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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.


She went back to the window and resumed her silent reverie while he spooned peaches into his mouth and slurped juice down his throat. Afterward, he let out a satisfied belch. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and pushed back from the table.

It was time to get a move on.


The road to Lincoln was a long one...

Up to this point, he hadn't allowed himself any time to think about Tess. But on the long walk toward the smuggler's town, the image of her kept creeping into his thoughts. They'd had a pretty good run together over the past five years and he remembered fondly the first thing she'd ever said to him.

There was an old man - old for this day and age anyway - known as "Doc". He helped anyone who wanted to avoid attention with their non-infectious wounds, and Joel had been clubbed in the head by a trio of thugs who had wanted his rations and whatever else he owned.

He was lying on a lumpy mattress in a makeshift hospital room with a few other bandaged souls, and one of them was Tess, who was busy applying a new bandage to a nasty gash above her hip.

He absent-mindedly watched as she redressed the wound and noticed she barely grimaced.

She caught sight of him staring and said, "So what's your problem?"

He looked away and laid his head back down on the mattress.

He then heard her chuckle and watched out of the corner of his eye as she retrieved a shiny unlabeled canned good from her pack. It looked like she had several.

Without even knowing what was in it, his mouth watered. He swallowed. "Where'd you get that?"

"I have my way of getting things. Guns, ammo..." she tossed him a can, "peaches."

He looked over the can in his hands and licked his lips.

He glanced back at her. "Smuggling?"


She stood up, walked over to him and extended her hand. "Tess," she said.

He accepted her firm grip. "Joel."

"Where you from?"

He snorted. "Does it matter?"

"If you weren't Texas born and bred, I'll eat my own bra."

He rose up on one elbow. "Do you even own a bra?"

She tugged the collar of her shirt a little way down her shoulder, revealing a dingy white strap.

He grinned.


"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…


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.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

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

Standing at the bottom of the crater beside the subway cars, in the shadow of the tall buildings that loomed above, Ellie said aloud what Joel was thinking.
“Holy shit,” she gasped. “We actually made it.”
Joel sucked in a breath and looked around. “Everyone okay?”
“Yes,” Tess nodded. “Let’s move.”
They began the arduous climb out of the crater, making their way to the street above. Joel raked his fingernails against his bare arm. Moving through the bombed-out building had covered him with dust particles that now irritated his sweat-soaked skin. He cursed. The gritty coating made his tongue thick and mouth dry. It scratched his eyeballs when he blinked.
What he wouldn’t give for a swim in a clear cool pond.
After, he reminded himself. After he and Tess handed the girl over to the Fireflies. Then he’d find a nice large puddle of rainwater. He’d wallow in it.
And a soft mattress too, he thought, somewhere in one of those empty tenement buildings above… Somewhere in the outskirts of the city was a quiet room with a door and a decent bed to flop himself down upon. He could close his eyes and sleep for days - that’s how tired he was.
Ellie spoke, jarring him from his thoughts. “You guys are actually good at this.”
“It’s called ‘luck’,” Joel groused. “And it is gonna run out.”
They continued to climb in silence.
He considered the girl. Was she the key to putting an end to this hellish nightmare? Find a cure, wipe out the disease, rebuild civilization as the Fireflies fervently hoped? He snorted. Talk about pipe dreams. The whole thing sounded crazy. But then again, he’d grown so used to his existence he wondered if he could ever imagine life any other way.
Ah, but who cared, he thought to himself. In a few hours, the girl would be someone else’s problem, and he and Tess could take a long-deserved breather.
Maybe they wouldn’t return to the quarantine zone after dropping her off. Maybe they would live for a while like their contact outside the city. Find a little town some place where they could hole up. It was his own pipe dream, he knew, but with Robert dead and with the Fireflies riling up the military, maybe it was time to go someplace different for a while. Do what Tess said: lay low.
Lay low, he thought.
He reflected on Tess, how they’d met, the bond they shared. She was a strange mix to him, not quite a lover - he wasn’t about to risk that pain again - more of a sister than anything else.
She knew his wound and stayed clear of it, and for that, he was eternally grateful. She had wounds of her own, and his silent acknowledgment of the fact suited them both perfectly. She wasn’t looking for a lover; she’d had her pick of those and never drank from the same well twice. It amused Joel how she frightened her male admirers. No one messed with her, and it wasn’t because of Joel. It was because the girl could handle her own.
They had finally clawed their way back to the street and were heading for an intersection dominated by a large, red-bricked colonial building to their left.
Tess reached the intersection and stopped.
‘Which way we goin', Tess?” Joel asked impatiently.
“Uh…” Tess glanced around, trying to get her bearings. Finally, she pointed down the dark narrow street in front of them. “Capitol building's in this direction.”
They picked up their pace and Joel heard crickets chirping in the predawn stillness. They started down the narrow street but stopped. A large white truck had jack-knifed and was wedged lengthwise, blocking their path. Joel could easily make out the giant red lobster painted on its side.
Tess sighed at the obstacle. “How do we get up over this truck?” she asked with irritation in her voice. She was standing ankle-deep in a large puddle of rainwater. She looked around. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Joel turned his attention to the gaping hole ripped into the side of the red-bricked building to his left. He crept around to the entrance as thunder rumbled miles away. He slipped past the colonial pillars, up the front stairs, and passed through a doorless entry.
The human shapes standing in the darkness caused him to freeze.
There were three of them, hunched slightly together, moaning and croaking, almost as if they were in communion with each other. He glanced around in the darkness. He was standing in a lobby of some sort: the brass velvet rope stands against the wall gave it away. There was a counter and a few wooden cabinets, a bookshelf, and what looked like the hulk of a large mahogany push-cart squatting in the middle.
He thought now was a good opportunity to try out the Molotov cocktail he had found earlier near the body of the dead Firefly. He knelt, slipping off his backpack and retrieved it. He then fished a metal zippo lighter from his pocket, flipped it open, thumbed a flame, and lit the doused strip of cloth hanging from the bottle’s mouth.
The flame grew large and bright in his hand, and then he took aim, hoping to land the bottle in the middle of where the three stalkers stood. He tossed it in a lazy arc, and when it smashed against the floor, the volatile liquid spread and caught fire, and instantly the three shapes were bathed in flames.
They screamed and writhed as the searing inferno consumed them. It was a gruesome sight, seeing them die in a literal baptism of fire. But, Joel conceded, at least their suffering was finally over.
To his surprise, the fire didn’t spread but died out quickly. It must’ve been due to the several gaping holes in the walls and the cracks in the ceiling; the entire room was rainsoaked through and through. He went around the smoldering bodies, coughed from the smoke of the glowing embers, and searched through the few cabinets for supplies.
Ellie appeared in the gap where the wall used to be with her hand over her mouth. “Jeesh,” she muttered, staring at the smoking mounds. Tess appeared behind her.
“They’re recently infected. Those soldiers must have just turned,” she told the girl.
“Which means there’s more in the area,” Joel added. “We gotta go.”
He hurried to the wooden pushcart, grabbed the slime-covered handle and pushed it to where Ellie was standing. She stepped aside, and Joel wiggled it outside, pushing and pulling it toward the truck. Finally, he had it in place.
He was the first one up the side of the truck. When he reached the top, he stopped to have a look. From where he stood, he had a good view of what lie ahead. The dark clouds had parted, and a tip of the white moon peeked over a building in the far distance.
His heart sank. Not more than fifty yards away, the overhead walkway connecting the buildings had collapsed and now formed a barrier blocking any egress down the street. He dropped down the other side anyway, hoping there was another way.
Tess and the girl were right behind him, making their way up and over.
The side panel of the truck was open; Joel turned on his flashlight and ducked inside to have a look. Something slick reflected the beam and he bent down to scoop it up. It was a torn page from a medical pamphlet that had been widely circulated at the start of the infection.
A helluva lot of good it did, Joel thought, shaking his head.
Tess and the girl had gone ahead, moving toward the barricade. He jogged to catch up. Now Tess had her light on and was shining it against an enclave in the wall to her left.
“Joel, over here,” she called out in a hushed whisper.
As he approached, he saw the chain first, then the closed metal door beside it. “Maybe we can cut through here,” he said.
“Yeah, that worked out great last time,” Ellie said abruptly. Tess shot her a look. “Sorry,” she said with a meek shrug. “I’m just saying.”
Joel gripped the chain firmly with both hands and pulled. It made such a noisy racket that he grimaced, knowing he was giving away their position.
It was too late to stop, and even though he thought he heard something in the distance, he kept tugging. Progress was slow but he kept at it, pulling one hand over the other, grunting from the effort. He felt Tess’s hand touch his shoulder.
“Shh,” she hissed.
He froze, straining not to let the chain slip.
“What?” he asked in a hushed whisper. “I don’t hear anything.” He may not have heard it, but Tess’s hearing was better than his.
“Okay,” she said, motioning quickly with her hands. “Double-time.”
Joel resumed yanking down the chain, trying to move faster. With every inch, the door got heavier, and he was struggling to maintain his grip. “Oh shit,” he cursed, as the sounds grew louder. He put his all into it, focusing on nothing else but opening that goddamn door.
“They’re coming,” Ellie gasped, looking at Joel with panic in her eyes.
“I know,” he shouted. He grimaced and pulled and pulled and pulled.
“Okay, that’s good, that’s good,” Tess said quickly. She grabbed Ellie by the collar and pushed her toward the door. “Go!”
His hands still gripping the chain, Joel glanced over his shoulder and saw the arms flailing in the shadows. The sound of their groans told him they were almost upon them.
Tess and Ellie slipped under the small gap under the door and he saw fingers emerge from the other side, gripping the bottom, lifting it for him. Tess shouted, “Okay, Joel!” and he released his own grip and moved to slip underneath.
He was tugged backwards.
He felt hands gripping his backpack, arms wrapping around his legs. He tore himself loose and rolled underneath just as the girls released their grip. The heavy metal door closed with a thundering crash.
Joel was quickly on his feet, backing away. The room echoed the sound of bodies throwing themselves against the metal door, banging, screaming and moaning, desperate to seize their prey. Ellie and Tess were beside him, backing away as well.
After a moment, the maddening noise subsided. Ellie tapped Joel’s shoulder and pointed.
“Uh, you got something on your shoe.”
Joel looked down. In a circle of light he saw a severed hand that had refused to let go of his boot. He grunted with disgust and shook the disembodied limb free. It landed with a cold slap against the concrete floor.
“Gross,” Tess said.
They collectively exhaled a sigh of relief, glad to be safe, and together they turned to see where they were. The crisscrossing beams of their flashlights revealed that they were now standing in a small warehouse of some sort. A large transportation truck sat with its back bumper against a loading dock.
“Okay,” Joel said with another sigh. “How do we get out of this place?”
Tess was busy searching for the answer. “Let’s find out,” she said.
Joel walked along the length of the truck and hoisted himself onto the dock. All he saw were wooden crates lining the back wall. What he heard was a conversation between Tess and the girl:
“So Marlene thinks you’re immune?”
“Well, that’s what she believes.”
Joel held his tongue. Against another wall, beside a gray metal door, he spotted a workbench with a light attached to a car battery. He went to it and discovered with satisfaction that the thing still had juice.
“Here we go,” he said. He slid off his backpack in preparations to make improvements to his kit.
“Well, how were you bitten?” Tess persisted. “I mean, you must've been somewhere you shouldn't to find an infected in the zone.”
“Yeah, I'd sneak out. I was in this military boarding school.”
“You'd sneak out?” she asked, her voice incredulous.
“You know, explore the city. I was in the mall when I ran into infected.”
“That place is completely off-limits,” Tess told her. “How the hell did you get in there?”
“I... had my ways,” Ellie said. “Anyways, one of those -- what you guys call runners -- bit me. And that was that.”
“I see,” Tess said. She didn’t reveal anything from her tone, but Joel knew the wheels were spinning, truing up the pieces.
“Were you with Marlene when you were bitten?” she asked.
“No. I went to her for help afterwards.”
“Knowing her,” Tess chuckled, “I’m surprised she didn’t shoot you.”
“She almost did.” Ellie sighed. “Hope she’s alright.”
“I told you,” Tess said sharply. “She’s gonna be fine.” Now Joel chuckled to himself. If the girl hadn’t guessed it: when Tess said something, she meant it.
Satisfied with his modifications, Joel flicked the battery-powered light off and slipped his pack back over his shoulders. He tried the door next to the bench and to his relief, it opened. He went through and the girls followed him.
They were in a dark storage room. He saw a long desk with a computer on it, lots of boxes and crates. A foul odor hung in the air. The walls were covered with posters and corkboards and other miscellaneous office junk. White fragments of broken ceiling tiles littered the floor.
The room had two other doors. Joel went to the one on his right and opened it. He entered another office room like the one he had left. There were a few desk drawers and he search through each of them.
He saw another door and went through it and entered a larger room. Part of the floor above had collapsed. The air here was heavy with mildew and rot. There was no other unchecked exit from the room, so he moved to the base of the collapsed wooden floor and slowly made his way up.
Rainwater poured down from above. The unbroken section of the floor sagged under its own weight. Joel wasn’t sure it would support him, so he stepped on it gently, testing it with the pressure of his foot.
His focus was broken when he heard a small crash behind him and then heard the girl curse in response. He spun to see what it was and caught her guilt-ridden face in the beam of his light.
“Sorry, sorry” she said, raising her hands. “That was me.”
“Tess,” Joel cursed, looking at the girl.
“Sorry,” Ellie said again, for the third time.
“C’mon.” Tess led the girl away from Joel’s angry glare. “Stay close to me.”
He took a deep breath and resumed studying the floor above him. He reached up and tested the sturdiness of a section of the wooden floor and, feeling satisfied, lifted himself up.
Through a set of open double-doors, he spied a hallway with a well-worn, blue carpet running down its center. More open doorways fed off the hallway with shadows beyond. The walls of the hallway were white; dingy chair rail molding ran along its length.
He went through the double-doors, turning to his right down another hallway. He immediately discovered that the way was blocked with fallen rubble. “Shit,” he cursed under his breath.
He turned to his left where another door stood cracked open. This place is a damn maze, he cursed to himself. He heard Ellie’s voice as she and Tess followed in his footsteps:
“What is this place?”
“It’s an old museum,” Tess informed her. “Some of these things are hundreds of years old.”
“Really?” the girl replied. “Wow.”
Joel kept moving through the rooms, over floors covered in debris. Whenever he came to an antique case or cabinet, he’d open the glass doors or slide the drawer open. Sometimes he found something useful, like a piece of sharp metal, or an oily rag. Most of the time they were empty, but in one he found a Firefly dog tag and slipped it into his pocket.
In one of the glass cases stood a mannequin dressed as a revolutionary war soldier. The figure was tilted, leaning halfway out of the broken glass, as if trying to escape. He ducked through a doorway that was partially blocked with wooden planks that had been nailed into place as a makeshift barrier.
He entered a room where the ceiling beams had collapsed, but he could see a viable path through the opposite door, and he crouched, trying to make his way through. Ellie and Tess kept close behind him.
The exit was again blocked, this time by a giant gray wooden beam, but there was a long four-by-four wedged underneath. If he could use the four-by-four as cantilever, he might be able to create a gap wide enough for the girls to slip through.
“Alright,” he said, gripping the four-by-four. “Watch your head.” He bent at the knees, keeping his back straight and lifted with a loud groan. The heavy wooden beam rose.
“Hurry,” he urged, straining under the weight. “Go, go, go.”
He cursed at the force needed, and just as Tess followed Ellie through, the cantilever broke in two and the beam collapsed with a thunderous crash, raining splintered wood particles and debris down upon him. He feared for a split-second the entire ceiling would come crashing down on him, crushing him underneath.
He gasped and blinked his eyes. Lucky for him, the ceiling held.
He heard Tess’s frantic cry from the other side. “Joel, Joel!”
“I’m alive!” he called out. Barely! He caught his breath, shook the dust from his eyes. “I’ll… I’ll make my way around to you.”
“Oh!” Ellie’s voice cried out. “Look, they’re here!”
“Goddammit!” he cursed. He couldn’t see what they were facing. “Tess?!” he cried out.
“Run,” he heard Tess tell the girl. “RUN!”
He heard the clicking sound and felt an icy chill run down his spine. “Shit,” he cursed again, pulling himself from the rubble. He had to make his back way to them.
He got to his feet quickly, staying crouched under in order to move under the low ceiling. His beam caught sight on an exit he hadn’t noticed before and he hurried to it, staying quiet. He slipped into stealth mode as adrenaline filled his veins.
He came out into another hallway.
“Tess,” he whispered loudly.
There was nothing but silence.
He moved down the hall, saw a door leading to an adjacent room, saw and heard the clicker simultaneously a dozen feet away, and without hesitation, pulled a makeshift shiv from his back pocket.
Without stopping, he moved through another open doorway and entered. The flashlight told him the room was empty. It looked like a concession stand, with a display counter for candy and the relic of an old popcorn machine.
He called out again for Tess and again there was no reply. “Shit!” he cursed.
He found the next door locked and he jimmied it open with his shiv. It was a small storage room and here finally his luck changed. He found ammo matching his pistol, along with a few other articles of value which he quickly shoved into his backpack.
He realized he had enough ingredients for another Molotov, which he quickly fashioned.
He left the room and headed through a door to his immediate left and found himself staring at the back of a clicker who was swaying drunkenly in the corner of the hall. Following his instincts, he spun back around and slipped through another open doorway behind him.
He found himself in a high-ceilinged room with a giant display at its center: a soldier on a saddle horse. All around him he heard the hideous clicking noises; the room was full of them. It could be that Tess and the girl were not far off, hiding like himself in the shadows. If he knew Tess, she was trying to make her way up, looking for an exit.
Unfortunately, the clickers roaming through the halls made it impossible to speak, so he had no way of knowing for sure.
He turned another corner, saw a doorway - had he passed here before? As he edged closer, a clicker jerked aimlessly past him, unaware of his presence. Again, he let the threat slip by. He wasn’t making any rash move until he knew where the girls were hiding, and he swore to himself he would find them.
As the clicker passed, he spotted a closed set of double wooden doors on the other side of the hallway. This was new, he told himself. He snuck across the hall and slowly turned the handle…
He found himself in an outer hallway with a stairway at its far end. Light from the emerging dawn strained in through mildew-covered windows. He quickly made his way down the white-walled hall, turned to his left and up the stairs.
When he reached the middle landing, he heard a sound. Pounding. He girded himself and continued up, fearing what he might find. There was another set of double doors, closed, and he reached out with one hand and carefully turned the handle. The door creaked open and he slipped through, finding himself in yet another long hallway, now on the floor above.
At the end of the hall, a runner was throwing himself bodily against a locked door, desperate with rage to get through. Joel instinctively released a sigh, knowing what it most likely meant: Tess and Ellie must be on the other side.
He lunged up at the creature, gripping its neck in his stranglehold, crushing its windpipe. He let the body fall aside just as he heard Tess’s frantic voice behind the closed door:
“Ellie, stay back!”
Gunshots followed, and Joel rose and kicked the door open, splinters flying in all directions. He busted in, drawing his revolver at the same time.
“Tess!” he yelled, looking around in panic.
He saw her desperately fighting off one of the infected. She managed to push it away and swing a heavy two-by-two at its chin, sending the runner reeling to the ground. She lifted the weapon above her head and brought it down hard, smashing the skull to bits.
He ran to her and relief filled her eyes. “I’m fine,” she gasped, anticipating his question.
She threw the splintered piece of wood to the floor. As he took a moment to register her face, he heard Ellie’s voice shouting from the other room:
“Guys, get in here!”
“The girl!” Tess exclaimed. She raced through the open doorway.
“Shit!” Joel cursed.
He raced into the room, could see the girl struggling with a runner. Both he and Tess raised their weapons simultaneously, knowing what it meant. He was careful to aim high, and in the next instant, bullets rang out in blinding flashes.
His shots landed on target, sending brain fragments into the air, and the body of the dead runner flopping to the ground.
Ellie was crouched low with her hands over her head. She quickly regained her senses and ran to Joel’s side. They were coming now, all of them, attracted by the sound of gunfire, and Joel without hesitation ignited the oily cloth hanging from the neck of the bottle in his hand.
He hurled the Molotov into the hallway just as the thundering footsteps arrived.
The left side of the room was set ablaze. The infected kept charging, and he fired into the flames, gunfire ringing in his ears. Down they went, one after another. Tess was firing madly to his right. He had no idea where Ellie was; he only hoped the girl had managed to get behind him.
When the last runner fell, the place grew silent. The room was filled with nothing but sputtering flames and lingering gun smoke. The only sound, their own heavy breathing.
Joel couldn’t believe they had survived. “That was too damn close,” he gasped.
With heaving shoulders, he joined Tess and Ellie over in the far corner of the room. They were standing in front of a window beside billowing drapes with a golden ray of sunlight angling in.
Tess was bent over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. Ellie was standing quietly beside her.
Tess expelled a breath and said, “Oh, shit.”
Joel’s thoughts exactly.
The breeze coming in through the window felt good against his sweat-soaked shirt.
He looked over at his partner and asked, “Tess, how are you holding up?”
“Just a bit winded,” she said. She caught her breath and motioned to the open window. “This way,” she said, abruptly before slipping out. “This’ll get us to the roof.”
Alone with the kid, Joel looked at her. He felt compelled to say something.
“How ‘bout you, kid? You okay?”
“Define okay,” the girl panted.
“Are you still breathing?”
She wiped the sweat from her eyes with her forearm. “Do small, panicked breaths count?”
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “They count.”
“Alright.” she said. “Then I’m okay.”
Satisfied, he climbed through the window, went up the fire escape, and joined the woman standing at the edge of the rooftop. She looked exhausted.
“There she is,” Tess said, pointing toward the dome. “That’s our building.”
He turned his head to the horizon. Standing on the wide, corrugated panels, they had a clear view of the capitol building from the rooftop. Behind it, the sky was painted in a gentle pink and fringed by thin, purplish clouds.
The air felt cool and refreshing. It blew through Joel’s damp hair, it filtered through the tee-shirt soaked in perspiration.
Glancing to his right, he caught sight of the Firefly emblem painted in black on the brick facade on the adjacent rooftop. Someone had spray-painted a dripping white circle in its center, adding the impressing of a shining star.
Joel leaned over the metal railing and looked down. It was quite a drop and there were no exits in sight. They needed to make their way across, to the ivy-covered rooftop several yards away.
He looked around the rooftop on which they were standing. Over in the corner was a long wooden plank lying along the cracked concrete surface, not far from the rusted metal railing.
He went over and picked it up - it was heavy - and he carried it to the edge where Tess stood, still peering silently at the horizon.
“Stand back,” he warned her. She was jarred from her thoughts and stepped aside.
He placed one end of the plank on the railing of the roof and let the other end fall to the ledge of the building facing them.
“Alright,” he said, positioning it carefully. To Ellie, he said: “Now watch your step as you’re going up ‘cause it’s going to be a little --”
The girl looked at him and made a “pssh” sound with her lips. She walked past him and stepped up on the board without hesitation. Joel turned to Tess, but she just shook her head as if to say, “Kids”.
The girl walked across the board with her arms outstretched. Dust fell where the plank groaned under her weight. She reached the other side safely and hopped down.
Joel went next, and even though the girl wasn’t watching, he felt compelled to match her bravado. He’d done this a hundred times, but feared if he slipped now, he’d suffer the embarrassment worse than the fall.
He crossed and dropped down beside her. She was staring at the horizon.
“Well,” he said, motioning to the glinting dome and the pink horizon beyond. “Is that everything you hoped for?”
“Jury’s still out,” she conceded. “But man,” she sighed, “you can’t deny that view.”
He looked at her a moment and a vague feeling swept over him. It was equal parts warm and terrifying. He didn’t like nor understand it.
Tess moved past them. “C’mon,” she said. “This way.”
Something caused him to look down at the arms folded across his chest. His eyes went to the busted watch on his wrist, and for a moment, he was lost to himself.
“Hey,” Tess said with unnecessary hostility. “Pick it up.”
He was jerked out of the comfort of a distant memory. In its wake he felt a strange melancholy.
He followed her to the edge of the rooftop where the curved handles of a metal ladder stood waiting for them.
Tess suddenly turned to him. “Look,” she said in a serious tone. “We’re almost done. Stay focused.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, matching her tone.
They descended the metal rung ladder and landed in a small grassy landing enclosed on all sides by buildings. There was a set of concrete steps nearby with an iron railing that offered a way down.
“It’s right around this corner,” Tess said urgently. “C’mon.”
He noticed the girl’s slumped shoulders and sensed her exhaustion. “Keep moving, kid.”
They walked down the steps in silence.
They made their way all the way down, past three landings, until they finally reached the point where the stairs ended. They found themselves in a small grassy plaza surrounded by buildings. In front of them stood a walkway: a narrow gap between two of the buildings. Joel saw that it was blocked by a heavy iron gate.
They took a moment to get a handle on what to do next and that’s when Joel spotted the dark splotches of blood coming from the locked gate.
The trail of blood went past him, back toward the concrete steps they had just descended. He hadn’t noticed any blood on the steps coming down, so when he turned around and peered to his right, he saw that the trail disappear around the steps, and moving to follow it, saw that it ended in an area where garbage cans lay strewn.
That’s when he noticed the body.
“Look at this,” he called over to Tess.
A dead Firefly sat amid the garbage with his back against the corner of ivy-covered walls.
As Tess and Ellie approached, Joel saw the blood-stained note lying beside the man. He picked it up and read the typed words:
“ORDERS: Patrol the rendezvous area. Ensure no military presence before moving the girl to the next safehouse.”
Below it, written in cursive handwriting, the blue ink read: “Make sure the girl is well fed and in good health. Her safety is of the utmost importance.”
“There’s a Firefly logo on his arm,” Ellie said, pointing at the corpse. She stood beside him; her young voice filled with worry. “What if we get there and they’re all dead?”
“They won’t be,” Tess said sharply.
“But, how do you know?”
“I just do,” she exclaimed. Joel noted the odd look on her face and suddenly was filled with unease.
Tess sighed and released her shoulders. “Look,” she said softly to the girl, “it’s gonna be fine.”
“Okay,” Ellie said, lowering her head.
Joel heard Tess mumble something to herself. It almost sounded like, “It has to be,” but he wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, it didn’t ease his growing concern that something was amiss.
He turned his attention back to the exit.
The iron gate was the only way out and it was firmly locked. He glanced up and saw the wooden platform above it, just slightly out of climbing reach. Looking around, he spotted an aged dumpster near the base of the stairs.
He grabbed the handle and rolled it over to the locked gate.
It clanged noisily as he pushed it against the iron doors. Looking through the walkway, Joel could see that they only had a short distance to go to reach the street.
“Up and over,” he said, hoisting himself first onto the dumpster and then scurrying up to the wooden platform.
The edge of the platform had a yellow strip of caution tape nailed to it. Joel traversed the short platform, stepping over several old cans of paint. He dropped silently on the other side and turned the corner. The dome appeared just up ahead.
“There we go,” he said with relief.
Their destination was just a short distance away, at the end of a sloping wide lane where a few cars sat in rusted ruins. At the end of the lane spawned a large moss-covered pond which surrounded a roman-columned gazebo.
The building was late eighteenth-century, majestic in size, light brown, with handsome porticoes and balustrades in front. The pillars stretched from the steps all the way up to the highest floor. Capping the giant neoclassical structure was the bright gold dome that still retained some of its luster.
He headed down the middle of the lane, with a regal brick and iron fenced gate surrounding the capitol grounds on his right.
“Home stretch, Tess,” he said, his heart filled with encouragement.
They picked up their pace, being so close, with Tess hurrying to the lead. It was almost over, thought Joel; this perilous journey was soon coming to an end. He was anxious for it to be over, anxious to hand over the girl and rid himself of the persistent nagging sensation that had plagued him since leaving the quarantine zone.
There would be plenty of time to rest and relax afterwards, maybe even spend a few minutes bathing in that pond. He licked his dry lips. And then, after that, find a nice quiet hole to curl up in and fall asleep.
The girl’s tentative voice jarred him from his thoughts.
“Um,” she said, “just so it’s out there… I can’t swim.”
Tess grunted and said, “Look, it looks like it’s shallow on the right side. Follow me.”
They entered the murky green water and Joel braced against the sudden chill. A gray mist hovered over the pond as they waded past the car roofs that were still visible.
“I’m glad Marelene hired you guys,” Ellie said abruptly.
“What do you mean?” asked Tess.
The water reached Joel’s waist and he shivered from its bite.
“I know you guys are getting paid for this, but…” she hesitated, “I’m trying to say thanks.”
“Yeah,” Tess replied. “Sure thing.”
Swishing through the pond, with their arms above the water, they made their way past a delivery truck of some kind, slipped past a partially submerged Yellow Cab, and finally emerged sopping wet on the wide set of steps leading to the majestic front doors.
The sun had cleared the horizon, and now, walking up the long steps, Joel welcomed the warmth of its rays on his back.
Being so close to the end of their journey, they hurried up the steps, passing short, square columns of stone. The base of the pillars was covered in thick, spongy moss. Just ahead lie the entrance columns and double doors. The surrounding area was eerily quiet.
They reached the pillared entrance, Tess first, and they looked around. No other living soul was in sight; they heard absolute silence. Without a word of preamble, Joel placed his hand on the doors and pushed them open.
Immediately his heart sank.
“No,” came Tess’s strangled cry behind him. “No, no, no.”
Spread out on the cracked floor of the main hall lay the bodies of three Fireflies. Each had fallen in gun battle, and each lay motionless in a wide pool of their own dark blood.
Joel saw the look of confusion on Ellie’s young face and he sighed. All this way for nothing.
Now, what the hell were they going to do?
Tess scampered to one of the bodies on hands and knees, oblivious to the congealed blood that soon covered her hands and knees. She frantically searched a body as Joel hovered over her, watching dumbfounded.
Ellie looked up at Joel and raised her shoulders: “What happens now?”
He sighed. He didn’t want to be the one to have to tell her.
He walked over to Tess, saw her frantically going through the pockets of a dead Firefly, her hands and arms painted red.
“What are you doing, Tess?”
“Oh god,” she panted frantically. She scurried on all fours to the next body and started another search. “Maybe they, ah, maybe they had a map or something to tell us where they were going.”
Joel was taken aback by her actions. “How far we gonna take this?” he asked with exhaustion.
She jerked her head and stared up at him. “As far as it needs to go.” She glanced quickly over at the girl. “Where was this lab of theirs?” she asked in desperation.
Ellie seemed caught off-guard. She shook her head. “Uh, she never said. She only mentioned that it was someplace out west.”
Joel again leaned over Tess as she searched a body looking for some sliver of hope. “What are doing here?” he asked. “This is not us.”
“What do you know about us?” Tess spat, rising to her feet.  She stared at him hard. “About me?”
“I know that you are smarter than this,” he said firmly, pointing down at the dead body lying at her feet.
“Really?” she said, cocking her head at him. There was an odd cruelty in her voice. “Guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time.”
“No,” he shouted. “We are survivors.”
“This is our chance --” she continued, pleading with open, blood-stained palms. Joel interrupted her, raising his voice so that it echoed through the chamber. “No! It is over, Tess!”
She looked at him and shuddered, surprised by his vitriol. He took a deep breath to regain his composure.  “Now we tried,” he said, his tone softening. “Let’s just go home.”
Tess looked at him and shook her head. With an uncharacteristic sadness in her eyes, she told him: “I’m not-- I’m not going anywhere.” She swallowed hard. “This is my last stop.”
“What?” he asked, trying to grasp her meaning.
She lowered her head and turned away. He saw her shoulders slump. “Our luck had to run out sooner or later.”
“What are you going on about?” He reached out to her so that she would turn to face him.
“No, don’t!” she screamed, knocking his hand away.
Lowering her gaze to the floor, she said softly, “Don’t touch me.”
Joel recoiled. He was shocked and confused by her words, her demeanor. None of this made any sense. And then he heard the girl speak behind him.
“Holy shit,” Ellie gasped.
He turned and saw the young girl’s face turn ashen white. She looked at him and nodded slowly at Tess.
“She’s infected.”
Bewildered, Joel turned back to his partner.
“Joel…” Tess stuttered, her moist eyes rising to meet his. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“Let me see,” he said, as a hard lump formed in his throat.
“I didn’t mean for this…”
“Show it to me!” he ordered.
She reached up with one hand, grabbed the collar of her shirt, and yanked it to one side.
Her collarbone was clearly broken, the skin punctured. Surrounding the wound were deep red gashes trickling with blood. She hadn’t just been bitten; her bone had been broken in two.
And she had never said a word about it.
Joel felt consumed by fire, a flash of white searing heat swept over his body.
“Oh christ,” he gasped.
Tess, his friend, his partner… the only thing in this world worth caring about… She had been mortally wounded, brutally, and he hadn’t even realized it.
“Oops,” she said. “Right?”
He turned away, swallowing the lump.
Tess rushed to the girl. “Gimme your arm.”
She grabbed the girl’s wrist, dragging her along with it, over to Joel to confront him.
“This was three weeks,” she said, pointing at the scarred wound. “I was bitten an hour ago and it’s already worse.”
He tried to turn away again, but she wouldn’t let him.
“This is fucking real, Joel. You’ve got to get this girl to Tommy’s. He used to run with this crew, he’ll know where to go.”
Joel reeled on his heels. “No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. He jabbed a finger at her: “That was your crusade,” and then at the girl: “I am not doing that.”
“Yes, you are,” she told him.
“Look,” she said, moving in close, close enough he could feel her breath on his cheek. Her hands rose to him and she spoke to him in a hushed whisper: “There’s enough here that you have to feel some sort of obligation to me.”
She pointed at the girl and said firmly. “So you get her to Tommy’s.”
A noise from outside made her curse and she spun to face the door: the sound of a vehicle screeching to a halt outside. There was no time…
Tess ran to the window, stood on her toes to peer out.
“Watch the exit!” Joel heard a soldier cry out. The order was followed by the sound of shouting, boots smashing the ground, the metallic click of weapons being armed.
Joel didn’t have to see outside to know that a truckload of soldiers had just arrived.
“They’re here,” Tess said calmly, her gun drawn. She turned and stared at Joel.
“Dammit,” he cursed under his breath.
“I can buy you some time, but you have to run.”
“What?” Ellie asked, incredulous. “You want us to leave you?”
Without hesitation, Tess said “Yes,” and nodded.
Joel started. “There is no way that --” he began, but Tess cut him off.
“I will not turn into one of those things,” she told him.
Sensing his hesitation, she moved in on him. “C’mon,” she whispered. She looked pleadingly into his eyes. “Make this easy for me.”
And for the first time in his life, he saw something he’d never seen before…
Tears filled her eyes.
“I can fight,” Joel said, his voice cracking.
“No, just go!” she shouted through her tears, shoving him away. “Just fucking go!”
He gave her one last look. Without shifting his gaze, he croaked, “Ellie --”
“I’m sorry,” Ellie rambled. “I didn’t -- I didn’t mean for this.”
“Get a move on,” he scolded her, fighting back his own tears. He still hadn’t released Tess from his gaze.
When Ellie hurried past him, Joel slowly followed, walking backwards, his eyes still locked on Tess. It was the last time he’d ever see her alive, and he didn’t want to turn away, not until he absolutely had to.
He finally turned and hurried after the girl, wiping away the wetness from his eyes, knowing he’d left Tess to die on her own, to sacrifice herself so he and the girl could escape, and he was crushed by the guilt.
Heavy footsteps rushed to the steps of the entrance. Tess watched as Joel and the girl dissolved into the shadows and were gone, and then she exhaled a long-suffering breath and her shoulders relaxed. A strange calm came over her as she turned to face the doors.
“We know you’re in there!” a soldier’s voice cried out. “Drop you weapons and come out with your hands up.”
She stepped backwards toward the center of the room, taking up position, raising her weapon. She took a deep breath; a quiet peace filled her in the solemn stillness of the cathedral-like building. If she had to die, this was as good a place as any.
She steadied both hands on the weapon, cocked her head to one side, and aimed the muzzle at the opening door.