheard: one of Marlene's Firefly buddies must have squealed. There was no other way to explain it.

He popped his head up. The hallway emptied into another large room, and beyond that, sunlight.

Ellie must've been looking over his shoulder because she tapped it and said, "Joel, there's the exit."

"I see it," he whispered back.

They froze as they heard boots approaching quickly. "Report!" ordered a soldier. "South clear!" came one response. "North clear! No target!" came the other.

"Hold your positions," the leader ordered.

The guards were grouped near the entrance to the wider hall, away from where Joel and Ellie were hiding. Joel saw his chance. They snaked the length of the room, staying glued to the far-left wall. Unseen, they spilled out into harsh sunlight. Joel squinted as the sudden brightness stabbed his eyes.

"There are stairs over there!" Ellie said.

"Stay low," he told her.

Beyond a row of concrete barriers, stood a squat, subway entrance partially covered in ivy several yards away. Above the entrance read a sign: "Park Street." A green pond separated them from the building and Joel hissed a silent prayer that it wasn't deep.

Just as they began sloshing through the pond, he heard the heavy rumble of an approaching vehicle. It was coming around the corner fast.

"They're going into the subway!" A man shouted. "Stop them!"

"Shit," Joel cursed. They were spotted.

They made a mad dash for the entrance, almost tumbling down the jagged, rocked-strewn staircase. Ellie screamed, ""They're following us!"

Just as they reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard a vehicle slam to a halt above him. He saw the turret of a large black assault vehicle spinning toward him.

"Run down there!" another soldier yelled. "Go get them!"

"Goddammit!" he cursed, as the armored vehicle began firing wildly. Fifty-caliber bullets ricocheted over his head, bouncing off subway tiles. Ceramic shards peppered his arms and face.

He raced down, whipping around the corner, away from the hail of bullets. He flipped on his flashlight, ran past a row of busted turnstiles. He looked around, searching for an exit.

He saw a bank of payphones along a red-tiled walled, the floor covered in garbage. He turned back the other way and ran down the hallway to his left, turned another corner, and kept running. The sound of the machine gun fired faded in the distance.

Ellie was nowhere to be seen.

He stopped, spun around, looking into the shadows with his light. He remembered her being ahead of him when the shooting started, but he wasn't certain if he had passed her.

Where was she?

He crept quietly down the hall, blood pounding in his ears, a cold sweat forming around his collar.

At the end of the hall, a hideous sight glowed against the wall in the beam of his light. Fungal growth, heavy spores hanging in the air. Now he prayed Ellie hadn't rushed ahead. He didn't know if she carried a mask.

A nasty lumped formed in his throat. He edged forwarded, donning his mask.

The fungus at the end of the white-tiled hallway was a nightmarish creation. Pink and puffy, oozing and spongy, like an exposed giant brain, fibrous and phosphorus. It looked like something a giant cat had hacked up.

He shivered. Somewhere in that awful mess were the remains of the poor bastard who gave birth to it all, and it flourished here because the air was breathless and still. The dark, damp underground subway provided the perfect growth medium.

He felt clammy, nauseated. It wouldn't do well for him to heave into his mask. Luckily, there wasn't anything in his stomach to dislodge.

He turned and went through the exit to his left. Immediately, he gasped. A dark heavy fog hung low in the subway platform, swirling in the mists. He'd never see a room so laden with spores. He silently prayed the integrity of his mask would hold.

Edging forward, he could see practically nothing. It was like swimming through a hazy soup.

A hand reached out of the darkness and grabbed him, almost sending him into shock. "Get down," a hushed voice said.

He was filled with relief to have found her. He heard a male voice in the room say, "No target. I repeat, no target."

"There's a soldier over there," Ellie panted.

He looked at her and felt an immediate bolt of panic: she wasn't wearing a gas mask.

"Understood," came another man's static-filled voice over a two-way radio. "Hold your position and wait for reinforcements."

"Copy that," said the man in the room. "Holding position."

He peered at her in dumbstruck wonder. "How the hell are you breathing in this stuff?"

"I wasn't lying to you," she whispered earnestly.

The truth was, he was relieved he'd found her, or rather, she had found him. He was afraid that he'd lost her - that Tess's death would've been in vain.

A guard raced past them, unaware of their presence, the beam of his light barely able to penetrate the haze.

"Did you spot them?" he asked.

"No. Place is empty."

Joel saw two hazy lights bobbing around like insects: it was their flashlight beams.

"Search the area," the authoritative soldier ordered. "Let's find them and get the hell out of here before clickers show up."

Joel stayed low and moved silently around the perimeter, staying crouched behind the dark shapes he bumped into. With his mask on and this haze, his visibility was almost null. It would be just his luck if he tripped on a garbage can or kicked an empty bottle noisily across the floor.

The guard was searching inside one of the long-abandoned subway cars moving toward the front end of the entrance. "Where is this rat?" he hissed.

Joel saw the dark shape holding the beam leave the car and jump down onto the tracks.

Now at the far side of the room, Joel slipped through one of the open doors of the car and moved down its aisle in the opposite direction of the soldier. This time, he was making sure the girl was right behind him.

Up ahead in the gloom, he could make out the shape of another car a few yards away. He could also see the faint, parallel outline of tracks disappearing into darkness. He kept moving forward. When he was far enough away, he sprinted to the next car, and heard Ellie's footsteps and her heaving panting behind him.

"Screw that," a distant voice yelled, apparently with a change of heart. "I'm not heading into that tunnel."

"Let the clickers have them! We're out of here," agreed his partner.

The tracks Joel was following slanted down into water and the tail end of the last car was partially submerged. Splashing through, he heard Ellie's tentative voice cry out from behind.

"Hey, uh. I can't swim."

He was neck-deep in the cold water. Confident that no one had had the guts to follow them, he flipped on his light and saw Ellie's frightened face glowing in its beam.

"We'll figure something out," he reassured her.

She stayed to the far wall of the tunnel, keeping to the narrow ledge.

His way down the tunnel was blocked by fallen debris. He dove underneath, to see how deep the obstruction went. To his relief, the beam revealed a gap under a fallen crossbeam, and he saw subway tracks continuing into the murky deep.

He popped up on the other side and saw a subway car wedge sideways in the tunnel. Diving again, he went under the car and came back up on the opposite side. Another car was partially submerged, but he managed to climb up onto its surface.

Looking far down the tunnel, he saw square concrete pillars following the underwater tracks. It looked like the railing on the left continued as well.

Ellie had managed to follow him by staying on the elevated emergency walk behind the railing. He hoisted himself up on a raised ledge near a short flight of steps which rose as the railing ended. He felt relief now that they were reunited.

She ran toward him, and in his panic, he thought she was rushing to embrace him, but instead she dropped to a dead corpse lying at his feet. She bent down and scooped something up.

"Hey, look!" she said with an excited smile. The object in her hand shot out a bright beam of light. "It still works!"

Joel looked down at the corpse and noticed a piece of paper lying beside it. He picked it up; it was a note: something about a smuggler named Frank desperately trying to sneak into the Boston QZ. The dead guy, thought Joel, must've been Frank's contact. Apparently, the guy named Frank never showed up.

Joel flashed his beam around.

A gap in the nearby wall revealed stairs going back down into the water. It might lead to an exit, he thought, preparing to dive in.

Just before he submerged, he heard Ellie's voice cry out: "You're not going to leave me here, right?"

"Just stay put," he told her.

"I'm not going anywhere," she yelled back. The words sparked a memory that made his blood run cold: it had been something Tess had said to him right before she died.

He dove down, entering a room fully submerged underwater. It was a maintenance room by the looks of it, with a parts bin and metal shelves. Some control panels were bolted on the outer wall. He saw something glint off his beam and sure enough, he found another Firefly pendant. By reflex, he picked it up.

He swam back out of the room and came up gasping for air through the tiny filter cartridge in his mask .

"Anything down there?" Ellie asked.

"Nuh-huh," he said. "It's a dead end."

Keeping himself afloat, he glanced across to the other side, to the yellow bordered platform with thick horizontal cables, and something caught his eye. He swam over to it. As he approached the platform, he could see the tail end of an aluminum ladder.

He tried to reach it, but unfortunately, the platform was too high for him to grip the ledge.

"Here's a ladder," he called out to Ellie. "Maybe we can use that."

The question was, how to get to it?

He needed to get Ellie from one side of the tunnel to the other, but how he had no idea. He swam a little farther out, scanning the black surface of the water. He saw something nearby: a wooden pallet floating in the dark. He grabbed it and, using it as a paddle board, made his way back to her.

He was feeling exhausted now, wondering just how long his strength would hold. It'd been over two days straight of running and fighting without sleep. He knew he couldn't go on much longer.

He followed the dim glow of her light and made his way to her. He bumped the wooden pallet against the ledge and told her to get on.

"Really?" she asked, her voice shaking.

"Ellie…" he started tiredly, but she quickly appeased him and said, "Okay. Okay."

She jumped onto the pallet as Joel tried to keep it steady. Water splashed on the plastic viewports of his mask and the pallet rocked. On all fours, Ellie hung on for dear life.

"Be careful," she pleaded with him.

"I got you," he panted.

He swung the pallet slowly around and paddled her over to the platform on the other side. It was a precarious maneuver, him pushing the pallet, her doing her level best not to slip overboard.

Finally, the pallet bumped against the platform. She carefully climbed off and made her way to the ladder lying on the ground. She grabbed the far end and raised it. It scraped loudly against the concrete edge as it slipped into the water.

"I got it," he told her.

Once in place, he gripped the rungs and pulled himself up. The excess water added an extra twenty pounds, or so he felt, so exhausted he was. He straightened and sighed with relief; at least they were standing together on the other side.

He looked around. There were benches against the tiled wall and old poster frames for movies and advertisements. That meant only one thing: they had found their way to the next subway station, and more importantly, a way out.

He turned toward the exit and saw another clump of phosphorus fungus growing from a body long since dead. It was an unnerving sight, seeing an alien growth emerge from what was once a human being. In all these years, he'd never gotten used to it.

"Alright," he gasped. "Let's get out of here."

There were lots of metal gates, some locked with crowbars wedged on the opposite side, some hanging open. They slipped through one and followed a never-ending hallway, but he kept pushing forward. To his heartfelt relief, out of the waning fog, a set of concrete steps materialized.

Up ahead, natural light loomed in the distance.

They went up the long staircase and when they reached the rock-strewn opening, they scrambled up the rocks and tumbled out of the entrance.

Finally, they were back outside.

He trudged down the slope to a squat piece of concrete sitting underneath a large elm. With one hand grasping at the chin, he tugged the mask upward, ripping it free from his face. He sucked in a deep breath greedily, eager to the fresh air. He took a seat on the concrete stool, coughing and wheezing.

Ellie trailed behind him. She approached him tentatively, her nervous hands hanging on her hips.

"Hey, look," she began awkwardly. "About Tess…" She took a deep breath. "I don't even know what to -"

Joel stopped her in her tracks. After all he'd been through, the last thing he wanted was to hear this kid utter Tess's name. "Here's how this thing's gonna play out," he informed her. "You don't mention Tess. Ever."

Her face turned red and she lowered her eyes.

"Matter of fact," he continued. "We can just keep our histories to ourselves." He sucked in another breath. "Secondly," he was on a roll, "don't tell anybody about your...condition. They'll either think you're crazy or they'll try to kill you."

He fixed her with his gaze: "And lastly," he paused for emphasis, "you do what I say, when I say it."

The young girl sighed.

"We clear?"

Still staring at the ground, she nodded. "Sure."

"Repeat it," he ordered.

She exhaled and lifted her eyes to meet his gaze. "What you say goes."

It annoyed him that she'd sidestepped his demand, but he had no choice but to let it slide.

"Good," he finally declared.

He looked over his shoulder to set his internal compass. "Now," he said with a grunt, rising to his feet. "There's a town a few miles north of here, and there's a fella there that owes me some favors."

He stared off in the distance, saying the words without really believing them: "Good chance he could get us a car."

Her silence made him turn to her and she glanced down, twisting an invisible ring on her finger.

"Okay," she nodded.

"Let's get a move on," he told her, and he started off, with her trailing behind.