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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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

They were standing on a grassy slope near a broken overpass, the sky above them dark. The rain had stopped and a black stream raced along the edge of where they now stood, water racing past the rusted hoods of long abandoned cars. Streams cascaded here and there from the cracks and crannies in the broken bridge above.

Joel held his breath, listening for movement above. Hearing nothing but the rush of water, he said, “They’re gone,” and released the pent-up air in his lungs.

With no soldiers in sight, the tension in Joel’s shoulders eased. Still, something continued to pester him, a nagging sense of unresolved danger that had plagued him since entering the sewer.

He glanced over his shoulder, saw the young girl plant herself on a rock, her head down, body bowed. That was the source of his irritation. The girl. She was infected and she knew it. He’d seen the wound. She was a ticking timebomb, a walking corpse waiting to strike.

But the wound wasn’t fresh… and she seemed unconcerned... How could that be?

She fidgeted nervously on the rock as Joel tried to fit the pieces together. It didn’t make sense. If Marlene was trying to trick them… why had she gone to such elaborate lengths? Why would she go to the trouble of harboring someone infected? Why take the risk?

Tess must’ve been reading Joel’s mind. She went to the girl after shooting Joel a look which confirmed his suspicions. She took a knee close beside Ellie, and when she spoke, her tone was quiet and maternal, but her words were pointed. Clearly, she wanted answers.

“Look, what was the plan?” Tess asked. “Let’s say that we delivered you to the Fireflies, what then?”

“Marlene,” Ellie began, speaking breathlessly and gesturing nervously with her hands. “She said that they have their own little quarantine zone, with doctors there still trying to find a cure.”

“Yeah,” Joel said, arms folded over his chest. He shook his head. “We’ve heard that before, huh, Tess?”

Ellie shot him a hurtful glance, wounded by his accusatory tone. She forced herself to continue. “And that…” she looked down at the fingers that were twitching nervously and sighed, “...whatever happened to me is the key to finding a vaccine.”

“Oh Jesus,” Joel exclaimed, turning away in disgust.

Ellie clucked her tongue, her face red with defiance. “It’s what she said.”

“Oh,” he said, staring down to her, “I’m sure she did.”

“Hey, fuck you, man!” her young voice raged. She rose to her feet. “I didn’t ask for this!”

She stood defiantly before him, and Joel moved closer, letting his shoulders tower above her. “Me neither,” he growled. Tess rose to her feet and stood between them.

“Tess,” Joel pleaded, fighting to hold his temper. “What the hell are we doing here?” He motioned to the girl to make his meaning clear, but when he opened his mouth to continue, Tess interrupted.

“What if it’s true?”

He took a step back in utter shock and said, “I can’t believe…” He searched her face and saw the look of determination in her eyes. He turned away in disgust.

“What if, Joel?” Tess persisted. “I mean, we’ve come this far, let’s just finish it.”

Joel grabbed her by the arm, pulled her away from the girl and brought her to the edge of the rushing stream. His hand jabbed a finger toward the city, toward the dark buildings that loomed in the distance. “Do I need to remind you what is out there?”

Tess looked at him for a long, painful moment before glancing back at the girl. She nodded, as if registering his meaning and then turned back to him. “I get it,” she said.

And that was that. She moved silently past him and entered the stream, moving toward the danger that lie ahead.

Joel was flabbergasted. He took a wavering step back. Ellie slipped sideways past him, letting her smoldering gaze singe his eyes. Once their backs were to him, he sighed heavily and shook his head in defeat. The facts were in. He was along on this suicide mission whether he liked it or not.


Tess crossed the stream and titled her head up to an interstate sign that read East 90 hanging limply from the ruptured overpass. Beyond the concrete bridge lie the helter-skelter ruins of downtown: a jagged collection of skyscrapers and buildings that had all but collapsed upon themselves.

“This way,” she said. “If we cut through downtown, we can hit the capitol building by sunrise.”

Joel paused and looked up at the giant ruins silhouetted against the dark sky. “We hope,” he muttered to himself. He wasn’t having any of Tess’s optimism. This was a lost cause and he knew it. He merely prayed that when the final blow was struck, it would be quick, for his sake and the others.

He felt a chill wind pass through his damp clothes as he followed the two into the lifeless corpse of the city. Tess led the way, scurrying over the exposed car roofs partially submerged by the swiftly flowing stream.

They climbed up the concrete rubble of the ruptured overpass, moving over cars and debris, slipping past the torn curtains of gushing water, trying to keep as dry as possible.

In the wake of the departing storm, the air was fresh and cool, and Joel felt invigorated as it flowed through him. It was time to let go of his frustration before it clouded his judgment or hampered his reflexes.

They climbed their way up the ragged end of the overpass that was still intact and soon found themselves with a surreal panorama of the war-torn city. Tall skyscrapers loomed before them, some leaning on others for physical support. Joel registered their massive size. It looked as if Salvador Dali himself had the scene for his own amusement.

“Holy moley,” Ellie exclaimed in awe. “I guess this is what these buildings look like up close. They’re so damn tall.”

They entered the metropolitan area using the main street through the heart of downtown.

The street was broken and uneven; tall grass rose from the cracks. Looking down the street, Joel could make out traffic signals, lampposts and telephone poles. Lining the thoroughfare were the burnt wreckage of trucks, buses and cars.

Joel spotted something lying on the ground near a telephone pole and picked it up. It was a flyer: a FEDRA warning. An ominous row of bombs were printed in stark black and white, making its meaning clear.

“So what happened here?” Ellie asked.

They kept moving as Tess replied matter-of-factly: “They bombed the hell out of the surrounding areas to the quarantine zones, hoping to kill as much of the infected as possible.” She sighed. “It worked… for a little while.”

They kept advancing down the street, making their way to a huge crater in the middle of the road. Overhead, a bolt of lightning was followed by thunder. And then, out of the eerie silence that followed, a strangled cry off in the distance.

“Uh, what the hell was that?” the girl asked, just as Joel spoke.

“Tess, do you hear that?”

“Yeah,” Tess said, continuing forward. “Sounded pretty far away though.”

“Shit,” Joel muttered. Who was she fooling?

Tess led the way up a concrete ledge jutting over the crater to the right. She scampered up the edge, ascending quickly. The girl and Joel followed. “Are we safe?” the girl asked nervously.

Tess glanced back at her over her shoulder. “For now,” she said. She motioned for her to keep moving forward. “Come on.”

They had reached a narrow gap where the path had become wedged between two buildings on their right. Tess moved to the edge the crater. Below them stretched more remains of the war-torn city. Unafraid, Tess hurried to a jagged section of the ledge that jutted even further over the dark abyss. Tess, Joel reminded himself, had no fear of heights.

They heard rushing water below them, and above them the distant rumble of thunder. The storm was moving off. She took a knee and peered down.

“Damn,” Ellie said, moving closer to Joel. “That’s quite a drop.”

Joel wasn’t as bold as Tess and hung back a few feet, but he still got a good look into the blackness below. He glanced off to his right, through a gap between the buildings in the distance and his spirits lifted. A gold dome was silhouetted against the gray sky. “Well,” Joel said, pointing. “There’s the capitol building.”

“Yeah,” Tess sighed. She rose to her feet. “We need to get around this mess.”

“This is the downtown area?” Ellie asked.

“It was,” Tess replied. She had to raise her voice to be heard over the rush of rainwater. “Now it’s a giant wasteland.”

Joel looked to his immediate right and saw a narrow path leading in the direction of the dome. He carefully made his way along the ledge, then entered a stone enclave that had withstood the aerial assault. He climbed inside and went up and over another ledge. When he landed on his feet, he realized he was in a plaza of some sort, with the sideways-leaning building to his left.

He saw a row of trees in large concrete planters with wooden park benches beside them. He glanced up, and that’s when he spotted the silver medallion hanging from a nearby branch. He edged closer to have a better look.

“You find anything over there?” he asked over his shoulder.

“No,” Tess called back.

“Keep looking.”

He grabbed a brick lying on the ground, took aim, and threw it at the medallion. The necklace broke free and fell. He went over and he picked it up - it was a Firefly medallion. It was a strange hobby of his, collecting the dog tags of the dead, and he had amassed quite a collection. He was always surprised when he came across one; they were often found in the unlikeliest of places.

The girl spoke up: “Should I do anything?”

“You just stay close to her for now,” Joel told her.

“Roger dodger,” the girl replied as thunder rumbled in the distance.

He turned his attention back to the building and saw a sign planted in the ground:  The Goldstone Building. Beyond the sign appeared tall dark shadows. An entrance perhaps?

“Over here,” he called to Tess.

He stood facing giant crumbling columns covered with thick green ivy and white dandelions. It struck Joel as an odd metaphor; life consuming death. Looking closer, he could clearly see a path through an opening where a pair of glass doors had once stood.

He moved inside. Thick vines and heavy foliage gave the impression of entering a jungle cave, but once inside the trappings of an office building gave itself away, despite the building being at an angle. Joel brushed the bushes aside and saw a gap where windows had once been, and he hoisted himself up, leaving the rushing water behind him.

“Hey, Tess!” he called.

“Comin’,” her faint voice sounded from the courtyard.

Joel flicked on the flashlight and approached a light brown door. The floor was tilted at an absurd angle, and he had to lean to his right to maintain his balance. He pushed the door open and entered the room.

Desks and debris were piled up in one corner of the room. The place smelled of mildew and rotting furniture, the walls were plaster-scarred. Whereas the air outside had been fresh and breezy, the air now was foul and breathless. The whole place smelled of death and decay.

Tess and the girl had now joined him, and they were going through the room, turning things over, looking for anything worth saving.

Joel noticed an open gray door to his right. He traversed the crooked floor and entered the hallway and froze. In the beam of his light, he saw the body of a dead soldier lying lengthwise against the wall in a pool of blood. The soldier was dressed in standard military blue, and his clothes were torn and bloodied. His vest and riot gear helmet were intact, but his face was a gooey mess. An ammo clip and several brass shell casings lay scattered around him.

Tess appeared at Joel’s shoulder. “He’s been ripped apart,” she said solemnly.

“Yeah,” Joel agreed. His tone conveyed what they both felt: this was an ominous sign.

“Body’s pretty fresh,” Tess said.

“Is that bad?” asked Ellie from behind.

“Yeah, might be…” Tess said. “Let’s not stick around.”

They needed to go through the building to get to their destination and the sooner they were out, the better. Joel ducked his head in an open stairwell and saw concrete steps leading up, the other way being blocked by debris. He climbed one landing and stopped.

Another soldier lay slumped against the wall.

“Another one,” Tess sighed. “Shit.”

The man’s left arm had been chewed off at the elbow. He sat, chin on chest, defeated; all around him were spent shell casings. His battle must have been futile, Joel thought, because there was no other victim in sight. Near him lie a metal clipboard with a yellow notepad attached. Joel bent down and picked up the pad. It was a Field Ops Log.

He sighed. There was nothing else to do but continue up the staircase.

As they reached the next landing, he saw a large number 5 hanging askew. He turned the landing and kept going up. On the sixth floor, he saw where desk and office chairs were piled up against the door, serving as a makeshift barricade. His intuition told him to go back down, back to the fifth floor, where an unexamined door had been left open. That’s exactly what he did.

Exiting the stairwell of the fifth floor, he saw yet another body and froze again, because it was no soldier. It sat upright against a gray metal door, glued to it by a spawn of dried fungus. The wall beside it was covered with vines sneaking their way in from outside.

Joel looked down at the body and cursed. “Goddammit. Clicker.”

A lot of fungus surrounded the body, once female, and it adhered to the metal door behind, welding body and door together. Joel approached cautiously. It was obvious that the fungus had turned to dry rot, so he was not hesitant to touch it.

Pink-tipped fungal plates protruded from the clicker’s head, obscuring the eyes and other facial features. It was a hideous sight, seeing what appeared to be human from the neck down, but inhuman from the neck up. The plates fanned out in a shell-shape, and in this case had grown brittle. The body which sat at their feet was harmless, but just looking at it sent chills up Joel’s spine.

As Joel bent forward to pry the corpse loose, Ellie noticed the plates. “Geez,” she said. “What’s wrong with its face?”

“That’s what years of infection will do to you,” Tess replied.

It took two swift tugs to free the body loose and when he was done, a cloud of dust hung in the air. Joel pushed the body away from the door and tried the handle.

“So what--? Are they--blind?”

“Sort of,” Tess said. “They see using sound.”

“Like bats?”

She nodded. “Like bats. If you hear one clicking, you gotta hide. That’s how they spot you.”

The door was stuck, and Joel put his shoulder against it and pushed. It gave after the second try. and he found himself standing into another room. They moved through this room and the others on the floor, checking desks and shelves, finding a piece of cloth here, some alcohol there. Sometimes they found pieces of scissors and metal shards. Sometimes rolls of tape. They eagerly snatched anything that might prove useful.

The building shuttered, like a restless giant. “Shit,” he exclaimed at one unnerving rumble. “Whole building feels like it’s about to fall apart.”

“Watch your head.”

Every time the building groaned, office chairs would roll across the floor as if occupied by ghosts. The effect was nerve-wracking. Joel heard Ellie struggling to maintain her calm. “Totally cool,” she spoke to herself. “Everything is totally cool.”

Upon confronting another stuck door, Joel motioned to Tess. “Gimme a hand with this.”

The two shoved once, twice, and finally the door gave, sending them reeling from momentum through the doorway. A heavy metal cabinet had been shoved against the door and now it clamored loudly down a gaping hole in the floor. Joel’s attention was momentarily distracted by the noise, and before he knew it, the clicker had its claws on him. It was only Tess’s frantic shout as she drew her gun that caused Joel to spin and raise his arms. The clicker pinned Joel to the ground, desperate to rip him to shreds.

With a grunt, Tess kicked the clicker aside, placed a heavy heel on its chest and fired two bullets into its brain at blank range. Joel struggled uneasily to his feet, breathing hard. “Thanks,” he managed to say.

Ellie, standing by the open door, stared at Joel in shock. Her face was white with terror. “You alright?” she asked.

“It’s nothin’,” Joel said, swallowing a gulp of air and wiping away a bead of sweat from his eyes. He pulled on his shirt, trying to create a little separation between the sweat on his chest and the clinging fabric.

“Let’s search for supplies,” Tess said.

“Shit!” Ellie said. “Oh, that was intense.”

“You said it,” Tess agreed. She exhaled a long-suffering breath.

They next entered a breakroom of sorts, with a faded yellow fridge lodged between broken countertops. They went through the drawers quickly, snatching up whatever they found. As Joel neared the broken windows, he could hear the rush of rainwater runoff from outside. The building shuddered again, and all three reacted, but by now they had grown used to it.

They exited back into the hallway which was sloped toward the hall’s end.

“C’mon,” Joel said. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”

They entered a large room with a curved desk: a reception hall of some sort. The ceiling rose to match that of the floor above. Water poured from up above in a heavy stream down the center of the room.

“Up there,” Tess said. She pointed. “Look.”

His beam followed her finger and he froze.

“Oh, boy,” he said, at the same time Ellie said, “Yeesh.” They were all staring at the same grisly sight: a dead soldier hanging from the ledge above, his arms drooping down, one of his feet twisted on the busted railing.

Joel glanced around. There was a wide wooden stairway leading up to the ledge that had collapsed, and ivy covered the corner of the room near the windows. Strips of yellow caution tape draped from the edge. Joel treaded up the wooden steps, getting a better look at the fallen soldier. The corpse looked like the others: gashed and covered in blood.

Joel realized the gap in the railing led to a possible way out. He put his back against the ivy-covered wall and motioned for Tess. “Just see if there’s a way through.”

He made a stirrup with his interlaced fingers; Tess moved like a cat, springing into the stirrup and leaping upward with a boost from Joel. She struggled over the rail.

She stood, and the shadow from Joel’s flashlight made her appear as a giant against the ceiling above him. He could see her taking a careful glance around the room.

“It’s clear,” she said. She bent down on one knee and outstretched her hand. “Come on, Ellie.” She hauled the girl up first and then Joel. He clamored up, elbows and knees scraping the edge, and after several seconds of sweating and grunting, he was soon standing on the ledge beside them.

Before he had a chance to catch his breath, they heard something outside the hall. Ellie’s eyes widened with fear. “Clickers?” she gasped.

“Oh, shit,” Tess cursed. She grabbed Ellie’s shoulders, forcing her into a crouch, and pointed her in the direction of an open doorway to their immediate left. “Go, go, go.”

The trio ducked inside the doorway and hurried to get behind a table just as an orange, fungus-headed creature darted into the room. It moved in spurts, relying on sound rather than sight. It stood at the doorway listening just a few feet from where they hid.

Although they were deathly still, it jerked to the table, bounced against it, and Joel’s adrenaline went into overdrive. Ghastly grunts and clicks filled the quiet space, and Joel knew from the wretched stench that it was hovering directly over them.

They sucked in their breath and finally the clicker moved away. Joel watched as Tess reached for a bottle by her feet. She tossed it across the room toward another open doorway. The clicker spun, clicking and grunting, and followed the noise out into the hallway.

The three quickly moved, staying low and quiet, shifting over to an ivy-covered table to their left. They were near a section of a wall that had been gouged out and the opening was fringed with ivy. A breeze swept by them. Avoiding the debris covering the floor, Joel followed Tess and the girl around the table to the far corner of the room.

They continued around the perimeter, staying behind desks and office furniture, listening intently for the clicker’s return as it rumbled down the hallway. With its head bobbing like a chicken, it used its own echo to find its prey, but Joel and the others kept themselves moving away, and soon had reached the next corner of the room.

Tess tapped Joel on the shoulder and pointed. He followed her gaze and saw a large gap in the wall above a weathered, wooden platform. “That’s the way out,” Tess mouthed silently to Joel. “Over the scaffolding.”

Joel nodded. The clicker was still circling the far corner of the room and remained blind to them. It was their chance to creep silently toward the exit.

Tess climbed over the platform with Joel and Ellie right behind her. “Over through here,” she whispered urgently to Ellie. Tess dropped down, followed next by Joel and then the girl. They now found themselves in a stairway marking the sixth floor, with yet another dead soldier sprawled at their feet.

They took a moment to catch their breath and collect themselves. “I think that’s it,” Tess exclaimed. “Ellie, you okay?”

“Other than shitting my pants?” She swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m fine.”

“Let’s go,” Tess said with a jerk of her head.

There was only one way to proceed. Down. Debris blocked the stairs, but Joel circumvented the blockage by slipping over the rail to the stairs down below. A heavy filing cabinet had been wedged in the stairway and he took hold of it and pulled on it. It screeched loudly in protest, but with effort he managed to create just enough gap to slip through.

“Here you go, ladies,” he said, breathing hard.

“Alright,” Tess said. The two hopped down into the space Joel had created. “Come on.”

He climbed over the cabinet and followed them down to the fifth floor.

Ellie looked around and said, “This stairwell’s blocked too. Should we go back up?”

Joel looked at Tess for her input but saw her attention was on the window-washing scaffolding hanging outside the broken window. Without hesitation, she leaned out to get a better look, her hair fluttering in the wind. “Ahh, this is crazy,” she said aloud before vaulting herself into space.

She landed on the scaffolding and it rocked under her weight. She turned to Ellie whose face was white with disbelief. “Just don’t look down,” she told her.

“What?” she asked incredulous. “Are you serious?”

Moving with care, she followed Tess out onto the rocking platform. Joel was the last to go, and when he landed on the platform, the whole contraption rumbled in complaint.

They were now outside, hanging from a scaffold several hundred feet off the ground. Joel glanced at the skyline. The clouds had parted to reveal a bright moon beaming down at him. His eyes caught sight of the gold dome in the distance and he felt a sense of relief.

There was another scaffolding next to them, only lower, and Tess had already made her way toward it, followed by Ellie. When Joel jumped down, the platform buckled again, and Ellie shot him a fearful look. For a split second, he was afraid the damn thing would collapse. Luckily, it didn’t.

In a soothing voice, Tess urged, “C’mon, Ellie.” The young girl followed her.

Tess had already made her way off the scaffolding and was now standing on a corrugated ledge, sticking to the outer wall. The moon was full and bright and cast them in a silvery glow. Even the wind had momentarily died down. Ellie joined Tess at her side, repeating aloud, “Don’t look down. Just don’t look down...”

Joel moved along carefully. He was glad the rain had stopped and when he spotted the rusted cables that held him aloft, tried not to estimate how old they were. As he climbed to the building’s ledge, Tess and Ellie sidestepped their way around the corner and ducked inside.

He heard Tess giving the kid words of encouragement, like: “You’re okay. We gotta way through.” He hated to admit it, but for a kid, she seemed to be doing better than he’d expected.

When he had reached the opening around the corner’s bend, he exhaled and said, “Oh boy.” He entered the broken window and realized they had made their way to the stairwell on the building’s opposite side. Hopefully this one permitted a way down.

Tess and Ellie were waiting for him at the bottom of the landing. Again, the rest of the way down was blocked with rubble, and he found himself following Tess through an open doorway that led toward the interior of the building.

As soon as he was through, he heard the suffering moaning and right away the muscles in his neck tensed. He happened to glance down and something in the rubble by his feet caught his eye. He bent down and picked it up. It was a .357 revolver... with three bullets still in the chamber. Surely, it was one of the weapons the soldiers had left behind.

He saw Tess, saw her gun raised, saw her crouching in the nearby darkness. “Runners,” she hissed.

Yeah, he’d figured that. It was the sound of the shuffling footsteps that gave them away. As bad as runners were, he’d face a horde of them over a clicker any day of the week, especially with a decent gun in his hand. The difference in tone and variety of the agonizing moans indicated more than one, and one of them was female, not that it mattered at all.

“I’ll go check it out,” he said, his voice low. He saw Ellie, couched behind a desk, near Tess. “Stay with the girl,” he told her.

The hallway was wide and dark, with most of the plastered wall missing, revealing iron studs and crossbeams in its absence. The moans were coming from the floor below, and he backtracked his steps, choosing to drop behind them. He reached a broken gap in the floor and flicked off his flashlight.

Being as quiet as he could, he dropped, landing with his knees bent. He stayed crouched, edging through the darkness. The key to runners, he reminded himself, was stealth. When not activated by sight or sound, runners usually stayed passive, as their struggling hosts fought a losing battle against the disease, hence their agonized groans and screams.

Trying the perimeter first, Joel moved to his right, down the hallway to the edge of a room missing two of its walls. When he turned the corner, he saw the first runner: a soldier with his back to him standing just beyond the long shadows. The man’s hands were gnarled, and his limbs jerked spasmodically. This one should be easy…

Joel moved in silently, wrapped his arms around his victim’s neck and squeezed until the soldier’s arms went limp. He laid the body down and retraced his steps, choosing to enter the infested room from the opposite side. He saw a clicker, standing alone in a corner of the room by a wall, and decided to avoid her if possible.

One by one, he preyed on the unsuspecting runners. They walked unknowingly past him, babbling incoherently, and he grabbed them from the shadows, planting a firm knee on the ground for support. He ended their suffering, and their tortured moaning ceased.

It was tiresome business and his arms were getting heavy, along with his breathing. He left a trail of bodies behind him but eventually he turned his attention to the last remaining threat - the clicker who stood motionless in the fluorescent moonlight. He’d remained keenly aware of her presence - she hadn’t moved nor made a sound. He would’ve left her, were not for the fact that Tess and Ellie were still above, waiting to drop down.

Standing only a few feet away, he picked up a brick and a wooden two-by-four lying nearby and prepared himself for the attack. He threw the brick, raced forward, and when the stunned clicker came to life, he bashed in its skull with a ferocious swing. It collapsed to the ground in a bloody heap. Joel straightened, wiped the sweat from his brow with his arm, and exhaled in relief.

“Alright,” he called out. “Come on down.”

He saw Tess’s flashlight beam and heard her footsteps approach. She whistled. “I’m impressed, Joel,” she said, admiring his handiwork.

He grunted a thanks. Panting made speech too difficult. Finally, he caught his breath and said, “Let’s just get out of here.”

There was a fallen concrete slab that offered a way up to the floor above and he climbed it, seeing a door in the far corner of the room. As he ascended the slab, he noted the door was blocked by a large metal filing cabinet against the wall. He also spotted another dead soldier. The military had lost quite a few here recently, he thought, as he grabbed the handle of the cabinet and pulled.

The damn thing was surprising heavy - or his strength was depleted - and it made a racket as he dragged it away from the door. He realized he was fighting gravity; the floor was tilted away from him. If he let go, the thing would slide across the floor and lodge itself back against the door.

Holding it with all his might, he urged Tess to hurry.

“Alright, hold on,” she said. She and Ellie entered the next room, looking for something to wedge in the doorway. Joel could spot them through the narrow-paneled window as they glanced around, looking for help. Finally, Tess’s eyes landed on a large copier.

“This should work,” she said.

She got Ellie to give her a hand, and together they pushed and pulled it into place. Once they had the door wedged open, Joel released his grip and the cabinet slid and pinned the door against the copier.

“Alright, that should do it,” he said. He scampered over the copier and joined the two girls in the next room.

“See?” Tess said when he had joined them. “We’re doing alright.”

“Uh-huh,” he said.

They quickly searched the room for supplies and then slipped through the doorway near the far hall. They were back where they had started when first entering from the scaffolding from outside. Tess knelt beside the ruptured floor and the three of them peered down into a vast chasm, dimly lighted by the glow of their beams.

“Whoa,” Ellie gasped.

Tess said what they all were thinking: “Down we go.”

“Let’s get to it,” Joel said, turning to his left where the hallway floor had collapsed. He hopped down and looked at the gap between the two floors. “I think we can get through here,” he said.

He had to crouch low, but the narrow gap was passable.

“Watch your back,” he warned as Tess and Ellie slipped down behind him.

Moving a little faster, he traversed the lower hallway, heading in the opposite direction, and once again he discovered the crumbling floor offered a path down.

He dropped a short distance and found himself standing in a large vacant space with moss and weeds growing along the walls and across the tiled floor. Instinctively, he moved to the end of the room where a portion of the floor had been churned to rubble. Again, it looked like a way down.

The building groaned and shifted, but Joel was unperturbed. He knew there was a path down if he just kept following the trail of debris. He reached another doorway half mired in sludge and ducked through it. He heard rushing water ahead, but more importantly, he felt a breeze rushing past him: that was a very good sign.

“You know, I was thinking,” Tess said from behind, startling him. “After we get back, we can take it easy for a little while.” There was relief in her voice.

Another gap. Joel ducked easily under it, seeing a pool of water at his feet. “You want to take it easy?” he said skeptically. The air felt cool against his sweat-soaked shirt.

“Hey, you’re the one always going on about laying low.”

“And you always brushed me off.”

“Well,” she said. He was faced away but that didn’t stop him from picturing her endearing shrug. “I won’t this time.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. He followed the airflow and came up to a welcomed sight: a wide ventilation shaft. He climbed through it, past the skeleton who greeted them. The sound of rushing water grew louder and when he dropped from the shaft, narrow streams of water ran past him.

He glanced around, saw the ledge at shoulder height, and hoisted himself up. He saw the same tiled floor which they had spied from above, only now they were standing on it. He could see the iron girders crisscrossing underneath. There was a small pile of rubble to his right and he walked past it, having to crouch low to avoid a heavy crossbeam.

They entered an open area with lots of debris and a large metal sign on its side that read “Oliver LLF.” The air here was cooler. He turned a corner and saw a massive concrete slab sloping down, and beyond it, darkness. The air told him everything he needed to know.

“Through here,” he said. He ducked past another cascading waterfall. By his own calculations, they had probably descended by now to ground level. Or even lower. His spirits rose.

They crawled down the last remaining slope and soon found themselves in the subway entrance to the building. A bank of pay telephones stood against the wall to his left. The walls were tiled, as was the floor, and the air was cold. Joel took a moment to rub his chin. They were at the basement level.

“Joel,” Tess said sharply. “Over here.” She had spotted something and was moving toward it.

Joel followed her beam. He saw the dead figure at her feet and noted the green band around the man’s light-colored jacket.

“Look at his sleeve,” Tess said breathlessly. “Firefly.”

“Yep.” He nodded. “These guys aren’t doing well in or out of the city. He knelt to search the dead man’s pockets. “Now let’s hope there’s someone alive to meet us at the drop-off.”

“There will be,” Tess assured.

Around the corner they spotted a wide set of stairs bordered by two escalators and a directory kiosk greeting new subway arrivals. The stairs were blocked with concrete rubble. A body lie slumped against the escalator on the right: it was another dead firefly.

Joel noticed a paper beside the dead man’s body and picked it up. Shining his light on it, he noted it was a hand drawn map. On it, the written words: “Meet up with second firefly team at capitol building.” There was also a handwritten reference to a girl: “five foot three inches, fourteen years old, with red hair.”

He didn’t know what to make of it, but something in his gut caused him to grimace. “They’re from the quarantine zone,” he said grimly.

“See?” Tess said, her voice hopeful. “They’re not our guys.”

“Uh huh,” he muttered to himself.

He glanced around, looked down the hall and saw where several heavy concrete beams had fallen and become wedged, leaving a narrow gap. He headed to it, passing a row of defunct candy and soda machines on the wall to his left. He had to duck low to get through the wedge and as soon as he turned the corner, he heard the telltale signs of the infected.

Down the hall, several figures loomed in the shadows. “Over there,” he whispered to Tess who was right behind him. “See them?”

“Shit,” she hissed. “God, we’re almost out.”

They edged up to a desk. “Okay,” Tess said. She took a deep breath. “Joel, you take point. I’ll watch the rear.” She looked back over her shoulder at the girl. “Ellie, no matter what, you stay right on his heels.”

“Sure,” Ellie whispered.

Tess turned back to Joel and locked eyes on him. “You stay sharp.”

“I got it,” he said.

To his left was a bank of cubby holes used for personal storage. Out of habit, he quickly searched them. He was lucky: he found a metal shard that would serve nicely as a shiv.

They were in the subway station beneath the building which housed an inner sanctum: a waiting area used for traveling commuters. Circling this waiting room were the remains of shops and newsstands. He started his way clockwise and immediately came to a runner who was hunched over a corpse, tearing away at the flesh. He killed the runner in the usual fashion and continued stalking his prey.

He moved silently, dispatching each one with brute force. After each kill, Ellie and Tess would move up, not making a sound. When he had cleared the outer perimeter, he moved inside the waiting room and killed the occupant there.

The clicking sound that echoed in the distance told him he still had one more to go. He followed the sound and it led to the turnstiles. Beyond it was the exit. The damn thing was standing there, blocking their path. Joel picked up a brick and hurled it against the wall a few feet from the fungus-plated head. The clicker jerked to life, raced after the noise, and in a blinding flash, Joel was behind it, wrapping his arm around its neck and sending the makeshift shiv into its throat.

He stood and released a long-held breath. A metal gate blocked the entrance, and as he glanced around, he spotted the tip of a ladder lying on the ledge up above. Tess saw it too.

“Alright,” he said, motioning to her. “C’mon.”

She slipped her foot into his hands and he heaved her high enough to reach the ladder. She managed to get a grip and pulled it down. Quickly, the three of them scurried up the ladder.

They passed through a hole in the concrete wall directly above the locked gate and shuffled down an old subway car resting on the tracks on the other side, leaving the building and its horrors behind them.

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