Joel stepped outside, squinting from the bright sunlight.
They entered a large open area, a parking lot with a handful of abandoned vehicles, one of which was a squad car which presumably belonged to the actual Sheriff, before Bill unofficially assumed the position. One glance told Joel everything he needed to know… finding a working vehicle among these rusted relics was like finding a needle in a haystack.
Directly across from the lot, sitting on a hill, he spotted a tall-steepled, clapboard church, its stained-glass windows set aglow by the rays of the afternoon sun.
He saw an ambulance sitting far off to his right. Looking around, he saw dumpsters and debris, and then he noticed the familiar red and white evacuation sign leaning against a stone wall on the opposite side.
He approached the vehicle nearest him where a decaying corpse, more skeleton than flesh, hung outside the passenger side window. With its arms hanging down and the skull resting against the doorframe, the poor corpse looked as though it had just given up, resigning itself to its fate.
He spotted some broken scissors and a swath of cloth and scooped them up.
Ellie, noticing the half dozen or so cars sitting idle, asked the obvious question.
“So… why don’t you fix one of these cars?”
“Oh my god, you’re a genius!” Bill replied, laying on the sarcasm. “I mean, the whole time, why on earth hadn’t I thought about fixin’ one of these cars?”
Joel had to stop himself from letting go a chuckle.
“Okay,” Ellie conceded. “Don’t be a dick.”
“Their tires are rotted and their batteries are dead,” Bill said perfunctorily.
“Are you done?” Ellie sighed.
He wasn’t. “Can’t even begin to think what the inside of the engine blocks look like.”
Joel continued walking around the perimeter, looking for supplies. He noticed grimly the long length of the shadows at his feet.
Bill continued, “Only ones making new car batteries are the military.”
A familiar cry in the distance informed Joel they were not alone in the lot. Almost immediately, he heard Ellie’s high-pitched cry: “Infected!”
“Goddammit,” he cursed under his breath, moving quickly to her and drawing his revolver.
From behind the ambulance, a small herd of infected came racing toward them. He took aim and fired at the nearest target, a woman in a baseball cap with a bandage of duct-tape wrapped around one of her forearms. It took three shots before hitting paydirt and she dropped on her back after the back of her head exploded.
More runners were on her tail and he knew he didn’t have the buffer needed to aim carefully with his pistol, so he holstered it and unhooked the metal pipe from his backpack and began swinging it wildly.
The hoard was upon them now, with Ellie maneuvering to stay behind Joel. Bill began blasting away with his revolver, aiming carefully with two hands, and amid the sharp, ear-splitting explosions of gunpowder, Joel swung fiercely at everything within reach, catching one runner firmly in the temple, sending it reeling away.
A set of jagged teeth lunged for his throat, but he managed to stave her off long enough to step aside and land a reeling blow into its midsection. The runner doubled over, and Joel used that opportunity to sink the curved end of his weapon into the creature’s skull, which shattered in a gush of blood.
Bill dispatched the remaining runner with a gunshot blast to the chest, finishing off the fallen assailant with a close-range blast to the head. As quickly as it had started, the attack was over, and the three battle-wary survivors stood triumphant over the dead, their shoulders heaving as they sucked in gasps of air.
“Alright,” Joel panted, throwing the broken pipe to the ground. He reloaded his revolver and glanced over at Ellie who was bent over, hands on knees, regaining her breath, but thankfully still alive.
Bill holstered his weapon as he headed toward a shed on the other side of the street. He was mumbling to himself again, saying, “You gotta check the barricades again. You neglect the simple shit and now you’re paying for it.”
He sucked in a deep breath and continued his one-sided conversation: “You know what that means? Taking all the supplies from the warehouse and lugging it to the east fence again…”
“Okay,” Ellie sighed, following Joel as he followed Bill. “Now he’s talking to himself again.”
Bill continued, “Then it’ll take you…”
“Bill!” Joel called out, trying to snap him back to reality.
“Joel,” he replied, annoyed. “This way.”
He led them to a gated archway covered in vines where a small wooden shed sat inside the shadows, and beside it, a set of stone steps leading up to the church above. He pulled the keyring from his belt and unlocked the iron gate.
“And up we go,” Bill announced.
Joel quickly ducked inside the shed to poke around and was glad he did. He found some rubbing alcohol and a small roll of gauze.
He stepped outside and motioned to the church at the top of the stairs. “You picked a hell of a place to hole up, didn’t you?”
“Well, you know” Bill sighed, “as bad as those things are, at least they’re predictable. It’s the normal people that scare me.”
And then he turned to face Joel and said, “You of all people should understand that.”
Ellie, waiting patiently near the steps, looked at Joel with a funny expression and asked, “What does that mean?”
Joel sighed and simply said, “Nothing,” but it did little to ease the look of confusion on the young girl’s face.
Feeling a sense of mild irritation, he walked past the girl - and the man with the big mouth - and headed up the steps. The steps were narrow, and the adjacent brick wall was covered with vines and undergrowth.
“You sure that gate’s gonna hold them?” Joel asked over his shoulder.
“Well, I locked it and they don’t have a key.”
He reached the landing and turned right, taking more steps up the hill where the church towered above them. He slipped under another brick archway and waited for the others to join him.
With the row of stained-glass windows ablaze with sunlight, it looked as if the church was well lit from inside, as if power were still fueling electric lights.
“So which way?” he asked, glancing around and not seeing a visible entrance.
“We’re here,” Bill announced. “It’s in the cellar.”
Joel glanced off to his right and saw the wooden doors near the base of the clapboard structure. He strolled over and, with effort, pulled one of the doors open. It was heavy, fitted with large oversized iron latches covered in rust.
“Alright,” Bill said, leading the way. “Down here.”
Ellie followed him inside, down a few wooden steps as Bill stood in the shadows and announced, “Well, here we are.” He pointed a finger at her and said, “You don’t touch anything,” and then he aimed his finger at Joel as he followed Ellie inside and said reproachfully, “And you close the door.”
Joel caught a glimpse of the man shaking his head at the thoughtlessness of his guests, he snickered, and went back up to pull the door shut. He could feel his patience wearing thin.
The door slammed shut and soon they were shrouded in darkness. He heard Bill fumbling around nearby and moments later, he saw the glow from a kerosene lamp gradually give light to their surroundings.
They were in a large cellar beneath the church, the edges cloaked in shadows. He heard Bill announce, “Let’s gear up,” and then saw him move over to a large wooden crate where presumably weapons and ammo were kept, waiting for use. Ellie made a beeline for the crate just as Joel reached out and grabbed her wrist, stopping her in her tracks.
“Huh-uh,” he said, shaking his head.
“What?” she asked, looking at him incredulously. “I need a gun.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Joel,” she said with an exasperated sigh, keeping her voice down to avoid the inevitable embarrassment coming from Bill, “I can handle myself.”
Joel stood his ground, repeating his decision on the matter: “No.”
Seeing the look of disappointment in her eyes, he put up his hands and said calmly, “Just... stay here.”
“Fine,” she snorted, throwing up her hands and raising her voice. “I’ll just wait around for you two to get me killed.”
“Well,” Bill said, kneeling before the crate as he removed a pump-action shotgun. “This goes on record as the worst fuckin’ job you’ve ever taken.”
“Yeah,” Joel was forced to agree. “It’s up there.”
Bill carried the shotgun over to a large wooden table sitting in the middle of the room. “How in the hell is Tess okay with this suicide mission?”
“It’s actually her idea.”
“Really?” Bill asked, looking at Joel in surprise. He dropped the shotgun on the table. “Then the broad’s not as smart as I thought she was.”
Joel turned away as a wave of anger made his ears burn hot.
“But,” Bill continued undeterred, bending down to retrieve a large bucket of shells from the floor, “Fuck her.”
Joel felt his hands tighten into fists. What he wouldn’t give to beat the shit out of Bill right here in his own gloomy dungeon. He fought to keep his cool, forcing his hands open, closing his eyes.
“Seriously,” the idiot rambled, “you gotta take that kid back to where ya found her.” He turned the shotgun over and began feeding shells into the chamber.
Joel sat gloomily on the edge of the table, his back to the man. “Bill,” he sighed, “I can’t just ‘take her back’.”
“Then send her packing,” Bill said, and feed another shell. “Let her find her own way.”
Joel just shook his head.
Bill grabbed another shell and loaded it. “Let me tell you a story…”
Joel dropped his head, closing his eyes once again, struggling again to maintain his cool…
“Once upon a time, I had somebody that I cared about…”
At this, Joel raised his head and looked at the man in disbelief. Bill ignored the inference and continued…
“It was a partner,” he clarified. “Somebody I had to look after.” He racked the pump-action for emphasis. “And in this world that sort of shit is good for one thing.” He tossed the loaded shotgun on the table and walked around the table to a metal shelving unit against the wall. “Getting you killed.” He grabbed a second shotgun and brought it over. “So you know what I did? I wizened the fuck up. And I realized it’s gotta be just me.’”
“Bill,” Joel sighed, looking away, “It… it ain’t like that. It’s....”
He was about to say, “complicated,” but Bill cut him off.
“Bullshit. It’s just like that.” And then he yelled at something in the corner of his eye with a loud “Hey!”, practically right in Joel’s ear, causing Joel to jump.
Joel turned to his right and saw Ellie quietly snooping through a stack of papers on a credenza in the far corner of the room. She was frozen in mid-snoop, her face white in the glow of the kerosene lamp.
“What’d I say to you when we walked down the steps?” he barked. “What’d I say?”
Ellie stepped away from the junk, motioning to it innocently with her hands. “I’m just fixing your stupid pile.”
“Don’t. Touch.” he shouted, separating the words for emphasis.
Ellie sighed and then did the only thing natural. She shot him the finger. Joel felt the corner of his mouth start to curl, but he caught it just in time.
“Goddammit,” Bill cursed, returning his attention to the second shotgun. “You keep babysittin’ long enough and eventually it’s gonna blow up in your face.”
Finally, Joel had had enough. “Bill,” he said in a pleading tone, exasperated, getting off the table. “Can we please just get on with it?”
Bill loaded the remaining shell and tossed the shotgun at Joel. “Here,” he said, mocking Joel like a petulant child. “Let’s get on with it.”
Finally. Joel looked over the weapon, racking the pump-action before sliding it over his shoulder. He was anxious to get a move on, to get hell out of this crazy man’s cellar, but Bill had something else on his mind.
“Alright,” Bill said, his voice surprisingly cordial. “Before we go any further, I got something I gotta show you.”
“What’cha got?” Joel asked, as he followed the man to a workbench near the back of the room.
“New toy from the toy box,” he teased.
Joel snorted. Knowing Bill, whatever he had to show Joel was bound to raise an eyebrow.
“This,” Bill said with pride, filling a small metal canister with nails and planting it on the table, “is a nail bomb.” The man took several steps back. “Now, you gotta be really careful. This thing blows, it shreds anybody standing nearby.”
“Yeah,” Joel sighed knowingly. “I’ve seen your handiwork.”
“Pretty good, huh?” he beamed.
Joel walked over to the table, picked up the canister and turned it over in his hands. Nails and scissor blades protruded in all directions. He looked at it admiringly… it was indeed a clever piece of handiwork.
“So we got shotguns and bombs,” Joel summarized. “What the hell we doing with them?”
“Well,” Bill explained, “every few weeks this military caravan rides through town. I assume they’re out looking for supplies. I mean, you’d be amazed at the shit they overlook. Anyway, few months back, they were rolling through and they get overrun by this horde of infected. They were all over the truck. It plows right into the side of the high school. Still sittin’ there with the battery in it.”
Joel was way ahead of him: “So we take that battery and put it in another car.”
“Bingo. I wanted to get it, but it seemed too dangerous with all the infected on that part of town.” He continued, adding with sarcasm: “But fuck it… Joel needs a car.”
Ignoring the barb, Joel asked, “What if it’s damaged?”
“Nah, those trucks are like tanks. It’s just sittin’ there.”
“Hmm,” Joel said, thinking it over. “Actually might work.” He nodded an approval at Bill who took that as a sign to move forward. The two men headed toward a wooden staircase to the right of where they had descended earlier into the shelter.
Ellie was standing near the credenza where Bill had last scolded her. “Kid,” he said menacingly, “I swear to god, if you took anything…”
“Hey, man,” Ellie retorted, arms folded across her chest. “I don’t need any of your shit. Trust me.”
He stormed past her, heading up a wide wooden staircase, but not before cautioning Joel over his shoulder: “You are keeping an eye on her, right?”
“Like a hawk,” he replied, giving the girl a quick wink.
They went up the stairs, down a long hall, before finally reaching the nave of the church. The pews had been stacked upright against the walls, walls that contained tall, arched stained-glass windows, windows where the sun now poured in, crisscrossing beams aglow in yellow and red.
In front of the nave was the raised sanctuary and above it, a circular window where a cone of light, the presence of God to the now-dead parishioners, descended from Heaven. Dust mites floated in the air, accentuated by the golden light, and Joel couldn’t help but feel a certain reverence as they traveled along a narrow red carpet with gold fringe toward a cross at the top of the altar.
“Wow,” he heard Ellie mutter in awe from behind.
“Nice place you got here,” Joel said.
“Well,” Bill acknowledged, “if you got anything to confess, this would be the place to do it.”
Bill went straight to one of the windows beside the altar, and Joel was about to follow, but he caught a glimpse of a room off to his right and quickly ducked in to look around.
“That’s not the confessional,” he heard Bill admonish. “That’s my room.”
“Alright,” Joel hollered back. “I’m not touching anything,” and as he said this, he smiled, scooping up a vial of pills, a small sack of gunpowder, and a half empty bottle of alcohol from the shelves beside the mattress on the floor.
He returned quickly to find Bill waiting for him beside the window.
“Alright,” Bill stated. “Time to sack up.”
He unlatched the windows, swung them open, and out he went. Joel followed him outside, to the edge of the rooftop, where they saw the sun resting on the distant horizon.
Joel turned and motioned to the girl, saying, “Ellie, c’mon.”
She soon joined them and there the three stood, facing the sun, standing on the edge of the eave, looking out toward the distance. It was a spectacular sight, seeing the breadth of Bill’s domain under an orange sky with a brush stroke of purplish clouds, a soft breeze at their backs.
“Look,” Bill said, pointing just to the left of the setting sun. “There’s the school.”
Joel followed Bill’s gaze and saw the high school scoreboard towering in the distance, then his eyes drifted down and he saw the familiar shape of a flat-topped gymnasium nearby. “Alright,” he said, relieved to be in sight of their objective.
“Ready?” Bill asked.
“Guess we’ll find out,” he replied, moving to the edge of the eave and hopping the short distance to the ground.