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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.
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.
I grew up in Plano, Texas. Entered the US Army when I was seventeen, right out of high school. I worked in a factory for six years building communication shelters for the military. Did a brief stint as a flight attendant for TWA. Worked for a bank a few years.