12/21/14: LOWER PART IS RECONSTRUCTED HURRAY
Chapter Twenty: Opened Scars
We'd been heading west faster than I had expected, Illinois wasn't much of a difficulty to cross; but of course, the road to Wyoming wasn't necessarily easy. We had spent so much time trekking that neither of us could tell the weeks that had gone by, it felt like a blur.
A really, really long blur.
The frigid air was a foreshadowing of winter, and I quivered a little as I brought up the hoodie's collar closer to my neck. I hugged my sides awkwardly as I stomped through the piles of leaves, casually putting my foot deep into a nearby pile and kicking it back up in beguilement. The leaves shot straight up, reaching my waist until it fluttered back down again to the ground. I giggled frivolously until Joel turned to me, his brows were scrunched together and his lips were pursed.
"Ellie," he said in a monotone voice. "Pick up the pace, alright?"
"Right," I replied in a disconcerted manner. "Sorry."
He gave me a slight nod as he turned forward again, trudging through the steep hills and trees that were blocking our way. I lagged behind tiresomely, the air was starting to get heavy as we traveled upward.
But my mind was wandering off somewhere else, Joel had been acting differently ever since we were in Clarks Hill. By the time morning broke on the second day, he looked so detached from the real world that his emotions became indecipherable. Sure, our amazing friendship hadn't faded and I still felt comfortable being around him, but there was always a feeling at the bottom of my stomach that he just wanted to... desert me.
Of course he wouldn't, I wasn't just some burden to him, was I?
I left my own question unanswered as I realized that Joel was calling me, his voice acting like a bullet that disrupted my thoughts. I whipped my head upward to find him several meters away from me, his feet were firmly planted on the cement.
We finally found the road.
"This should lead us to Jackson, you ready?"
I ran up the hill and joined him, there was a faded sign that slanted slightly to the left that indicated the route towards the city. I looked up at Joel and casually placed my hands on the insides of my pockets, rocking my heels back and forth as another gust of wind blew past us.
"As ready as I'll ever be."
It charged at them. Its long, ragged nails attempted to claw at their skins as it gave out another horrid screech. The Infected pinned them down to the floor with a massive force that stunned them from the impact.
Ellie couldn't react properly, the shock from everything that had happened maimed her senses as she started to feel light-headed. But the Runner gave out another cry as it flung its arms desperately at Riley. Her foot was on the creature's stomach to constrict it from collapsing on her and devouring her whole.
Now focused, the redhead squirmed her way out of its grasp, struggling to get on her feet. After recovering from the blow, she looked back at Riley, her chances of surviving were now a grim 50/50.
Oh, crap. She frantically looked around for an object that was decent enough to be called a weapon. Much to the girl's dismay, there was nothing nearby but a crude wooden plank.
Screw it, it's better than nothing.
Looking back, Ellie found the Infected's vile mouth on Riley's right arm. A short burst of adrenaline rumbled in the pit of her stomach as she heard Riley give out a panicked yell. Without thinking, the younger girl ran towards the Infected and swung the plank at its back as hard as she could, the collision shook her hands terribly and she staggered around to keep stable.
But the creature released the grip as it craned its neck to her direction, obviously not happy about what she did.
"Oh, fuck me." Ellie groaned, preparing to attack again.
It stood up and gave an aggravated howl, sprinting towards her with a famished look. She closed her eyes, swinging the plank down again—this time breaking it into two. Unfortunately, the blow was futile, and the Runner immobilized Ellie's movement as it pushed her effortlessly to the ground.
In that moment, the only feeling that she could perceive was fear. Until now, Ellie could still smell that repulsive stench it gave off, and the way it looked was so abhorrently real that she would soon get nightmares from the face it wore.
But as she fought for survival, the other thought that lingered in my head was Riley's safety, and how would she react once she got her face ripped into shreds.
The screams abruptly stopped, and the only thing that filled the girl's ears were the gurgles of the impaled Runner. As Ellie looked behind it, she found Riley's shaken shadow cast over the Infected's. Its neck was pierced brutally by the broken half of the other wooden plank. The creature fell forward with a large thump, its punctured throat was now oozing out blood like a mini-fountain.
"Oh, fuck . . ." Ellie said, struggling to get on her feet. "I . . . I think you did it."
But the panic hadn't faded yet, she stared at her hands to check for bites, and there was nothing. She browsed the sleeves of her jacket, nothing. She examined her shoulders and face, absolutely nothing. There wasn't a single scratch or bite mark on the girl's skin. Ellie blinked several times, making sure that she wasn't dreaming.
"I don't know how it didn't get me." she muttered, shaking her head. Her stomach was starting to untwist itself, and her mind was slowly clearing up, Ellie wiped the sweat off her forehead from all the exhaustion, whatever happened definitely set her adrenaline levels off the roof.
"Shit." Riley suddenly cursed. The redhead whipped her head to look at her, another feeling of anxiety filled up her insides.
"What?" she jabbered. "What is it?"
She clutched her right arm so tightly that it looked like it would fall off if she were to let it go. Ellie didn't understand her drift until she eventually traced her eyes to the sleeve, a portion of it was torn apart.
"Y-your arm . . ." she mumbled, the fear creeping up on her once again. "Did it bite through your sleeve?"
Ellie's panic levels were going off the charts now, but she couldn't show Riley. The younger girl tried to outstretch her hands to examine the sleeve herself, but Riley withdrew her arm back in a split second before she could get the chance.
"No," Riley replied. "It didn't. There's no way."
Still being the stubborn bitch she was, Ellie obviously didn't believe her. She reached out for her arm again, this time, she wasn't so willing for her to draw it back.
"Let me see." she said.
"Ellie, there's nothing—"
"Let me"—she grabbed her arm and gripped on it like a brace—"see!"
Afraid of what was going to unfold, she reluctantly rolled the sleeve back until her forearm was exposed. Ellie raced her eyes around her skin, analyzing it thoroughly like a scanner. She held her breath as she expected the worse, but it never came.
It never came?
"No bite." Riley said confidently, unrolling the sleeve back up.
Ellie bent down and exhaled heavily. "Oh, man . . ." Oh, man indeed. Against it all, she hadn't been bitten. She hadn't gotten herself killed. It was miracle that'd unfolded itself in the middle of an alleyway. Ellie couldn't believe their luck.
"What'd I tell ya? I'm good." she said triumphantly, Riley glanced back at the corpse and sneered. "This fucking thing ruined my damn jacket, though. Do you know how much I loved this—"
But Ellie couldn't care at all about her jacket or how much she loved it. The fact that she was still standing in one piece relieved me her much, she had no idea where this newfound feeling developed from, but she didn't care. What she was about to do would most probably change her perspective on this particular girl.
And without a single thought; Ellie hugged her, she wrapped her arms around Riley's neck like a little idiot. Ellie felt her shoulders stiffen from the close contact, and for a second she thought she would reject the act and push the girl away.
Just like everyone else, they'd push her away. There wasn't much trust or affection that Ellie could put into anyone. But when it came to Riley, it was different, all the previous hate that she had towards her have been erased permanently from her thoughts. She had no idea what she was feeling, they were hoodlums for crying out loud, Ellie Williams was not much of an affectionate person.
And instead of trying to push her away, Riley sighed. It wasn't a you're-such-a-sap sigh, it was a relaxed type, a comforting type. And for some oddly reason that made Ellie tighten her grip around her even more, and Riley didn't object, not even once.
But it hadn't ended yet. The older girl unexpectedly returned the favor by doing the same, her arms were enveloped around the redhead's waist as she felt her head snuggle ever so closely to hers. The feeling sent a shock of butterflies in her stomach as they silently stood there, hugging each other like fools for the longest amount of time.
"Yeah . . ." she said sheepishly, breaking the stillness. "I guess that was pretty scary, huh?"
2 HOURS LATER
"So tell me, Ellie," She grabbed a serving spoon that laid prostate on the table. "When was the last time you had some actual food?"
With that, the metal lid of the pot opened.
Steam arose from the opening, like condescending water vapor about to ascend in the sky to become these fluffy, white clouds. It was the sort of smell that'd been hard to describe, but it smelled fucking fantastic. It smelled like actual cooked food. Like mashed potatoes.
My olfactory senses were freaking aroused.
"By the look on your face, I'd say you haven't had any in a long time." and she laughed softly. Maria, with her serving spoon, dove the utensil in to the mash of holyfuckingvegetables and scooped up a generous portion of it. She placed it on my plate, and I grabbed my spoon eagerly.
As soon as I would have delved in, Maria stopped me.
She winked, "You're forgetting the best part."
The best part?
Bringing out a sauce boat filled with a thick, brown liquid, Maria presented it to me. It.
Oh my goodness.
My gawking eyes felt like fainting. "Is that gravy?"
Maria nodded. She poured the sauce boat's contents on the top of the mash, and for a moment, I thought saliva had already been dripping down on my lower lip.
The outcome of my lunch looked like a really, really lowish yellow-white volcano with brown lava erupting from it and spilling on the sides. It looked like real food, like something my stomach could be able to digest. It looked goddamned delicious.
"Bon appétit." replied the woman.
I dove in.
The sublime zest of the combination between potatoes and gravy showered my tastebuds. My God, it was, like, nirvana. Who cooked shit like this anymore, really? Definitely not Joel. I'd been living off of unappetizing, almost-close-to-decomposition canned goods for months. And here I was, enjoying a meal that Maria made as if she had been my culinary savior. Bon appétit indeed. I kept stuffing the paste in my mouth, wanting more, more, more.
"You mentioned that you were from Boston, yeah? You're a long way from home." Maria whistled, clearly ignoring my wolf-like eating manners.
"Home?" I scoffed, between my food stuffing ordeal. "I beg to differ."
I guess, in fairness, that it'd been the closest thing to a home than it could ever be. Home is a subjective little word, home is place that you know in your life that would be the only place you'd be eager to get back to. Boston wasn't like that. Boston wasn't home. Boston was living oppressively, Boston was a community full of military grunts and insurrectionary fools. Riley and I were a part of those fools.
It was what got one of us killed.
But I digressed.
"I suspect that you and Joel've been on quite a trip." she declared, crossing her legs from below the table. I stopped eating and shrugged. The memories of summer had stained my thoughts, or blemished a part of me, really. It was surprising—really surprising—to know how I'd been standing in one piece all these months of what the fuck.
"Even before Joel, it's already been a trip." I said, chewing and stuffing and eating the comfort foodstuffs in my mouth.
She faced me.
"He's been treating you well?"
My eyes trailed back down to my edible volcano.
"Yeah, although you should ask him that instead, if I were you."
There was a faint chuckle. A chuckle that seemed out of place, that seemed forced and uncouth. It came from Maria, and as she and I ate our meals in silence, she looked ahead inattentively, subconsciously twirling the fork in her hand every now and then.
"Tommy told me about him," Maria said, "he showed me a, uh, picture from Before."
I looked back up at her.
"He looked so . . . different, you know? And happy. Back then, his daughter—"
And I stopped. I stopped and so did everything and everyone on Wyoming, on Earth, and in the galaxy. Because of what she said.
Did she really say that?
"His daughter . . ?" I murmured, it was under the delicious air of mashed potatoes and gravy. But neither of us could bother with eating.
Maria turned to me with a raised eyebrow. "He hasn't told you?"
I shook my head.
"What . . ." Suddenly, I wanted to know everything. Wanted to know about Joel. About his freaking daughter that I'd never heard about; about his life from Before. Even if it hadn't been any of my business, I wanted to know.
I needed to know.
"What happened to her . . ?"
She pursed her lips and twirled the fork again, like it was one of her strange habits. The air changed, my appetite for gorging myself in fantastic cuisine dishes had faded away, leaving a biting craving for buried knowledge.
"Come with me." she said.
We exited the room, and out towards a place with people dozing off on bunk beds. Maria walked over to a bag, uncovering something hidden beneath it.
She pulled it out, I felt my breath hitching.
"Here," said Maria, "look."
And it was a photograph.
No, these weren't the typical photographs that you'd see in abandoned houses slash apartments, the typical photographs that contained faces of people who you didn't know and would probably never know. This was different. Entirely different. It was a photograph of a man, smiling, his arm wrapped around the neck of a young girl's in a way that a father would always do. They were in a field, a soccer goal stand sitting at the rear. The girl, in the picture, had a blonde bob. Her grin was illuminating as she held up a trophy on her left hand, a peace sign on the other.
The man was Joel.
I'd never seen that man in the picture. Never seen him so young, so . . . different.
I'd never seen him smile that way.
"Is she. . ?" I looked at the girl again, holding the photo feebly. "Is that her?"
"Yes." replied Maria, solemnly.
"She, uh, she died. Twenty years ago."
My eyes noticed that his watch was intact, and my mind started to unwillingly fit pieces and pieces together.
"Wasn't that the beginning of the outbreak?"
After a pause, Maria nodded.
"Tommy said that, um . . . on the first day of the outbreak, they attempted to escape Austin. There was chaos everywhere they looked, buildings, fires, explosions, people eating people. It gave him nightmares. Back then? It gave all of us nightmares."
A tableau started crafting itself in my head.
"Her leg got broken, so Joel carried her, all the way until they were on the freeway. A soldier came. They thought they were safe. They weren't."
"They were shot at. The soldier . . . he—"
She didn't need to finish for me to understand what had happened. She didn't need to continue, I didn't want her to continue. What was more to tell? A solider shot at them and she died. Leaving Joel daughter-less and traumatized for two decades. It was tragic. It was tragic and frustrating and unfair and wrong and horrible.
For once in my life, I could sympathize with him.
"Her name was Sarah, my supposed-to-be niece. She was only twelve. And she'd stay twelve forever."
I handed her the photograph, and she returned it back to the bag. Little did she know, however, that as soon as we would return back to the mashed potatoes, I would have stolen the picture from her.
I didn't know why I'd done it, but I did.
I was silent as my hunger started to fade away. It was clear to me now, why Joel had been acting like this, it made sense. The thought of it being a man—our own kind—who killed her was horrendous, it made me feel sick to the bone, it made me want to throw up. It was an awful feeling, and I couldn't imagine Joel's struggle in all those twenty years without the company of the only treasure he ever had.
What Bill said was right,
It's people who you had to be afraid of.
The corpse of a dead Clicker was on my body. We laid horizontally on the floor, its stench reaching me and making me gag.
Leon appeared shortly thereafter. He was that striking, troubled little teen that tended to save my life more than I could count. He had the pistol in his hands, the weapon that was used to shoot the Infected that was now on me, its scent reeked like a dead and regurgitated rat.
Pushing the body away, he helped me on my feet. I grumbled a thank-you and rubbed the blood off of my face with a soggy towel, tossing it away shortly after. There wasn't much use for the thing and I wasn't a big fan of washing my own clothes.
We said nothing. We rarely said anything, anyway. After the incident, things'd gone quieter, with jokes and childish insults replaced with ambiguous stares and deadbeat voices. Sure, we had some fun moments, but they were once in a blue moon, and considering the upcoming weather, I wouldn't want to struggle through with the attitude we had now.
As I rummaged, I felt Leon's stare fixed on to me, his gaze made me shift awkwardly from the thought as I continued on organizing.
"Twenty-four." Leon spoke up suddenly, his mouth formed a straight line.
I turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
"The amount of times that I saved your ass," he said, matter-of-factly. "And still counting."
There was a halfhearted chuckle, a shake of the head, and the return to organize my belongings. I stuffed all the clothes that I had at the bottom and piled everything else by size. I wore the bag back on, its weight doubled on my spine and I grimaced as a result.
Pulling the map that we'd scavenged some time back, I set it on a table. "We should head back to camp and go for the Indianapolis QZ, shouldn't be more than a two hour walk from here." I stated, my awesome geography skills had never failed me yet.
Leon didn't look convinced.
"Riley, we fucking crossed Pennsylvania within a fortnight. What makes you think we'll reach there in two hours?"
Well, he had a point.
"I was sick." I mumbled sheepishly, exiting out of the dissipated cabin.
"Sure." He rolled his eyes as he followed my lead. "We don't even know what part of west that guy was talking about."
"You're awfully unmotivated today, aren't you?"
"And you're so terrifically optimistic, thinking that we'll reach Indianapolis without getting our ass dealt by bandits. Stsh."
You see what I had to deal with?
This pessimistic, cold-stoned boy who had killed his alter ego? The boy who had hidden the friend I knew was still there deep inside him? He was gone. And I hoped, I hoped, even as I was constantly arguing with him and threatening to break his knee, I hoped that he'd return. Old Leon. The old friend I wanted back.
Life was a bitch.
We walked on the pavement, overturned cars littered across the road which we had previously looted. The sun was hiding somewhere behind clouds of white, a cool autumn breeze gushing past us and making us shiver.
"God, I hate the weather." he muttered.
I nodded, guess there were some things that both of us could agree on.
"You know," spoke Leon, "sooner or later, you're gonna have to tell me more about this girl we're so desperately chasing after."
I shot him a look.
"I mean, we're going cross country and putting our lives in a huge risk so you could, what, run off with her?"
I stopped walking and turned to him with a resentful expression on my face, the wind blew again, but this time it had a different force to it than before.
"Run off with her?" I scoffed. "What do you take me for? You think I'm not taking this seriously?"
"The guy in Boston said that she was with a smuggler. Not that I'm curious about it, but are you and that Allie chick—"
"Ellie." I corrected him, eyes narrowed.
"Whatever." He swatted the air with his hand. "But the point is, why the hell are the Fireflies tied with you and Ellie?"
"Leon, look. Let's just talk about it when we get to the QZ, okay? I'm really not in the mood to—"
"Could you quit fucking stalling and avoiding my questions for once?" he yelled, his voice alarming me. We stopped in our tracks, and his electric eyes sported a thousand volts. "The least you could do right now is to answer them, otherwise, this whole journey's been nothing but pointless!"
"Pointless?" I retorted, "Newsflash, Leon, I didn't strap you to my back and forced you to come with me." The cold grew unnoticeable, this unwanted heat overcoming it like a warm front. Leon's jaw hardened as he moved it slightly. We were both in the middle of the road, throwing knives at each other with our eyes.
"You think I have anywhere else to go? I don't have a choice, Riley." he said softly, voice irate and remorseful. "I lost my only family because of you."
The last words were barely audible, and he pronounced them with such fierce that I couldn't believe that I heard them come out of his mouth.
It was a truth I didn't want to believe. Because all this time, I'd been trying to convince myself that the only ones to blame for his father's death were the hunters in Springfield. That things just happened in the wrong place in the wrong time, that none of it was on me.
"It wasn't my fault—"
"If we didn't rescue you when we found you on those rocks, he might still be here." he spat, his words digging in my skin like lethal venom. "You think you have it better, don't you? All optimistic and trying to get on my good side? It's not gonna work, Riley. I try to hide it, I try to pretend that I'm not affected, but my life's been nothing but miserable ever since you stepped into our lives—"
I slapped him.
One regretful, painful slap on his scarred cheek that made him pause his injurious words.
I didn't want to do it, I didn't mean to do it, but I did it. And believe me, it felt like an impulse, like someone else had done it, like I was watching from afar.
"You don't fucking know me, Leon." My eyes hardened. "You don't know the shit I've been through, and you don't have the goddamned right to tell me that my life's easier than yours."
He continued to glare at me.
"You think I have it easy?" I told him. "You think that I haven't lost people too? People that I loved, that I cared for? You're wrong, Leon. Wrong."
I pushed him.
"You're fucking wrong!"
"We've both lost people, we've both gone through hell—we're both fucking orphans!"
At least, for him, he had time with his father. At least he stayed by his side as he took his last breath. At least he died with dignity.
My parents didn't share the same fate as his.
"Because I lost my parents too." I whispered, teeth clenched. "Both of them. When I, when I—"
The ferocity in Leon's face quickly resided as a new, cryptic one was scrawled on him. He was silent, he hadn't uttered a single word that it felt like time had frozen if it weren't for those occasional wind gusts. The muteness was so incredibly ear-piercing.
"My father, he was, he was infected. I remember waking up and just . . . seeing him right there. Him and my—my mother, they . . . "
They were right there. In the living room. With my mother on that old, tattered recliner chair like she'd been strapped on it. My mother, who would have her beautiful hair in a bun, with her brown eyes, with her favorite denim plaid. All gone. There were just screams left of her, just red.
And my dad, well, he was just . . .
"He was just. . . on her. . ."
And he was different. So different. I couldn't see the color of his eyes anymore, because they were filled with red. My father, with his yellow-green eyes that would bright up my whole word. My father, with his deep, warm voice and his broad shoulders that I always sat on. He was gone too. It was just a doppelganger of him. A copy. And he had looked so pained, with those bulging veins striped along his body, and his clothes stained with the blood that belonged to my mother.
My father was gone.
There was just a monster, and he had been ripping my mother apart without remorse, and . . .
". . . and he just kept going, and going, and going . . . I—"
I couldn't move. Because I couldn't believe it. Even if my mother's screams had drowned out in her own gurgles. Even if I could remember every petty fucking detail those five goddamned years ago. I couldn't believe it.
"And then he . . . he saw me and I couldn't move."
A gun had been laid on the table. And it seemed like the key to end the nightmare, to end everything. I'd lunged for it.
"I got the gun from the table." My hands were shaking. Everything in me was shaking. "And . . . I aimed at him, I aimed at him, and I . . . I—"
I remembered it echo.
BANG, just like that. And then I felt like it hadn't been enough.
"I kept shooting him, over and over again. Shooting and shooting and—"
The first time the sounds of a gunshot had ever filled my once delicate ears. In that moment, it felt like all my innocence had faded away.
My father's body had collapsed.
My mother hadn't been moving.
That was when the realization had gotten to me.
". . . and it was too late."
I'd been too late.
The military had arrived shortly after.
"I lost both of my parents that night." I murmured. "And until this day, I blame myself for taking too long . . . maybe . . . maybe if I woke up sooner . . . my mother would still be alive."
Leon stood up, and his expression was almost sympathetic. He was still silent, deciding whether or not to speak up.
"I swore to Ellie that I wouldn't leave her, that I wasn't going to let anything happen to her. But guess what? We got fucking separated, I don't even know where she is. Hell, I'm not even sure if she's still alive." I shook my head, laughing at my own misfortune. "Ever since my parents died, I tried to not care for anyone, to not love anyone the same way I loved them. I was scared that I'd somehow lose that person, and I'd never be able to forgive myself if that ever happened."
I sighed at the ground, taking a few seconds to analyze what I'd been saying. Looking back at Leon, only now did I notice that his eyes had returned to those warm but sharp colors. No longer did he have electrified blue ones, but different ones. Ones that I hoped they'd return, ones that belonged to his alter ego who I thought was dead.
"I'm sorry about your dad, Leon. I really am. But it wasn't my fault, and you know that." I told him, my fists were tightly clenched. "You have to understand why I'm doing this, and I promise you that I'll explain everything once we get there."
"And don't ever tell me that you have it worse." I said softly. "Because you have no idea what I've been through to get here."
2 HOURS LATER
Hidden Corral Pines.
It was a ranch, located northeast of the dam, a place where I had decided to run off to.
Why, you ask?
Because Joel wanted to let me go.
I'll give the opportunity that I have now to tell you that it hurt. Deep inside, protected by my skeletal ribs, was my heart. And it hurt. It hurt because I thought that he wouldn't be like the others. Hurt because I was naive enough to think that he would be different. I mean, of course he was different, no other man in my life could be able to live that long on borrowed time. No man—or person, to make it more general, other than Riley had ever made me capable of caring for them. And it truly, unequivocally, staunchly hurt that he had the intentions of leaving me to Tommy.
I guess it also disappointed me. Because I knew he was better than this.
He knew better than to drop me off like cargo and be on his merry way. He knew better than to practically bring me across the country, only to stop midway and depend on his own brother to finish the job. He knew goddamned better than to walk into my life, make me care for him, and leave without a proper farewell. It was selfish. It was unfair.
It was like Riley all over again.
"What do you want from me?"
To be honest with Joel, I really didn't know.
"Admit that you wanted to get rid of me the whole time!"
And it might have not been because I was this annoying, foul-mouthed fourteen-year-old who bugged him with puns that belonged to my deceased friend; but because he'd started to care for me. It was doubtful, but who couldn't admit it? If he hadn't cared for me, why did he bother bringing me all the way to Wyoming? Why couldn't he leave me as I slept, deserted and left to fend for herself?
He wanted to get rid of me because he cared for me, it was evident.
And it scared him.
Sam and Henry weren't that much different than Joel and I, so perhaps the similarities made him think. Perhaps that one day, in our daily routine, I would get killed due to his negligence, and he wouldn't forgive himself if it'd ever happened. Would he shoot himself, just like Henry did? Would he be able to look at himself in the mirror? Would he become like Bill, forever alone and stubborn?
It was a risk he didn't want to take.
And in my conclusion, he wanted to get rid of me because he was afraid. Afraid that I'd end up like Sam, afraid that we wouldn't make it to the Fireflies if he led us there himself.
"I can take care of myself—"
"How many close calls have we had?"
How many times had we gotten out unscathed?
"Well, we seem to be doing alright so far."
"And now, you'll be doin' even better"—his eyes flared—"with Tommy!"
Of course. Tommy. A man I hardly knew. Don't get me wrong, he seemed like a guy with good intentions. A good faith. But hell, who's to say he was capable? Who's to say that he'd be able to handle the upcoming events if I went along with him? Who's to say he would survive the journey? What about Maria, his wife—
Instantly, the story she'd told me over the course of lunch this noon had lingered in my head for quite a while.
I don't know how I did it, but I crossed the line. I rebelliously stepped over my boundaries, pressing on his buttons and personal sides like a stubborn child. I told him about Sarah, a girl that I knew little about but her death. Crossing that line had made me want to regret it.
"Maria told me about Sarah, and—"
His hazel eyes grew cold, his jaw firmer.
"You're treadin' on some . . . mighty thin ice here."
Something was biting him back. Something that would regularly visit him as he slept, something that would remind him of his sufferings, that made his voice quiet and cold.
So I tried to make it up to him.
"I'm sorry about your daughter, Joel," I told him, "but I have lost people too."
I lost everyone I had cared about.
Typically, one would imagine that he'd consider what I just said, and he'd probably empathize with me, as I did to him. I wanted his frigid eyes to melt, wanted his uptight frame to loosen, wanted him to tell me that he understood, that we all had our losses, and that he would apologize for trying to send me off.
None of that, though, ever happened.
And instead, I'd been attacked with one of the most emotionally caustic things that any human being can say to another.
"You have no idea what loss is."
It was right then and there, in Hidden Corral Pines, that I had felt a part of my heart shatter into irretrievable pieces.
How could he say that to me?
Did he forget about Tess? About Sam, or even Henry?
How could he sound so ignorant?
Something sparked within me, and before I knew it, I was standing before a bridge in Boston, overlooking at its side in search for a brown-eyed girl hidden deep inside the rapid water currents below. Back then, I couldn't seem to accept it. And now, facing Joel, I couldn't seem to accept his words.
What position was he in to tell me what I knew and didn't know?
"Everyone I have cared for has either died or left me."
My mother. My friends. Geoff. Marlene. Riley. Tess. Sam. Henry. They were gone. My mother was dead, Tess was dead, Sam was dead, Henry was dead.
They were names that had tallied themselves in a scoreboard of remorse. Names that belonged to people who I thought of as friends.
One of them being more than that.
But she was dead.
She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. She wouldn't come back. Not even if I cried myself to sleep in the first days after her abrupt culling. Not even when I hoped and hoped and hoped and hoped that she'd make it out and catch up to us before we'd leave Boston. Not even if I held her pendant in the palm of my hand from time to time, and certainly not even if I asked her to stay, only to have her killed a week later.
I wanted to yell at him, I wanted to hit him, I wanted to grab the photo of him and Sarah from my backpack and throw it at his goddamned face.
Because how ignorant could he be?
Every single one of them had left me.
"—fucking except for you!"
That was Joel. With his despised attitude and stubborn soul. I never thought that I'd stop resenting him, but eventually everything I knew about him was wrong. He was different. Inside of him was something else. And it was something I would never understand.
How the hell did he do that?
How did he open me up again?
To think that maybe, just maybe, this was the chance that the world'd owed me. Because Riley had made me feel safe. Joel made me feel safe. He was the one who gave me a gun to ensure security, he was the one whose aura acted as an armor bubble around me. He was the one who was there for me. It was him, him, him. It was just Joel and Riley who had done something like that.
And I couldn't let him leave, too.
"So don't tell me that I would be safer with someone else, because the truth is, I would just be more scared."
The truth is, we were both scared. Only one of us was more willing to admit it.
But Joel, on the other hand, would do anything in his power to deny it.
Something caught itself in his throat. He pushed it down with all his might and turned to me with different eyes.
The next short seconds damaged me more than I could ever imagine.
"You're not my daughter," Joel said, and it felt like I was being stabbed by a thousand knives, felt like he'd swept up all those irretrievable heart pieces and blew them all on my face. "And I sure as hell ain't your dad."
"And we are goin' our separate ways."
Because of that, I learned that words didn't just hurt you.
They broke you.
Well damn, that was quite fascinating to write.
As always, read and review! Thank you so much for the support, I'd love to hear the feedback! I'll see you again in Chapter 21, I got a few things cooking up for you guys in the next :O