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Sunday, April 29, 2018

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

Joel descended the wrought-iron stairs into a shadow-filled bay where old machinery equipment sat rusting away in the salt-laden air. He found Tess waiting patiently for him beside a large metal door that blocked their exit.

He looked at the door of galvanized steel and grunted. The sheer weight of it did not appeal to him. He shoved the gun back behind his hip and took up a position by the pull-chain to the right of the door. Dwindling sunlight filtered in through the dirty windows above, offering just enough light to see. It took a lot of effort to raise the door, heavy as it was, pulling down hand over hand on the thick chain, grunting with each successive pull.

The bearings were rusted and the high-pitched screech of metal against metal pierced their ears and caused Tess to wince. When it was raised high enough, she bent down low and slipped through the opening. Joel pressed the steel-toe of his boot down on the foot catch and, surprisingly, it held. He slipped through the gap, following his partner.

The sudden glare of sunlight made him realize they were now out in the open and immediately he ducked low, moving up to Tess who was concealed behind a section of a demolished brick wall about three feet in height. A panoramic vista painted with brushstrokes of gray and orange, decay and rust, stretched out before them: the vast arena of the loading docks. From this position, Joel and Tess could take in the entire tableau; an area that once served as a busy shipping dock for cargo ships moving in and out of the Atlantic.

What they saw were canisters and freight containers stacked helter-skelter on the dock, a landscape dominated in the center by a large open warehouse more than three stories tall, comprised of green corrugated metal walls, white lettering. There were plenty of opens walls where the panels were missing. Inside the structure he could see thick iron beams, caked with rust, that formed the warehouse’s frame. High above, surrounding the top floor, were dingy broken windows under a slightly slanted and sagging roof.

The open containers strewn throughout the wharf formed an odd kind of Rube Goldberg maze, peppered with fork-lifts frozen in there tracks, and meandering throughout this man-made jungle were a dozen or so men; desperate souls trying to make sense of a desperate existence.

In short, Robert’s men.

Joel held little regard for the men patrolling the wharf. To him anyone who worked for Robert was no different than a stalker or a clicker, although significantly less dangerous and vastly more predictable. He understood the need to find a sense of purpose in a purposeless world, but these were no better than rats feasting off the garbage of human existence.

Garbage and purpose that Robert provided.

But as bad as he despised them, they still weren’t the lowest on Joel’s list of undesirables.

That spot was reserved for uniforms with the license to kill.

Tess pointed to a man in his late thirties with greasy rust-colored hair pulled back in a short ponytail, an abrasive goatee surrounding his thin colorless lips. Robert was a smuggler, the kind that would do anything if the price was right. But it was his utter lack of loyalty that made Joel bristle.

The man in the hooded gray sweater was no bigger than the rest, certainly not intimidating, but he did convey a sense of authority that appealed to the less intelligent. He had a yellowish complexion with jaundiced eyes and it was obvious from their interaction that the surrounding men held him in high regard.

The sight of Robert issuing commands caused Tess to shake her head in disbelief. She exhaled, settled back on her heels and then she looked at Joel with an expression of utter disgust.

“That cocky son of a bitch.”

Joel, not much for long-winded speeches, merely winked at Tess and nodded in Robert’s direction.

“Let’s go wrap this up.”

Tess nodded her reply and the two observers took one last look at what they were up against. At least a half-dozen men slowly patrolled the wharf, making their rounds. Those not blessed with side-arms carried large wooden sticks in their gloved hands.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Joel put his hands on the edge of the brick wall and vaulted over it, landing silently behind a bulk of crated iron pipes. Tess quickly joined him at his side. Two guards strolled nearby, engaged in a maundering conversation.

“Shipments have been dry for a long time,” said the one closest to Joel.

“Yeah, well,” the other said as he recounted the losses on extended fingers: “We lost our contacts in the north, lost our contacts in the south. Shit. I don’t know who’s left out there to sell us stuff. Guess this is why we’re taking shitty protection jobs.”

“Fucking Robert. This rat better be good for it.”

Tess and Joel looked at each other; Tess closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Even if he is, then what? I’m telling you, this zone is done for. We better think of an exit strategy.”

“You’re insane. Going outside the wall is suicide.”

“Plenty of other smugglers do it. What do you think’s gonna happen here once supplies run out?”

“I’d still take my chances here.”

Joel left the cover of the pipes and moved in. He pressed himself up against a large blue metal bin filled with tarps of various faded colors as he patiently awaited his opportunity.

“Nice and quiet, Texas,” whispered Tess from somewhere close behind him.

When the gap between the men lengthened, Joel advanced. He used the shiv he had found earlier to plunge into the trailing man’s neck. A gasp, a spasm, and then the body went limp. It was then onto the next.

Working methodically and staying in the shadows, Joel moved quickly from one stack of crates to the next, edging closer and closer to the rear of the complex.

He crept up to the guards with cobra-like efficiency and moved with a keen awareness and intensity of focus. He took out Robert’s men one by one, freeing them from the nightmare of their subhuman existence.

A wooden club fell from the hands of one of his victims and Joel picked it, feeling the weight of it in his hands. Ahead, another guard stood facing them. Joel hung back, crouched behind a wooden crate waiting for his opportunity. Patience was key, and when it came to killing, Joel bided his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

He took a moment to catch his breath and he became acutely aware of the sound of seagulls circling above him on the ocean breeze. He had passed through a long maze of freight containers and crates, of rusted machine parts and tattered tarps. The smell of salt water filled his senses, mixed with sweat and grease, and the unpleasant odor of smoldering refuse stifling the late-afternoon air.

The guard facing him apparently didn’t notice him, for he turned away, resuming his uninspired patrol.

Joel swung the club at the man’s head, hard, crushing the skull and snapping the wooden club in two. He let the remaining wooden stub fall from his hands.

At last Joel rounded a corner and saw the closed metal door at the end of the dock. To either side, steel shutters covered the windows. Above the door, a solitary light flickered dimly, powered by some unseen generator.

“That office,” Tess said in an excited hush as she pressed up beside him. “Robert must’ve run in there. Let’s go.”

Playing it safe, Joel picked up a brick and lobbed it at the door.

“What the fuck was that?” came a surprised response from around the corner of the crate beside him.

Joel peeked around the corner, saw the last remaining guard. With the man’s back turned toward him, he scampered up behind and locked his arms around the neck. In a matter of seconds, the guard was dead.

They were now positioned just outside Robert’s office.

Joel crept to the door, grabbed the handle and pushed it open. He could feel Tess’s presence close behind, tense, ready for the unexpected.

They entered what appeared to be an ante chamber to an interior office: a waiting room of some kind. He saw a sofa, a pair of wooden tables, a few chairs, and a wooden block of shelves sitting off in the corner. A few pictures hung askew on the wall. To his immediate left, another door.

Robert’s office.

Joel rose to his feet and calmly opened the door. Inside was a large office with desks and debris, a circular fan, blinds. Standing at the far end was Robert with a gun in his hands.

“Oh shit!” Joel shouted as he ducked for cover on the other side of the door just as the bullet ricocheted past him.

“Get back!” Robert shouted, breathing heavily and firing another round. “Get the fuck back!”

Tess came around him and ducked for cover on the opposite side. Both had their backs flattened against the wall.

“We just wanna talk Robert,” Tess said, her voice loud but reassuring.

“We ain’t got fuckin’ nothin’ to talk about!” came the panicked response.

“Put your gun down!” Tess ordered, trying to mask her anger.

As she poked her head around the corner of the open doorway, Robert fired again, the bullet sparking off the metal door jamb inches from her face. She drew back quickly and glanced at Joel. Together they shook their heads.

“Yeah?” Robert said, pulling the trigger but only hearing a click. “Go fuck yourself!”

With nothing left to do but flee, Robert did the only reasonable thing left: he threw the empty pistol at the doorway. As it went clunking past them, he took off in a mad sprint through the open doorway to his right.

“He’s running!” Tess yelled as she leaned in to take a closer look. With that, both she and Joel burst into the room.

“Robert!” Joel angrily warned, irritated at having to give chase.

“Screw you, Joel!” came another panicked response.

Tess motioned toward the empty hallway.

“Joel, this way!”

Seething with anger, Joel kicked the closed door open. It banged loudly and he went past it, following Robert through a narrow alleyway littered with debris.

His prey turned a corner, fleeing like a rat. He kicked over garbage pails as he fled and raced like a mad clown down another alley.

Joel continued to race after him, feeling his anger build.

To his left, Robert slipped through an entrance shielded with vertical vinyl blinds, a cold storage room used for produce.

“We almost got him!” shouted Tess behind him.

Another hallway, another quick turn to his right, with Joel following only the sound of fleeing footsteps...

He came to a window and vaulted through it without hesitation, and then, feeling a sense of relief, found himself in a dead end alley. There was Robert, pushing helplessly against a locked fenced gate, cursing his fate.

“Come on!” the ponytailed man cried, shoving himself against the object of his own bad luck.

Tess joined Joel on the other side of the window and then smiled at the beautiful scene presented before them.

“Hello, Robert,” she said, with a cheerful sense of satisfaction in her voice.

Robert rubbed his chin, his conniving mind obviously working overtime.

He turned and smiled, relying on his impish charm.

“Tess. Joel. No hard feelings, right?”

“None at all,” she said as she calmly bent down to pick up a heavy metal pipe that was lying at her feet.

Robert’s eyes shifted quickly as he weighed his options. Finally he nodded, admitting defeat. He said, “Alright…” and then he tried to push past them in a mad dash for survival.

But Tess was ready and poised to strike. She swung hard at his leg as he raced past her, like Ty Cobb knocking one out of the park. The blow sent Robert reeling to the ground. The jaundiced-eyed man cried out in agonizing pain.

“Ah… goddammit!” he screamed, holding his broken kneecap with both hands.

With Robert incapacitated, Tess let the pipe fall to the ground, her eyes darkening with rage. The bruises on her face from this morning were still raw, and it showed in the way her lips curled.

Joel hung back, watching the events unfold with amusement.

“We missed you,” Tess said with unnerving civility.

“Look,” Robert began as the tears filled his eyes. “Whatever it is you heard, it ain’t true, okay? I just want to say --”

“The guns,” Tess said, cutting him off, circling him. “You wanna tell us where the guns are?”

“Yeah, sure.” He struggled with the proper phrasing. “It’s complicated. Alright?”

“Hmm,” Tess said. She looked over at Joel who was watching patiently from his perch against the wall as if to ask her partner, What do you think?

Joel’s response was simple. He pushed himself off the wall and walked menacingly over to Robert’s prone body.

Robert’s eyes widened. He was lying on his side, hands on his wounded leg. “Look,” he pleaded as Joel’s dark shadow approached. “Alright? Just hear me out on this. I gotta --”

Before he could say another word, Joel let a heavy boot fly across Robert’s face, snapping the greasy head back.

That was for Tess.

“Fuck!” Robert cried out.

Joel bent over the man and grabbed his right arm, forcing Robert’s chest to the ground. Carefully he straightened the wrist, palm up, using his left knee to pin the arm to the ground just below the elbow.

Robert had to know what was coming next.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” he pleaded in anguish.

Tess calmly walked over to the man, bending low so she wouldn’t have to raise her voice.

“Quit your squrimin’,” she told him.

Everyone knew the rules of the game, knew the players and what each were capable of. Tess took a knee beside Robert, indicating she was willing to hear him out. Her voice was soft and clear.

“You were saying?”

With no other cards left to play, Robert made a last-ditch effort for freedom: he resorted to honesty.

“I sold them,” he said.

The words caught Tess by surprise.

“Excuse me?”

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” he said, rambling the words off in a frightened gush. “I owed someone.”

“You owed us,” she replied pointedly. “I’d say you bet on the wrong horse.”

Robert sighed and nodded at the painful truth.

“I just need more time,” he said. “Just gimme a week.”

“You know, I might’ve done that,” Tess said, “if you hadn’t tried to fucking kill me.”

“C’mon, it wasn’t like that--”

“Who has our guns?” she demanded as anger rose in her voice.

A brief silence ensued. Finally the man on the ground said, “I can’t.”

Tess lifted her chin and looked at Joel. It was time for a little persuasion.

Joel pressed the full weight of his body down on his knee and yanked sharply on Robert’s wrist.

There was a snap as the elbow broke.

Robert screamed out in pain. “Argh! Fuckin’...!” He rolled over on his side, his arm as limp as a rope.

Tess leaned in close to his ear, repeating the question again.

“Who has our guns?” she asked.

Through a painful grimace, Robert answered.

“It’s the Fireflies. I owed the Fireflies.” He said it with the relief that comes from getting a horrible truth off your chest.

“What?” Tess asked, incredulous.

“Look,” Robert continued through agonizing gasps. “They’re basically all dead. We can just,” he took a deep breath, “just go in there, finish ‘em off.” He nodded excitedly. “We get the guns. Whadya say?”

Tess looked at Joel, her face full of abysmal disappointment. She slowly rose to her feet with Joel rising alongside her.

“C’mon,” continued Robert, trying to fuel comradery. “Fuck those Fireflies. Let’s go get ‘em.”

Tess looked down at the man, an arm hanging at her side with a gun in its grip.

When Robert was finished, she looked at Joel and said:

That is a stupid idea.”

And with that she raised the muzzle of the gun and fired two angry bullets into the ponytailed head as Joel watched impassively beside her.

Joel’s shoulders rose as he sucked in a deep breath.

“Well, now what?”

“We go get our merchandise back,” Tess replied simply, her voice tinged with frustration.


“I don’t know.” She was searching for the words. “We... explain it to them.”

They stared at each other a moment as the reality of their next move became clear.

“Look,” Tess said with a sense of finality. “Let’s go find a Firefly.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

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

The tunnel they had entered wasn’t long but it was dark. Joel felt a chill run down his back, it was like they were escaping from prison. Tess waited near the exit, crouched, hiding in the shadows. As Joel rounded the corner, he saw the locked gate blocking their path and concrete stairs rising up on the other side. The fence had double strands of razor wire along the top.

Tess pulled at the gate and cursed.

“Shit. Not goin’ through here.”

She looked around impatiently and spotted the concrete ledge to her left. A large sign was affixed to the cracked concrete wall just below the ledge:


Tess, ignoring it, turned to Joel.

“Hey, boost me,” she said, nodding to the ledge.

Joel understood and began to assume the customary position, placing his back against the wall.

“Alright,” he said with a quick jerk of his head. “C’mon.”

He had a feeling they were going to be spotted at any moment. If they were going to do this, they needed to be quick about it.

His hands formed a cradle on his knee and Tess took a running start and leaped into it, placing her foot in his hands and her hands on his shoulders. In one smooth motion, Joel propelled her up to the ledge.

She grabbed at the surface with her fingers, grunted, and quickly scrambled up. Next, she spun her body around and lowered a hand to Joel, bracing herself with the other.

“Gimme your hand,” she panted.

Joel took a step back and jumped, grabbing her extended hand. Tess grunted with effort as her muscles flexed to raise Joel up. He managed to get his knee over the edge and scrambled the rest of the way on his own.

“There you go,” said Tess, her lungs out of breath as she placed a hand on Joel’s shoulder.

“Alright,” he sighed, catching his own breath.

The sun was practically set as they hurried down a brick alley way toward the docks. Rats scurried out of their path seeking shadows at the sound of their approach. They descended a short flight of concrete steps and found themselves on a rooftop landing just overlooking the wharf. A metal fence with more razor wire blocked their path, but a large hole had been cut through, affording them a makeshift exit.

Tess went to the narrow hole in the fence, pulling it further apart with her hands.

“Over here, Joel.”

The landing they were on faced a tall white building in a courtyard punctuated by large metal air conditioning units, their fans long since dormant. Metal grates lay scattered on the ground.

The large building facing them sported several windowless archways around the bottom floor. Outside, several crates covered in weathered tarps sat decaying in the fading sunlight, and the sound of cawing seagulls drifted in with the cool ocean breeze.

Joel slipped through the fence without a sound and dropped to the ground. A moment later, Tess dropped silently behind him. Together they assumed a position behind one of the tarped crates, being careful to remain out of sight.

Two men walked impassively out into the courtyard through one of the doorless archways.

Joel heard Tess release a sigh and say in a cursed whisper:

“More of Robert’s guys.”

“Shit,” Joel replied. “I see ‘em.”

As the two men strolled single file out into the courtyard, their voices echoed in the vacant square.

“How do you know they’re coming?” asked the one trailing behind, his tone shrouded in doubt.

The lead lookout spoke with a tinge of fear in his voice.

“Two of our guys died trying to take Tess out. I guarantee that she and Joel are on their way here, right now to get Robert.”

At the mention of their comrades deaths at the hands of his partner, Joel remembered his conversation with Tess earlier in his apartment. He glanced at her and she gave him a brief shrug in response.

“Jesus,” sighed the man following behind. “We shouldn’t a taken this job.”

“Not our call. Let’s spread out and make sure no one’s creeping around in here.”

“Nice and quiet, Texas,” whispered Tess, preparing to pounce.

In the next instant, Joel watched Tess move quickly, like a cat.

She fell in step behind the man trailing his partner as her right hand produced a makeshift shiv from her back pocket. She was directly behind the unsuspecting goon, ready to strike.

In one fluid move, her left hand wrapped around her victim’s throat while the other went up, paused a split second, then came down sharply. The man released an agonizing death gasp as she drove the shiv deep into his neck.

Just as quietly and just as smoothly, she eased the body to the ground. The handiwork of a true professional which Joel had witnessed many times over.

As Joel reached her, she was issuing commands.

“Move up,” she ushered. “Move up.”

Joel crouched walked quickly, trailing the unsuspecting lookout as he wandered past an opened fenced gate with the typical bundle of razor wire bunched on top. The place was quiet save for the sound of seagulls floating on the ocean breeze. Luckily, the overcast sky above removed the threat of his shadow giving him away.

When he was close enough, Joel sprang upward like a coiled snake, gripping the man’s neck in a choke hold. With one iron forearm across his victim’s throat, the other arm applied downward pressure to the back of his neck.  This was his forte, a move he had practiced to perfection.

The key to success was making his hand as thin as possible, and sliding it all the way under his victim's chin so that the throat ended in the v of his bent arm. With his left hand all the way through, Joel would then grip the bicep of his other arm. With the head locked in a cross-section of Joel's arms, he now only needed to pull his shoulders back and squeeze. Sometimes there was a crunch as the neck snapped; most of the time the victim simply ran out of air and crumpled to the ground.

Joel eased the dead man to the ground and quickly turned to his right toward the open windows of the brick warehouse. He approached while staying low and caught a glimpse of at least two others still inside. He made his way to the open window being careful to stay out of sight.

The men inside were in the midst of a conversation.

“I meant to tell you,” the one closest to Joel said, with a hint of disgust. “I was down on Jordan Street, and all these soldiers showed up with a group of about five civs, all in handcuffs.”

“Let me guess. Fireflies?” the other guard replied.

“Yup. They lined ‘em up against the wall and bang, bang, bang. They just executed all of them.”

The guard exhaled and said, “Holy shit.”

Peeking over the ledge, Joel saw the men had turned their backs to the window. With his heartbeat picking up steam, he silently vaulted over the low sill and slipped quietly into the room.

“Yeah,” continued the first. “I hear it’s like that all over the city. They’re cracking down on ‘em hard.”

“I got a cousin with ‘em.”

“Seriously?” the first man asked.

“Yeah. Idiot thinks he’s gonna save the world.” He paused before adding an afterthought. “I hope he’s alright.”

The two men were facing away from him. To his right, he caught a glimpse of Tess hiding just beyond the door to the adjacent room, having entered through one of the windows herself.

She jerked her head to the man to Joel’s left while making it clear she had her sights set on the one closest to her: You take one out, I’ll take the other.

Joel nodded in response and, keeping in sync with his partner, he crept up behind his next victim and grabbed the man in a choke hold. His range of vision afforded him a view of Tess as she drove a shiv into the throat of the man to his right.

Another death gasp, another body hitting the floor, but this time, something different. A clink. The sound of metal bouncing on concrete.

Joel glanced around the body and then spotted it.

A key.

He quickly scooped it up.

They were standing in an office of some type. Wooden countertops with ash trays, aged monitors and lifeless computers. A couple of yellow, weathered bulletin boards hung askew here and there. There was a tall red metal tool chest, and a set of wooden cupboards with cardboard boxes along the wall. A dingy old water cooler squatted near the door.

“Good to have you around,” Tess said, panting with adrenaline. “Let’s search the area.”

Joel quickly slipped into the adjacent room and looked around: a desk with playing cards, some rusted oil cans, a set of shelves with not much on them.

He left the room the way he found it and headed to the open door at the far end of the room he had first entered. Several overfilled metal garbage cans lined the wall to his left. He passed those and went through the open doorway with Tess following close on his heels.

There was a short hall that ended in a locked metal door. Joel slipped the key he had found quietly into the lock and pushed the door open.

The two walked into a large open room mostly vacant except for a few wooden crates lying here and there. Almost immediately, Joel and Tess heard voices and ducked for cover; at least two men were approaching from the outside.

“Hey,” one of the men said, jogging up to the other. “We consolidated the crates in the south warehouse. Supplies are locked up.”

“Good,” replied his partner. “Let’s do another once over and then head out. It’s getting close to curfew.”

Joel caught a glimpse of an empty bottle lying on the crate in front of him and, without thinking, he picked it up. It had been a long standing practice to scoop up anything that might serve as a distraction.

He crept closer to the open door, ducking behind another crate. The room he was in was dark, the only light filtering in from the cloud-covered sun above. There were bars on the open window to his left.

“What about Robert?” he heard one of the goons ask. “Who’s he holing up with tonight? Guy’s too paranoid to stay here by himself.”

Joel grunted. That was an understatement.

“Fuck if I know,” came the reply. “We’ll check in with the others and come up with something.”

From what Joel could discern from his limited vantage point, there were at least three of the guards making the rounds. One seemed to be holding back, a large black man with a semi-automatic pistol in his hand. He turned unexpectedly and entered the room where Joel and Tess hid.

Luckily for Joel, the man turned his back to the room as he took a lookout position by the open door. Now was the perfect opportunity to strike. As Joel approached, he happened to glance out the open window to his right and saw one of the guards ascending a metal staircase.

Hidden in the man’s shadow, Joel performed the same move as before, only now Joel had the muzzle of his gun pressed hard against his victim’s temple.

Before the man could react, Joel dragged him back inside the darkness of the empty room, dropped to one knee and applied his chokehold with all his might. The man put up a fight, trying to reach the unknown assailant behind him, but all he could manage to do was scrape jagged fingernails across Joel’s cheek.

Joel gritted his teeth and squeezed with a sudden burst of exertion. In the next instant, a snap , and the man went limp.

Outside sat various jacks, their forks under wooden pallets of sandbags piled waist-high. Pieces of busted pallets were strewn here and there among the heavily cracked, weed-infested concrete.

Joel had his choice. Follow the visible guard walking ahead of him into a darkened, rusted bay or take the flight of metal stairs to his right.

He choose the stairs.

Staying low, Joel quickly ascended, keeping his eyes and ears open. At the top of the stairs, a broken window. Joel hung back a moment, staying as close to the outside wall as possible. Hearing nothing, he turned the corner and that’s when the saw the third guard standing casually under an open metal doorway.

A large mechanical press dominated the center of the room which Joel quietly used as cover. Elsewhere were tool boxes, shelves with large plastic buckets, paint cans and other miscellaneous debris. A timeclock hung on the wall next to a rack of withered time cards.

The man standing under the door wore a ball cap, and tennis shoes, a sleeveless jacket over a dirty tee-shirt. One of his fingerless gloves held a semi-automatic pistol.

As quiet as a snake Joel slithered behind the unsuspecting guard. He had to be quick; grabbing him in the open could alert the others. He sprang from his crouched position and in a flash slid his arm under the man’s chin and around his throat. Just as before, he used the muzzle of his gun to get his point across: Silence was golden.

The man understood, but it would be the last revelation he would ever have.

Joel dragged him back into the shadows and dropped to one knee to allow himself maximum exertion.

In a matter of seconds, it was all over.

Joel turned and let the dead man crumple to the ground. By now his arms were getting quite tired and he wondered vaguely about the number of necks he could handle.

Staying low, Joel went through the open metal doorway and turned right. He entered a space denoted by a short hallway; some kind of supervisory office with windows facing outward. On the wall hung a whiteboard used for scheduling workers. In the corner a desk. Joel caught sight of a makeshift shiv lying on the counter and quickly scooped it up and slid it into his pocket.

As he turned the corner, he froze.

Two men were standing right outside the doorless entryway. He was about to reevaluate his options when they broke apart and began walking away. Joel saw his opportunity and struck.

He grabbed the man closest to him and pulled him back into the shadows, again using the muzzle of his gun as a warning. Before the man could state his case, Joel issued the verdict: death by affixation. As he squeezed the life from the man, his eyes followed his next intended victim, a large black man who strolled casually away, oblivious to his impending doom.

But Joel’s mistake was not staying clear of the door. Before he could duck out of the way, the other man turned and caught sight of Joel’s movement, startling him. He drew his weapon and cautiously approached as Joel slid back into the shadows of the narrow office.

As the man stuck his head through the open doorway, he caught sight of Joel hiding. Before Joel could react, the man struck him hard across the nose with a left cross.

Joel was momentarily blinded by searing pain, and as his assailant moved in to strike again, Joel used the bottle he had picked up earlier to smash against the black man’s head. The brawler retreated, just far enough for Joel to bridge the distance and slide his arm around the big man’s throat.

Now the two were out in the open, struggling on the catwalk, and their ruckus had drawn the attention of the last guard standing alone in the cargo-filled bay below them.

“Let him go, asshole!” yelled the man below, gripping his weapon with two hands in an attempt to steady his aim.

Using the brawler in his neckhold as a shield, Joel raised his gun and took aim at the man standing in the open bay below. Struggling made aiming difficult, but he managed to nail the bastard with his second shot.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Joel turned the gun back on his human shield and fired a bullet into the black man’s temple. He released his grip and the body fell in a heap at his feet.

Tess was just at that moment turning the corner, following in his footsteps.

She sucked in a breath as she surveyed the carnage around them, relieved to see Joel was still standing.

“We shoulda brought more people,” she said.

Joel, his lungs empty from exertion, his arms sore and raw, his face bloody and throbbing, replied by stating the obvious:

“They’d just slow us down.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

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

Now they were walking down a dark back alley. They passed a locked metal door to their right which bore the familiar wings of the Fireflies spray-painted in yellow. Below it read the words:

“Rise to the Light.”

The back alley ended in a street lit with clouded sunlight offering only one direction to them: the left. Near a barricade off to one side, a makeshift tent sagged; inside were a couple of worn mattresses. On another of the many concrete barricades that lined their path, Joel saw the familiar Fireflies refrain in that same shade of yellow:

“Look for the Light.”

Tess now faced a metal gate with the door propped open. Without hesitation, she proceeded through it and Joel followed. Without a word between them, he sensed her body tensing.

They had crossed into treacherous territory.

Robert’s territory.

They were approaching a quad surrounded by old warehouses with loading docks on opposite sides. Large machine parts of various designs lay scattered about like playthings, aging in the dying sun. Directly across from them rose an arched exit through a whitewashed building which led to the docks - and more importantly - to Robert.

As they entered the confined space, a handful of Robert’s men suddenly appeared out of the shadows.

“Here we go,” Joel muttered as he and Tess took up a defensive position behind a waist-high pallet of heavy rusted pipes.

There were three of them - Robert’s goons - two of whom wielded hand guns. The large black man in front, the leader, apparently needed nothing more than his menacing grimace to ward off intruders.

He wore a jacket with the sleeves pushed up, black gloves on his hands, and had a face that looked like a worn catcher’s mitt.

The five faced off. It was time for a showdown.

“Let us through,” appealed Tess, catching Joel slightly off guard. It wasn’t like her to negotiate with lower-tier scum and her comment surprised him.

The leader took up a stance in front of his partners and spoke in a menacing tone.

“You guys need to turn around and head back if you know what’s good for you.”

“Our beef isn’t with you,” Tess appealed, her voice hypnotic with calm. “We just want Robert. You don’t want to do this.”

The leader grew impatient as his eyes burned like smoldering coals.

“Turn the fuck around and leave now.”

Tess shook her head slowly and deliberately.

“I’m not going anywhere without Robert.”

She edged forward and Joel’s heartbeat quickened as he watched the others remain rooted to the ground, their hands fidgeting nervously.

“Bitch,” the leader spoke, advancing, his voice rising with anger as he jabbed a finger in her direction. “I will bash your skull unless you turn around and get your dumb ass outta here.”

Tess took in a breath as she glanced over at Joel, weighing her options. Then, with a slight shrug of her shoulders, she came to a decision.

“Fuck this,” she said.

Before the leader could react, Tess calmly raised her semi-automatic pistol and fired a round into the large man’s chest. The leader collapsed like a sack of garbage tossed to the street.

The others scrambled for safety like a pair of frightened mice.

“Take cover!” one of the remaining men shouted.

Tess touched Joel’s arm and he followed her lead, ducking for cover behind a crate of heavy iron pipes. She leveled her gaze at him.

“You ready?” she asked with heated breath.

“Yeah,” replied Joel with a nod. He was ready.

Tess’s nostrils flared with satisfaction.

“I’ll cover you,” she said.

One of the Robert’s goons poked his head up and cried out:

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!”

“Get the angle on them,” she whispered, motioning to the crate to his left.

Crouching, Joel jogged to the crate, staying low behind a long table of boxes.

He waited a moment for the men hiding behind cover to reveal themselves. One did, and Joel raised his gun just as his target was about to return fire.

He shot the son-of-a-bitch right between the eyes.

“Shit!” screamed the other goon, watching his friend dissolve into a pool of his own blood.

Tess made her move then, to draw his fire, knowing the man was rattled. When the gunman rose to take his shot, Joel took careful aim and fired.

Another headshot. Another one of Robert’s goons permanently demoted.

It was precise teamwork; years in the making. And now they stood alone in the quad.

As Joel crouched over the dead body of the second man, claiming his victim’s unspent ammo, Tess walked up to his side.

“Nicely done, Texas.”

Joel snorted at the compliment. He guessed if there was one thing he was good at, it was probably this. He repaid the kindness nevertheless.

“You too.”

He shoved the gun back under his belt, looked around at the lifeless bodies lying in puddles of blood and shook his head.

“How the hell did he get all these guys?”

“If Robert’s good at one thing,” Tess sighed, motioning to the carnage, “it’s writing blank checks.” She sucked in a deep breath and then took off in a sprint through the open archway.

“Let’s go put an end to that.”

Joel nodded in agreement. He checked his rounds and then followed her through the tunnel.

Monday, April 2, 2018

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

“Ahhh, some fresh air.”

Tess lifted her chin and took in a deep breath.

They had reached the outskirts of the city. A large concrete barrier forty feet tall formed an impenetrable wall along the perimeter of the zone, filling in the gaps between buildings where necessary. The structure had been constructed years ago, and now was covered in vines and streaked with mold and scum.

There was the windowless shell of a city bus nearby. A horse trailer. A rusted old sedan. Joel looked up at the wall of concrete and sighed. Little good it did at keeping people in - and worse at keeping the infected out.

The edge of the concrete wall was covered in moss and ivy where it met the side of a four-story brick building, an abandoned warehouse, that had most of its windows broken. It was the through the warehouse that smugglers - and people like themselves - slipped in and out.

A pond of scum water pooled at the base of the warehouse and there were several metal drums lying around on wooden pallets.

“That’s the one thing I love about the outside,” Tess continued. “Fuckin’ hate the smell of the city.”

Ivy crept up the walls of the building, entered through the broken windows. The city bus was practically consumed by the lush overgrowth.

“Why don’t you ask Bill to get you some of them air fresheners?” Joel asked.

“Hey, if they weren’t expired, that’d be a good idea.”

The lowest windows of the warehouse were too high to reach, even with a tall ladder. Tess headed toward an innocuous wooden pallet propped up against the brick wall, mostly covered in vines. There was nothing special about this particular pallet; several were lying around, propped up here and there. As they approached, it became apparent that this one in particular concealed a large gaping hole in the brick wall at the base of the warehouse.

Tess grabbed one end of the pallet and pried it open. It seemed to be hinged on the other side with overgrowth and vegetation.

“Through here,” she said. “Cover the entrance.”

“I got it.”

Joel knew the routine. He entered the building, grabbed hold of the edge of the pallet and pulled the makeshift door shut.

They were inside the ruins of an abandoned warehouse now. A tree had taken root inside and was now covered in ivy, as was most of the surrounding structure. The building appeared worn-torn, rubble and timber covered most of the ground. A catwalk, once suspended above, had fallen to the ground. The place smelled musty and ancient. On the ground floor were shelves filled with soiled cardboard boxes. The interior walls were pale bricks the color of chalk.

Tess climbed her way up to the second level with Joel following close on her heels.

On the second landing, Tess stood at the edge of a gap in the wooden floor, a gap far too wide to jump. She lowered herself to one knee.

“Damn it,” she said. “Plank fell down.”

Joel joined her at the edge and looked down. Sure enough, the large wooden plank that served as a bridge now stretched across the rubble-ridden floor.

“Be a dear, would you?” Tess smiled.

The unfamiliar tone in Tess’s voice caused Joel to chuckle. “I’ll get it.”

Joel looked around, scratching his head. He had to find a way down. He saw some planks on his left leading down to a concrete ledge and he used them to jump down to the ground. He made his way to the heavy plank, picked it up and glanced around for the best spot for Tess to easily grab it.

“Here, pass it to me,” Tess ordered, beckoning to him from the brick landing above.

“It’s a bit heavy,” Joel warned.

Tess scoffed. “I think I can handle it,” she said, and hoisted it up without effort.

“Alright,” Joel conceded.

Now he had to find a way back up. Looking around, he saw a small hole in the wall above a ledge that was waist high. He pulled himself up, ducked to his right and scampered up a ramp of weathered wooden planks. In the next moment he was climbing up to the second landing just in time to watch Tess lower the plank over the wide, jagged gap in the floor above.

“Get your ass up here,” Tess ordered. “Let’s move.” There was a sense of urgency in her voice.

“Bossy today,” Joel replied. He was about to add something else but thought better of it. He held his tongue as he made his way back up to her, following her through a large broken window in the corner that was framed by a matte pattern of weeds and ivy.

Now they were outside again, on a metal corrugated stairwell heading down. The stairwell stopped a few feet short of the ground and the two had to drop several feet to descend.

They hit the ground, grunting.

The two were back out in the open, only now they were on the other side of the wall. Joel felt a sense of precaution permeate throughout his body.

“Let’s make sure there aren’t any soldiers around,” he said.

Tess peeked around the narrow alley where they were headed before fully committing.

“It’s clear,” she said as she vaulted a low concrete barricade. “C’mon.”

Down another alley, and then ducking their heads under a collapsed fire escape covered in vines, they found themselves in a small concrete back-alley lot surrounded by tall brick buildings where the weeds and vines fought each other for dominance. Along the far wall of one of the buildings sat a decaying sofa with stained cushions.

Tess took up a position near the building to Joel’s right, next to a metal door with a mesh window. She sighed impatiently waiting for Joel to catch up.

Once Joel was with her, she pushed the door open and entered. The room was dark as Joel followed her in.

“Shut it,” Tess ordered over her shoulder. She nodded to a few cartridges resting on the counter. “Pick up that ammo. I’m sure we’ll need it.”

Joel complied, then flicked on his flashlight and took a look around the room.

They were in what was once the break room of some small office concern. There was a sink at one end of the kitchen countertop, and next to that, a coffee maker with a blackened urn still intact. A plain white refrigerator stood opposite. Nearby was a table with napkins and condiments, and next to that, an empty vending machine full of glass shards. In the corner next to an open door sat several bundles of cardboard boxes rotting with mildew.

Joel followed Tess through the door and into the next room. They were standing in the lobby of what was once a local business. A computer terminal sat at the far end of a counter for serving customers. There were a few wooden chairs sitting idly nearby... a waiting room. Joel vaguely wondered what service was once offered here. It was a fleeting thought that didn’t last long.

Tess climbed a small set of concrete steps to another door leading to the outside. Short rectangular windows revealed occupants milling about on the other side. She knocked gently, so as not to attract unwanted attention.

After a moment, the door opened. On the other side, a boy of about twelve stood wearing a baseball cap and sleeveless t-shirt: the local lookout.

“Hey, little man,” Tess said in a pleasant but quiet voice.

The boy recognized Tess, but didn’t speak.

“Make sure the coast is clear?” Tess asked, reaching into her back pocket for a small cache of ration cards.

The boy reached out his hand to take the cards, but Tess lifted them above his reach. “No soldiers,” Tess warned. “None of Robert’s men. Yeah?”

The kid hesitated a second before nodding to convey his understanding. He took the cards and closed the door.

Tess folded her arms and leaned against the wall, sighing heavily.

“You know he’s expecting us,” Joel quipped.

“Well,” Tess said. “That’ll make it more interesting.”

Joel found himself nodding in agreement. In the next instant, a gentle rap sounded on the other side of the window. It was the kid serving as look-out.

Tess straightened. “Good to go. C’mon.”

She opened the heavy metal door and Joel followed her into what was a ragtag neighborhood of strays rejecting military rule. A makeshift fence served to cordon off the area and weeds sprang up through the cracked cement.  As they turned the corner, one of the vagrants with his back against the wall saw Tess and his face filled with recognition.

“Hey Tess, hey Tess,” he spoke, the words coming out fast, trying to grab her attention. “Hey, pretty lady,” he said, reaching out for her. “How you doin’ today? I heard you got some merchandise...”

Tess cut him off in mid-sentence. “Not right now, Terrance.”

The man was persistent. “No, no,” he said, reaching into his back pocket. “It’s good. I got the card…”

Tess spoke to him like she was scolding a child. “Not. Now. You hear me?” Even Joel felt a tinge of fear from her tone.

The man showed his palms.

“Okay. I can do that,” he said.

As Tess fell out of range of earshot, the man grumbled, “Don’t get all huffy-puffy about it,” causing Joel to chuckle to himself. He shook his head; Tess knew everyone it seemed. Out of the two of them, she was the social butterfly.

They were in the closest thing to a market square one could imagine. Here and there people manned tables and booths, lit by kerosene lanterns, hawking their wares. Onlookers kept to themselves, leaning against the walls, sticking to the shadows and watching Joel pass with suspicious eyes.

The afternoon sun was fading and in this section of the city, the tall buildings blocked what remained of direct sunlight. Grime and litter covered the ground. A permanent, melancholy haze seemed to have settled over the inhabitants here.

Joel approached a young woman behind a table piled high with old clothes and shoes.

“If you ain’t got ration cards,” she said in an exhausted voice, “don’t even waste my time. I’m not interested in bartering for bullets.”

He left the table and followed his nose over to where something appetizing sizzled on a kerosene grill. But as he approached, his stomach turned. He saw the “meat” hanging from a makeshift awning overhead.

They were grilling rats.

“Hurry up,” one of the women in the short line exhaled. “We’re starving.”

The bearded man behind the grill turned the meat, sweat beading up on his forehead over the flames. “Keep your shirt on,” he said, equally exhausted. “Next batch comin’ right up.”

Joel looked at the others in line and sighed. No one else seemed to have a picky stomach as they waited with the green ration card currency in hand.

The woman nearest him shot Joel an angry glance. “Hey, don’t even think about cutting in line,” a sentiment shared by the large man in a black tank top beside her:  “Fuckin’ A. Been waiting on this rat forever.”

Joel didn’t. Instead, he shook his head, turned and left.

Loud barking to his right grabbed his attention. A gaunt man in a blue hoodie and gloves stood by a fenced gate. Behind him, in large letters on a cardboard sign were the words, “15 tickets each.”

As Joel approached, dogs behind the fence jumped excitedly. The man waved the newcomer away. “Sorry man. These dogs are all accounted for. Sold out in less than an hour. Try me next week.”

Joel’s stomach turned again. Thank God he and Tess had found other resources -  smugglers for one - and hadn’t needed to rely on dogs and rats for food.

Tess was waiting for Joel and grinned at his outward display of revulsion. The two seemed capable of reading each other’s minds.

Joel proceeded down seller’s lane, passing store owners protecting their wares with baseball bats and giving him the evil eye. As he rounded a corner, a large black man rose to his feet, blocking his path.

“You touch it, you buy it,” he warned and with that, he let the two pass.

A man with a young woman on his lap saw Tess and his hard features softened. “Tess, it’s been a while. You don’t visit us any more.”

Behind him, Joel didn’t hear his partner reply, but he did catch the reproachful remark from the woman sitting on his lap.

“Who the hell is that?” she asked.

“None of your damn business,” the man replied with agitation.

If there were other walking avenues along the way, the men blocking them with iron pipes resting on their shoulders made it clear they weren’t open to the newcomers.

Eventually Joel made his way to the opened backend of a school bus, the only way to proceed. He climbed up and began to make his way through. Outside the slatted windows to his right he witnessed a bare-fisted match taking place in a makeshift arena, cheered on by a handful of spectators. He ignored the fight and continued on. The remaining glass windows were riddled with bullet holes.

A young turk seated near the front of the bus suddenly rose and blocked his path. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked, sizing Joel up with nervous eyes. His talk was tough, but Joel knew the man lacked the muscle to back it up.

“Malick,” Tess said with exasperation in her voice. “Sit back down.”

Joel’s eyes conveyed the same message. If this hotshot wanted to hold onto his teeth, he better do as he was told.

The man wilted like a flower. “Oh, sorry Tess. Didn’t realize you two were together. Go ahead,” he said, stepping aside. Joel didn’t need the hotshot’s permission and was about to say so, but he tended to err with caution when it came to friends of Tess.

“Who’s that?” he asked, bristling and stepping down from the bus.

“An old headache. Don’t ask.”

Now they were out of the market and facing the end of the street. A barricade of stacked freight containers and a fence topped with spiraling barbed wire cut the inhabitants off from the rest of the city. Or was it the barricade keeping the soldiers out?

Joel walked up to a pair of city dwellers who seemed too interested in the activity just beyond the fence to notice his approach.

“That guy’s been hoarding all sorts a shit in that factory,” the man said. Joel glanced up to see military vehicles being loaded. It was then the two spectators became aware of Joel’s presence.

“Whoa, whoa, hold up man,” the woman whispered urgently. She turned slightly and gave Joel the customary evil eye that told him to shove off.

He’d seen paranoia before, but in this section of the city it was rampant. He shook his head and backed off. He hustled back to where he saw Tess approaching a dark man in a hooded sweatshirt. The man was casually leaning against one of the fenced-in exits examining his fingernails.

Tess leaned her head toward the young man. “I’m lookin’ for Robert,” she said quietly. She reached into her back pocket and retrieved a packet of cards bound by a rubber band. “He come through here?” she asked, offering him the bundle.

“Half hour ago,” the hooded man replied. “He went back to the wharf. He’s there now.” He reached up and casually took the cards from Tess, giving her the slightest of nods.

Without a word Tess moved past him and the man lowered his head, returning his attention to his nails with great interest. Joel walked past him, saying nothing.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

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

They stood in the middle of an old pizza parlor with a brick wall decor. Sagging posters, like a portly chef tossing pizza dough, hung above a row of wooden booths with cracked and discolored green vinyl padding. An old jukebox aged stoically by the front entrance. The floor was littered with debris and the windows facing the street were mostly broken. The place smelled of rotted wood and decay but nearby, just outside, the promise of something more refreshing beckoned.

Tess moved heedlessly toward the doorless front entrance, to the open air beyond.

“Be careful,” Joel reminded her.

They lived in a world where terror lay hidden around every corner waiting to pounce. There was no such thing as being too careful.

“When am I not?” Tess quipped over her shoulder.

Joel snorted. For a woman, Tess was an interesting dichotomy: delicate features with a deadly physique. When it came to his partner however, caution wasn’t a quality that sprang readily to mind. And so it was with a hint of sarcasm that Joel asked, “Is that a trick question?”

As Tess approached the exit, the late afternoon sun cast a long shadow of her slender body behind her. Joel followed her shadow out of the parlor, out into the real world.

He stepped into the open air and sucked in a deep breath. The sensation of clean air filled his lungs. It was a good feeling and long overdue.

Relieved, Joel looked around. He stood in the middle of what was once a quaint neighborhood now overgrown with thick vegetation. Nearby him, an iron parking meter rose incongruously from the shrubs, and across from him sat an old rusted pickup truck cradled in a bed of lush ivy. Everywhere you looked, the natural earth was in the midsts of consuming the things of man.

The street before them had collapsed into a sinkhole and the passage of time had turned the once suburban setting into a miniature green valley. Just beyond the surrounding ivy-covered fence to his right loomed empty buildings of brick and mortar, aging in the waning sun. Directly across was an abandoned four-story tenement building with half its roof missing. The walls of the building were war-torn; pockmarked with gaping holes where vegetation had successfully taken root.

Sagging power lines crisscrossed overhead.

“Ain’t been out here in awhile.”

“It’s like we’re on a date,” Tess replied jokingly.

“Well, I am the romantic type.”

They walked around the sinkhole, heading for the abandoned tenement building.

“You got your ways,” she conceded.

Joel threaded his way past a fallen brick chimney and a rusted pickup truck, his eyes scouring the ground around them.

“Where’s the ladder?” Tess asked impatiently.

“It’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Joel replied.

Tess pointed to a patch of high grass off to his right. “Hey, try that area over there.”

Joel spotted it lying in the thick grass. “Got it!”

“Great,” Tess said, her tone brisk. “Bring it over.”

Joel bent down and scooped up the ladder in his hands. The twelve foot ladder wasn’t light by any means and Joel grunted from the effort as he headed toward the wall where Tess stood waiting.

He carefully placed it up against the brick wall just under the gaping hole in the second floor of the tenement building and stood aside.

“Ladies first.”

“Lady?” Tess snorted as she ascended the ladder. “You must be thinking of someone else.”

Joel chuckled to himself. “It’s all relative,” he said, following her up the ladder and into the apartment.

“This way,” Tess said, turning toward the interior of the building.

They had emerged into what was once a lounge, with a billiards table, loveseats, bookcases. Bricks and plaster and grime covered the mildewed carpet punctuated by stained upholstered furniture.

The floor was uneven as Joel traipsed across it. Tess led him into a kitchen area where a countertop was littered with even more refuse. By force of habit, Joel quickly went through the kitchen drawers looking for anything useful. He scooped up a few nuts and bolts and dropped them into his pocket. Light from the outside made it easy to see, but after they turned from the kitchen and made their way deeper inside the abandoned dwelling, the place grew dark and cold.

Joel flicked on the flashlight affixed to the strap on his backpack.

Now they were in a room that had recently served as sleeping quarters for a dozen or so souls. Bare mattresses, some on double iron bunks, sat worn and stained. A half dozen more partially covered the wooden floor. Vegetation fought its way into the room past the broken windows. On one of the walls, Joel spotted a pair of red spray-painted wings: the familiar Fireflies symbol. Glancing around, he caught a glimpse of a silver pendant on a nearby desk: the Fireflies dog tag. He concluded a contingent of Fireflies had taken up residence here not long ago. But now the place looked as though it had been abandoned for some time.

Tess was standing patiently at the top of a broken stairway leading down to the floor below them. “Down through here,” she said.

Joel followed her down, jumping a short distance to the ground.

Almost immediately his senses went into high alert as he detected a stark change in his immediate surroundings.

Darkness closed in around them. The smell of rot and mildew clogged his sinuses. There was something else in the air, something dangerously familiar, but he tried not to focus on it.

“You think Robert’s still got our guns?” Tess asked, her focus still clearly on the task at hand.

Joel was temporarily grateful for the distraction. “For his sake, he better.”

He was following her through the ruins of the apartment, past sagging wallpaper soiled with mildew, past the aged remnants of upholstered furniture. The flashlight cast a circle of light around Tess as her shadow flickered before her as if it had a mind of its own.

“Look, once we get our merchandise back,” she reassured him, “it should be easy to unload.”

“Speaking of merchandise, when’s that next shipment due?”

They continued down a long hallway, past a pale rusted radiator. Large chunks of plaster from the ceiling overhead covered much of the carpeted flooring.

“Well, we’re meeting Bill next month. More pills. Lots of ammo. Supposedly.”

As Tess reached the end of the hallway she froze in her tracks and her body went rigid.

“Hold up!” she whispered, and then a word escaped her lips, a single word that conveyed the terror of the world they lived in. “Spores,” she said simply.

In a flash, the two intrepid explorers swiped the gas masks off the lanyards hanging from their backpacks. In the next instant, they were adjusting them to the contours of their faces.

Joel released a disgruntled sigh. He didn’t like having to put the thing on. It pulled his hair out by the roots and restricted his vision. It was suffocating, like wearing a catcher’s mitt.

They were in a small section of the building surrounded by brick walls where a large wooden door at the far end lay open. Spores gasped out of the doorway like the thick hot breath of some giant demon.

Joel approached cautiously and entered through the doorway.

As his flashlight beam darted around the room, Joel saw the various canvas clothes bins and realized they had entered the laundry room. He noticed the air was choked with thick motes of green bacteria hanging in the lifeless air.

On one side of the room stood a few bare tables and against the other, a bank of coin-operated dryers. To his right, a small gaping hole had been ripped through the brick wall.

“Where the hell are all these comin’ from? Place was clear last time.”

“They’re coming outta something,” Tess said. “Stay alert.” Although she didn’t need to say it, the words sent a chill down Joel’s spine. He felt a bead of sweat edge down the inside of his mask.

Looking around the laundry room, Joel eyed the gaping hole at the base of the wall to his right. Beyond, the air was thick with floating bacteria. He had to crouch to make his way through.

At the sight of his approach, a few rats cursed him and scurried out of the hallway. Joel saw the source of the spores right away: the decaying figure of a dead man sitting upright with his back against the wall.

“There’s our culprit,” Joel said in a cursed whisper. The ceiling was low here and the two of them had to remain crouched with their knees practically against their chests.

Joel regarded the source of the bacteria. An odd growth sprouted from the man’s shoulders and hips, ripping through the worn fabric of his clothes. The unnatural substance merged with a splatter of thicker bacterial growth on the wall behind him. The growth was flesh-colored; dense with dark purples veins pulsing through it. Joel forced back a growing revulsion from the pit of his stomach.

He felt Tess’s sudden presence as she came up close behind him to get a better look.

“Body’s not that old,” she whispered. “Better keep your eyes and ears open.”

Joel nodded. Tess was right. Although she hadn’t said it, the implication was there: Where there was one infected, there were likely to be more, like the pair of rats that scurried away at his approach. He knew they were likely entering a nest, a hive of the infected. He was sure Tess knew it too, although she didn’t state it, and they both knew there was no way they were turning back now.

With his heart pounding in his chest, Joel continued on…

He led the way around a corner, keeping himself crouched, moving with a slow but fixed determination. The passage was blocked by a wooden beam crossing their path.

“We should be able to fit through here,” Joel said, taking the beam into his grip with the notion of pulling it aside. But as soon as he nudged it he realized he’d made a mistake: the ceiling above him collapsed, raining debris down upon his head and ears. He reflexively curled up tight to shield himself. As the dust settled, he opened his eyes and realized there was no harm done. He silently cursed himself for letting his emotions get the better of him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” Joel replied. “Damn ceiling’s falling apart. Be careful.”

He rose to his feet, regaining his senses. “This way,” he said, turning his body sideways and edging through a long but narrow gap between a set of gray file cabinets and the wall. “Easy.”

Joel heard a man’s cough and felt something grab his foot. He jerked away reflexively. “Jesus!”

As Tess made her way into the room, Joel guided her past the man lying on the floor. “Watch it! Watch it!”

“Help me…”

With Tess safely behind him, Joel took a moment to focus on the man at their feet. He pointed the light of the flashlight down.

He was a bald man, trapped under a heavy metal filing cabinet, wearing a hooded leather jacket and a gas mask with a missing eye piece.

“My mask broke,” the man declared in a calm and steady voice.

With the light of the flashlight on the man’s shiny skull, Joel confirmed the man’s assessment was accurate.

The man struggled under the weight of the cabinet. “Don’t… Don’t leave me to turn. Please.” He let out another rasping cough and Joel knew the man’s lungs were now full of the deadly bacteria that hung in the air.

He heard Tess take up a position behind him. “What do you want to do?” she asked in a hushed whisper.

Joel knew there was only one thing to do. He applied the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He pulled the revolver out from its resting place against the small of his back, pointed it at the man’s skull and pulled the trigger. The gunshot rang in his ears and reverberated throughout the room.

“Poor bastard,” lamented Tess.

Joel nodded. It was time to move on.

They entered a narrow hallway and moved slowly. Without warning, one of the wooden planks blocking the far doorway fell.

“Up ahead, you hear that?” Tess asked in a strained whisper.

Joel shushed her as the hairs on the back on his neck stood at attention. He had a fair idea of what lie waiting for them just around the corner.

He glued himself against the wall, placing his ear to the surface to listen. What he heard sent chills raking down his spine. He made out the distinct moans of at least a half dozen infected. Their bodies jerked and spasmed, and with each painful twitch, they released an agonizing cry of torment.

He heard footsteps of the insane racing past and then abruptly halting to a stop. This was followed by more of their agonized panting and screeching.

“How you wanna handle it?” Tess asked.

Joel knew the advantage he had in sneaking up on his prey and that was precisely what he intended to do. Strength and stealth were on his side, so long as the odds remained one on one.

He left the cover and safety of the hallway, entered the room slowly, keeping his head low, and approached one of the infected, a tormented man whose body twitched and spasmed uncontrollably.

Quietly he approached, and when he gauged the distance to be accurate, Joel rose to his feet quickly, wrapping an arm tight across the man’s windpipe.

Joel dropped to one knee, bringing the infected down with him, squeezing with every ounce of strength he had, crushing his victim’s windpipe, using his other arm as additional leverage. The man’s body jerked in response as desperate hands flailed at Joel’s head trying to find a grip, but Joel was careful to keep his head back and out of reach of the man’s hopeless grasp.

In a matter of moments, it was over. Joel let the lifeless corpse slide from his arms to the floor where it remained motionless. Its suffering - for now - had ended.

He turned another corner, saw a pair of stalkers in the dense mote-laden air feasting violently upon the flesh of a recent victim.

“Jesus,” he heard himself gasp. Deciding to leave well enough alone, he crept quietly past them, the blood-soaked carpet sinking like mush under his weight.

Up ahead to his left was a staircase, the stairs leading down negated by a blockade of metal filing cabinets.  Up was the only option, and so it was up he went.

The wooden stairs were clear so as he reached the landing he quickly rounded them and proceeded to the next floor. He found himself in a room with light coming in from a broken wall leading to the outside. Large planks covered a gaping hole in the floor and the room showed signs of lush vegetation taking root.

This was the way out but it wasn’t time just yet to exit the building. To his left Joel noticed a closed door. Years of survival had taught him the importance of searching his surroundings for anything useful and so it was now his instincts led him to the door.

On his left stood a water cooler and a pair of file cabinets, their drawers all ajar. He approached the door, still crouched, still moving slowly. He entered and found himself inside a small office containing a pair of cubicles, a worn sofa and a small table. It was there he saw the folded, stained letter sitting on the table:

Hey Brother,

We were so close. I’m sitting outside the walls knowing I’ll never see the inside of the zone. While waiting for the smuggler to show up, we heard a squad of soldiers approaching. In our panic, we ducked into this building in hopes of hiding from them. None of us noticed the spores until it was too late. We’re all infected - we have a few hours, maybe a day at most. I hope the smuggler is still coming so that I can at least pass this note to you.

I should’ve listened to you and come to the zone with you when I had the chance.

Now it’s too late.

Take care,

- Mark

Joel read the letter and understood. The only way to enter a zone nowadays was to be smuggled in, and once inside, pray you were never asked to show your identity papers. He also knew soldiers were ordered to shoot on sight. There was no way to play it safe, not in the world they lived in. You took your chances with every passing day, and prayed like hell your luck would hold. In the case of the man who wrote this letter, his lucky streak had ended. That was all there was to it.

A fleeting thought crossed Joel's mind: was this the poor devil whose windpipe he had crushed? He wondered...

With Tess close behind him, Joel left the office and made his way quietly across the planks leading to the outside. He could see just below him through the gaping hole in the floor the pair of infected ripping the flesh from the bones of their victim. Any noise now would cause them to look up and see them.

The outside wall was covered in vines, like the opening of a jungle cave. Joel jumped the short distance from the wall and landed back out in the open air. A moment later, Tess landed beside him. Together they removed their masks.

“Alright,” Tess said. “That’s all of them.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Tess scurried across a shallow pond of green scum bracketed by broken cement. An ancient basketball hoop without a net hovered near a twisted metal fence.

“Let’s head back to the city.”

Joel followed her through the open gate, leaving the dilapidated tenement building behind.