"Hey! Find a knife or something yet?"
"No. Ain't nothing here but rotten food and broken records."
"Damn. That really cuts me up."
Joel let out an exhausted sigh. He and Ellie had been on the road for a couple of months, and things had gotten progressively worse as they had strayed further from Tommy's. He knew she was just trying to lighten the mood and to distract them both from the rumbling in their stomachs. Part of him was grateful for that; but the part he let on was all business, and that part had a hunger that desperately needed sating. He knew Ellie could go longer without food than he could; she was smaller, and had smaller requirements. He felt his stomach growl so fiercely it almost made an audible sound dingy, damp room.
He had led her in to an abandoned town-stead about an hour ago, on the premonition they'd find something along the lines of food. It'd been easy enough to enter the town's limits, with only a rusted chain-link fence standing around the small mass of buildings cluttered on a main high-street. His suspicions had been raised when they came across a laceration in the links, at ground height, and just big enough for a person to squeeze through. He recalled the tips of the wires were still a deep and newly exposed grey where they had been severed.
"C'mon, kiddo, cut the wise cracks and help me find something. We're gonna need to get through this door quick; we don't know what's up here."
He was glad it had been a friendly departure from his brother's little township, and one left on good terms, although he remembered it was abrupt. Tommy observed as much, and as such had questioned Joel in great detail, trying to wean the real reason out of his elder brother. To Tommy, and Ellie, the reason he gave was simply that the duo needed to move on, never staying in one place for too long with the remnants of the Fireflies still out there – and possibly on their tail. He felt the true reason hanging laboriously at the back of his conscience. He didn't hear it scream at him, and he didn't have an overwhelming urge to come clean – instead he felt it sitting there, persistent, almost forcibly whispering at him. He heard it remind him constantly as to why they truly left the town in Jackson. Joel needed to keep both Tommy and Ellie safe; not from Clickers or Fireflies, but from himself. The things he'd seen and the things he'd done had all chipped away at his humanity, continuing to eat away at what had remained after Sarah's death, all those years ago. He knew that Tommy's place was meant for people to start again, and he pondered whether what he'd done rendered him eligible for that category.
"Something like a credit card'll do just as well." He said, raising his voice slightly for her to hear. "We just gotta pop the lock, okay?"
"Gotcha. I'm gonna check the closet." He heard her reply echo from a distance.
Regardless of his lack of humanity, he felt he still had a duty to protect Ellie, with his life. He'd always be too proud and too stubborn to tell her, but he knew she filled a hole in his heart that hadn't been occupied in years. He, of all people, knew the risks tied to travelling with someone he cared about, especially a minor; but he loved her. No two ways about it. He was driven by his love that had been forged through their grief, and it gave him surprising strength in his harder moments. He had written himself off after Sarah had died, thinking of himself as nothing but a wad of meat with a brain that could carry out menial tasks and kill people without remorse. He felt that Ellie brought out more than that in him, and gave him back a part of his personality that was almost irretrievably lost. He noticed her turning him over the course of their journey from beast back to man again. He wasn't going to lose another daughter, though; the beast would come back whenever she was in trouble.
He heard her holler to him from another room, her voice slightly muffled through the plasterboard wall on his left.
"Ah! Here we go. Whoa, holy shit…"
He cautiously moved from his position, swiftly entering the small supply closet she'd found. As he rounded the corner, he felt a sickly and repulsive smell seep towards him. He registered a corpse, a man, dressed in faded formal wear matted with blood and with a slight orange skin tone, hanging loosely in the corner of the closet, resting up against the wooden boxes where he'd met his end. He saw a large, glinting, overly dramatic knife lodged in the front of his skull, the source of the caked blood that traced down the front of his face.
"What've you got there?" He asked his younger companion.
He saw her place her hands on the hilt of the machete, heave, and pry the weapon out of the corpse's head.
"A huge fucking knife." He saw her turn to him, and weigh the object in her hands. "I've never seen one this big! What's it used for, like hunting or something?"
He chuckled softly, taking the knife from her grasp and giving it a once-over.
"No, kiddo. This ain't nothing more than a show-piece owned by some two-bit collector. This infected was probably its first blood, and eight to five chance it wasn't the man who owned it who made the kill."
"Fair enough." He could see her looking at her reflection in the oddly gleaming blade. "Still, it's incredible."
He knelt down next to her, and let her examine it further.
"Never thought I'd hear a sixteen year old girl talk so highly of knives." He said, with uneasy acceptance.
"Hey, knives are cool." He heard Ellie counter, watching the girl becoming transfixed with the glistening metal. "Plus, it's shiny."
"Simple pleasures, eh?" He replied jokingly. "Look here." He gestured to a fold in the metal, a small, almost undetectable dark grey line, and continued.
"This is how you tell the quality of your equipment. This is a nice knife, resembles a Kukri, but it's poorly made. It's been poorly tempered too, and is way too malleable. Notice how the steel has blunted along the edge just by going through a skull? Means it ain't good for nothing but opening cans."
"Or maybe doors."
He knew she had a point. "I'll give you that one. Let's see if we can get through the one giving us so much trouble."
He stood first, and she followed. They walked together in silence and stopped at the vaguely green wooden door. Joel gently eased the blade of the Kukri through the crack between the door and its chipping frame. He slid the blade deftly downward, guiding it towards the bolted lock, and once there, slid the tip underneath the small metal rod that held the door shut. He heard a small click as the bolt gave.
Joel added some leverage, heaved, and the door sprang open, screeching with rust as it exposed the room in front of them.
He felt the smell hit him first, then saw where it was coming from.
He noticed the back door of the store they'd emerged into was open, leading into the dusky evening light of the town. His nose and his empty stomach turning told him that the opening in the wall had had no effect on the stench of the rotting corpses in the room, however. It was impossible to tell their genders now; they had been killed a while ago, and he saw that the faces they once had worn were receding with rot, exposing chunks of yellowish-white bone underneath. He knew they were too far gone to identify. Joel edged into the room carefully, easing his matte-grey snub nose from a clasp in his belt, and almost silently, he pulled the hammer backwards, hearing it release a dull click that echoed into the room.
"Stay behind me, Ellie." He ordered the young nomad behind him.
He mad a quick sweep of the room, which revealed nothing out of the ordinary; just corpses and abandoned possessions. Joel beckoned Ellie to shut the door leading into the street, and moved forward quickly to examine the bodies. He watched Ellie move warily around one of corpses lying face-down next to the doorway, while he moved to shut the opening in the front of the store. The rusting, blue metal of the door swung inwards with his force, and he gently popped it back into its frame as not to make any unnecessary noise.
He glanced at each of the corpses, seeing what flesh remained on their faces a crisp white. They were dead, but he saw that none of them had turned. He knelt down, and examined a ring of ligature marks around one of the corpses's wrists.
"Alright… looks like a torture situation gone haywire." He assumed so, anyway. "One of the victims got free and took down their captor."
"Did anyone get out?" He heard Ellie ask from behind him.
"Not by the looks of it." He saw the corpse with the ligature marks was holding a compact pistol. "The one that had thrown the door open was shot by this one."
He traced a line, from the corpse lying next to the door to the one lying in front of the chair, playing out the situation in his mind.
"The one in the chair over there, I guess a friend of this one, was tortured and killed." His eyes danced around, putting the pieces together. "The one on the table was the other captor's buddy. Looks like he got shot too."
"So the geared-up ones got shot by their prisoners?"
Joel calculated possible options. He felt one spring to mind a lot faster than was comfortable, and it came along with a profound sense of de-ja vu.
"I reckon, this one by the chair got killed, and his buddy got his hands on one of the guard's weapons and took his revenge."
"How'd you know?" He turned, and met the eyes of the girl. She was sixteen now, he thought. Almost a woman.
Joel sighed as he remembered.
"Been on both sides." He admitted.
He saw Ellie chose not to reply, and watched the youth simply turn her head away from the mess and start observing what wares remained in the shop. It had been almost completely cleared out, he saw, probably by other survivors, and he noticed only a few interspersed items remained. He loked at the posters of movies, some boy band that he remembered the teenage girls had been crazy about back then, and one of those thick, black gaming consoles he'd been awful at. He watched the sixteen year old inquisitive girl he was travelling with stare in awe at these items, thinking she was trying to conjure up thoughts about what that time would've been like. He felt slightly guilty as he watched her traipse around the store, trying to visualise something his selfish eyes knew all too well. Joel didn't have many rules of survival, but a fundamental one was that they hardly talked in great lengths about their pasts. Stories from before the outbreak were usually boring, and ones from afterwards always hard to swallow. He'd seen and done horrors himself, most of which he still hadn't revealed to her, and some which he never would. He knew she'd been through hell, but some of the things that he had decided were right along the line he knew would make her stomach turn. Still, they were fine together; he realised that what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
He moved over to one of the more well-geared corpses lying beside the chair, knelt down next to it and turned it over, observing its rotting eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling. The person was a male by body structure, he guessed, and a Caucasian by the colour of what skin remained – he'd also been young; barely over 30, if that. Joel saw he was kitted thoroughly, with a veteran's equipment; stuff that'd been made relatively new and not scavenged from dumpsters or abandoned houses or fuck knows where else. He noticed his grip had stiffened as he had died, and saw that his lifeless fingers were also clasping a compact, matte-black pistol. Joel carefully pried the gun from the dead man's fingers, along with taking a couple of magazines he found in the man's vest. On his left breast, Joel saw that the man wore an unusual symbol, almost resembling a crest – he processed a faded, but ornate red circle, made of what appeared to be vines, with an elaborate sword cutting through the uppermost point, perpendicular to the centre point. He thought he knew the crest from somewhere, but he couldn't place it. He knew that the military no longer bore any symbols, so this discovery bothered him.
"Ellie?" He hollered, snapping the teen out of her daydreaming.
"Yeah?" He heard her reply idly from the other side of the store.
"Check that other geared-up character over there."
She moved warily over to the corpse by the door, and turned to Joel, looking at him inquisitively.
"What about him?"
"He got a logo emblazoned on his breast?"
"Yeah." He might have known. "A red circle with a sword in it or something. I don't know."
Once was a coincidence; it could've easily been a sign or symbol from before the breakout, on a jacket that no longer bore any meaning. Two, however, he knew was not. A group of some sort had passed through here, tortured people, and lost two of their own. Joel wasn't about to take any risks.
"Ah, shit." He muttered quietly under his breath. He doubled around, and turned to the girl. "You be careful, okay? Might be we have to deal with hunters."
"Way ahead of ya." He saw Ellie cock and reload a pistol she'd picked up, matte black, pristine, and identical to the one he had sourced from the other dead soldier. They had the same gear, too, he saw – he no longer assumed any mere coincidence. Joel kept himself alert as he decided their next move.
"C'mon. Let's head out and see what there is to see."
He moved towards the girl standing by the door, edged himself forward, and pressing down the lever-bar, edged out of the building and into the street. Once Ellie was out, he gently shut the rusted navy-blue escape door behind them, hearing it come to rest in its frame with a dull click. He felt the shining orange light of dusk had bathe him and the dilapidated high street in gold, and saw it paint the fauna that was slowly reclaiming the town. He noticed that cracked concrete and glass were now giving way to fresh shrubs and trees, and that the air was slowly getting colder as the days grew shorter. Winter was coming again, he realised, and it would prove no easier than the winters Joel had weathered before. They'd spent two at Tommy's, surrounded by family and friends, with warm food, warm fires and warmer beds. He solemnly knew that life in the wild was a much harsher and deadlier reality; their first year back in the sticks was going to prove difficult.
The thoughts of Tommy's reminded him that he'd lied to Ellie about why they had to leave the town. His ability to lie to her was beginning to frighten him. Joel's motives were almost akin to a sense boredom, although shuddered at the word given the context. He knew that she'd never look at him the same way again if he told her he had murder withdrawal.
"This pistol," He heard Ellie begin from his rear, examining the gun she'd picked up, "is almost new, and super clean. I haven't seen anything like it since the military, in Boston."
"You won't have." He knew the military would never venture this far north. "This stuff here's military grade as well."
"So the bandits have military grade weapons now?"
He sighed. "Seems so." He turned to her and looked her in the eyes, and then placed his hand on her shoulder.
"Just be alert, and watch out. I'm hoping whoever those guys were with are long gone, but there ain't any reason to let your guard down."
"I know." He turned and continued walking up the high-street, the grass growing out of the asphalt beneath his feet rustling. "
"I'm surprised we haven't seen infected." He heard Ellie comment. "Reckon this place might be a set-up?"
"I don't know." He replied vacantly. He was too busy scouring the street for their next access point to grant the theory any discussion. "There's a store-front, over there." He gestured to a dilapidated grocery shop. "Let's have a look."
"Okay." He stopped and turned around when he realised she wasn't following.
"Are you coming?" He asked.
"Ladies first." Came her reply. He huffed, turned, and made for the store.
Joel cautiously approached another store-front. He saw countless vines and crawlers hanging limply over the sunlight-faded title sign, of which he saw the writing was now indiscernible. He reached the door and forced his way gently through the rotting wood, which he cynically noted was still somehow on its hinges. He heard a loud creak accompany him as he entered the shop, Ellie following closely behind him, treading carefully over the broken glass of the bay windows that had been broken in long ago. Once within, Joel busied himself searching the remnants of the stock on shelves for anything of worth, while Ellie wandered around the rest of the store. He was aware of needless bric-a-brac and other useless items populating the floor, and begrudgingly realised that all of the cans on the shelves were either rotten or empty. A lonely cash register hung open, its metal tray drooping under the strain of corrosion.
His stomach throbbed as he kept searching, driven by an almost animal impulse for food, while he glanced to his right and noticed Ellie busy herself gazing into posters that littered the walls.
He saw Ellie glancing over rusted cans and empty plastic wrappers in his peripheral, scanning the shop for anything of value, just as he was. He lost sight of her as he turned from the left wall to the right, and then to the centre. He turned, and noticed a cache of food that lay on the main counter, just behind the ruined cash register. Behind it, he saw a strange black stock-like shape jutted outwards into the air.
"Holy shit… Joel?" He watched Ellie walk over to the counter-top, and lay her hand gently on the stock of the pristine assault rifle laying behind fresh cans of food.
"Ellie, don't!" He began as he felt his heart sink upon realisation of the weapon. "It's a-"
He noticed the tell-tale red-dot of a laser sight trace its way up Ellie's abdomen. He felt adrenaline fill his brain as the realisation struck him hard. He noticed everything around him slow, and he doubled around to the source of the beam, outside the store. He heard a dull release of air from a silenced rifle, him following the projectile it fired with his eyes as a dart whistled through the air just in front of him and struck Ellie in the neck. He heard her yelp and watched her teeter, and then fall to the floor, her small body collapsing into unconsciousness. A non-human instinct kicked in, and he sprinted to her side, covering the length of the store in mere seconds.
"Ellie!" He shouted to no one in particular.
He heard the sound of a door flinging open somewhere behind him – he didn't know where, and he didn't care. He arrived at her side, picked her up off the floor, and eased the needle gently out of her neck, watching a small rivulet of blood follow the shaft out. He cast it down at his side, and heard it shatter into thousands of fragments, the remainder of the liquid it carried dripping audibly onto the floor.
"Ellie? Ellie! It's okay, baby girl, I got you-"
He felt a stern hand grab the back of his hair, and excruciating pain shoot through his mind as the grip-covered glove nearly tore it out of his scalp. He answered by drawing the Kukri that was sheathed in Ellie's belt, and spinning around, rammed it straight into the attacker's gut. He reared backwards as a plume of crimson erupted out of the grey urban camouflage, and watched the man reel backwards, choking, collapsing behind them in a blood-covered and writing heap. Two more followed, he heard, and they brutishly pushed him away off of her, slamming him down onto dirt-smelling floor of the convenience store. He felt another powerful, gloved hand press the side of his head into the dust, and an all too familiar sensation of handcuffs clamping around his wrists.
He glanced briefly to the street, long enough to see the sniper stand and the red circle emblazoned on his grey uniform to stand out to him, before the butt of a gun crashed into the side of his head and everything went dark.