Over the past fifteen miles or so, I've been constantly pressing my foot all the way down to the floor of the truck; keeping the windows down as the light drizzle has kept me nice and cool. There's nothing quite like a Texas rain. After all, it rarely happens around these parts, even with how close we are to the Gulf of Mexico. As a child growing up in Georgia, thunder storms were a common occurrence with how humid the place could get, and I remember always rushing back inside with my eyes wide open and teeth chattering, just praying for it to be over soon. Out here, though? I loved those days, and would purposely head outside and sit on a bench or a chair until my hat would get so drenched that I'd be forced back in. Odd though, and also a little depressing, how I can recall what I used to do during a thunderstorm, yet I can scarcely remember Mom and Dad's faces anymore.
The cool breeze and light droplets upon my arm as I hold it out on the side do little to calm my nerves right now, though. My ankle feels like it's going to snap like a twig after keeping it on the gas pedal for so long, and my head is still reeling from all the craziness of the past few hours. We're on the run, nearly all of our former friends are likely still coming after us, Jane and Lilly are nowhere to be found again, and as for Ellie…
Looking in the rear-view mirror every two minutes has gotten me all stressed out again. She hasn't moved from that spot since we left, except being forcibly shifted as we've run over a few walkers and potholes. My driving's not exactly on point today. "What the hell kind of drugs did they put you on…" I mutter with trepidation, my right hand gripping the leather steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles turn white.
She's breathing at least, but that's about the extent of it so far. What's more nerve-wracking than usual though is that she's not doing her usual thing when she sleeps – no little quips, no shuffling up against the chair to get more comfort than it can actually offer, and no random, short words being uttered from her mouth whenever she's in some sort of peaceful dream. I had picked up on these sorts of things over the years. Turns out you can get to know a person pretty darn well when you're trying to survive together, a lot more than I would if we had simply occupied the same house. Back when she was young (well, younger I suppose), Ellie had insisted on almost a regular basis that she be there to protect the little rascal, but in actuality, for me that went both ways. Not necessarily in the physical sense, but without the fourteen year old girl currently passed out cold in the back seat, I likely would've had a lot more trouble than usual with moving on.
My past is usually something that I've been good at avoiding with Ellie. She's asked me before, naturally, but most of the time I've either changed the subject or given her vague, short-sentenced answers. I know that it drives her up the wall with how I react to these inquiries she'll occasionally have, but not only are some things just too painful to talk about, but just telling her about them wouldn't do any of those people justice. People like Lee, or Kenny, Christa and Omid… hell, even Luke and the cabin crew sometimes, though I usually avoid them when Jane's lingering about. Ellie wouldn't know or experience the same feelings that I did with them – she couldn't. It'd be impossible.
And AJ is a subject that'll follow me to the grave. Only Jane and Lilly have ever known what had befallen the little boy, and I still blame myself for it. How couldn't I though? It was me who had covered him in disease-ridden walker guts; me who had technically snatched away his chance at a life. To tell someone else about it would be to bring up that guilt again, that soul-crushing grief, and so I won't say a word.
I know there's something wrong with my head right now. My brain has been sending me mixed signals ever since we left, but thankfully I haven't seen any of my haunting, long-dead friends for a while now. There's no rationale strong enough for me to consciously believe that they're real, but the fact of the matter is… I see them. They're in front of me. I talk to them, and sometimes they even answer back. If this is all just some kind of illusion, then it's a pretty damn convincing one.
Lee had told me, at least I think he did, that I have to follow my heart and let it guide me. Sure, it might sound like a quote from some cheesy Disney movie, but it still struck a chord. I've been bogged down by so many questions and insecurities lately that I'm not even sure what's right or wrong anymore. So many people have died for me to be in this position right now, and I'm not entirely sure if I even deserve that prestige anymore.
But Ellie does. God damn right she does. And if that means that I have to break all ties, kill every fucker in my way and possibly screw over hundreds if not thousands of people for her to live her own life, then so be it. If it's my future to get killed for this, then I at least want to make sure that she can be in good hands. Alexandria might be my last hope in that regard.
The engine starts to splutter and puff as I sharply turn a corner on the wet pavement, and I frown crossly as I try to smack the radiator a little bit. "C'mon, you hunk of junk," I remark, cursing my misfortune as the gas light pops up on the dash, right next to the engine light and various other ones that I'm not quite familiar with. I'm certainly not an expert on cars or anything, but I'm pretty sure that those are bad signs – definitely not ones that any motorist wants to have. In my rush to leave, I hadn't really paid attention to just how little fuel this thing had in it, blindly assuming that all of our vehicles down in the garage basement would be in tip-top shape. For the entire trip up to this point I'd been keeping the air conditioning off as well as the headlights, but pretty soon this rig isn't gonna run.
"Dammit," I breathe out, realizing with a grimace that although we've managed to break away from the outskirts of the city, we're still nowhere near where we need to be. I guess I had overestimated just how far of a trip this was going to be.
Switching off the ignition as we come to a complete stop, I sit with my head laid back on the headrest for a second. I think we've come far enough that they might not be able to see us just yet, and with the sun going down, they may just put off a scouting party until the following morning. For now, it might be better to just take a minute and breathe. Getting my head on straight might possibly make this transition a hell of a lot easier.
Opening up the glove compartment, I switch on the interior light as I pull open the map of the US; shifting a bit so that my legs stretch out to the passenger seat. On foot, this trek would take us forever, not to mention that blazing a trail into unknown territory isn't exactly within my realm of expertise. And that's also assuming that there aren't any obstacles along the way.
But I haven't chosen Alexandria just on a whim – according to every report I've ever seen, the place is a gold mine among the working settlements around. The southeast is practically overflowing with the dead, and I don't know enough about the western states to make a solid judgement call. This place, for all the talk of how much conflict it's seen, has endured and survived, most likely thanks to those who've been running it. We never made actual contact with their leaders over there, but for news or even rumours of its success to reach us all the way down here, they must be doing something right.
We can't back out of this now though, even if I wanted to. If I ever want to see Lilly and Jane alive again, then that's the only place it'll happen. They said they'd meet us at the gates – they promised me that that would happen.
Taking a red marker that was just sitting in one of the cup holders up front, I lay the map out flat in my lap and attempt to draw a straight line from Houston to Virginia. The road we take might not be as straight and laid out as I'd like, but that's the fastest route we can take. It's kind of fitting, I suppose, that my old hometown of Atlanta will actually be our halfway point there, if that really means anything now. Well, technically we'll be a bit north of the place, but still.
If this doesn't work out, then we'll just have to find someplace that does. It's all we can hope for now.
After locking the doors and keeping my head out of sight from passersby for somewhat of a quick power nap, my ears perk up to the sound of some uncomfortable groans coming from the back seat. With my hat resting low upon my brow and covering most of my eyes, I grin knowing that I'm not going to be completely alone on this adventure. "You're awake," I acknowledge, trying to prepare myself for the inevitable barrage of questions coming my way – mostly how to avoid answering them.
Using Ellie's switchblade as the sharp, metal object shimmers in the moonlight, I slash the remaining tire and chuck the keys into a sewer drain down below. Although mostly unusable for us due to how much could go wrong with it, I don't want one of the Fireflies to find the truck and get it up and running again to track us down. Or, perhaps just as importantly, any of the assholes still camped out in some of the various buildings back in the Houston downtown core. I know there are people still holding out there.
"That should do it," I state with a nod, folding the blade back in and handing it back to Ellie. "The darkness should give us just the cover we need for now. C'mon, shouldn't be too far to the state border crossing."
Contrary to what I had previously thought, Ellie's only asked me a couple of questions so far: where we're going, what happened to her, and where Jane and Lilly are right now. I didn't really have a clear response to the last two, but I had shared hope that Alexandria could be a fresh start for the both of us – for all four of us, hopefully. Deep down I should be grateful that she's not pondering all of this too much, since it'll likely be a hell of a lot easier getting her to follow me. But I don't want to alienate her from me at the same time… Hmm… Maybe I should take a different approach, a more lighthearted one.
"Up for a little bit of a hike?" I ask with a small smile, faltering as she shrugs her shoulders and starts to walk ahead. "Umm… sure. You lead the way then. I'll let you know when we need to change roads. We'll figure this out together, Ellie. Don't worry."
"Yeah, for sure," she answers quietly, her red bangs blustering in the wind across her freckled face as she places her hands in her pockets.
Fiddling with the straps on my leather jacket for a moment, I keep moving as a companionable silence falls upon us, with nothing to surround us but the sounds of rustling oak and ash trees, the distant moans of walkers a few miles back from where we came, and the crickets as they chirp from the tall grasses of the countryside. I sometimes used to envy those who grew up in places like this, simply because of all the beauty that they'd get to see nearly every night. Long sightlines that let you see for miles in nearly every direction, and wrap-around porches with chair swings that you could rest and relax in until the sun came up.
All of this, every single inch of this place, seems awfully familiar to me. Where have I seen this before?
Whistling to get Ellie's attention, I point a few paces to her left as she nods and takes out her switchblade. A walker, who probably died when he was about thirty-something years old, is grazing absentmindedly on a possum that was unfortunate enough to cross paths with him. The stench is almost unbearable as we both lift our collars up to mask it, but not before I kick the walker in the back and watch as Ellie quickly shanks it through the back of the head. "Thank god they didn't check your pockets, huh?" I inquire as she silently wipes the blood off in the grass before charting off again. "Ellie, c'mon, kiddo. Throw me a bone here. I know this is all a bit sudden, but if we're gonna be travelling together…"
"What do you want me to say?" she questions abruptly, turning around and laying out her arms to her sides in a dramatic fashion.
Cocking an eyebrow, I catch up to her as she kicks some dirt off of her shoe. Was I really as moody as she is at that age? "Well, I'm not trying to control ya, bud," I try to encourage, but fail miserably as she rolls her eyes. "I just want you to be like your old self again. Just because we're on the road doesn't mean we can't talk."
"Then why are we running, huh? Why the hell are we out here in the first place?" she asks me straight up, catching me a little bit off guard. "Because whatever it is, we must've fucked up pretty badly for our own friends to be chasing after us like this! Just… tell me what's going on!"
Swallowing, my body grows a little bit tense as I consider what exactly I should tell her. Giving her the truth of it would probably scare her right now, because from what I'm gathering she seems to have very little recollection of why James was operating on her in the first place. But lying about it? I dunno…
Noting my hesitation, Ellie tries to gain the advantage by folding her arms together and tapping her foot impatiently, but I've dealt with far too many people to be intimidated by a little girl. Let's face it, when Ellie gets angry, it's not quite as intimidating as it is adorable. I'm pretty sure the girl knows every curse word in the English language, and my eight year-old self wants to meekly pipe in with "swear!", but she can't quite pull it off with the fierceness that I've come to expect from others. She's just not a mean-spirited person.
"…I made a mistake," is the answer I end up going with, wanting to get this out of the way now so that it doesn't sprout up again later at an inopportune time. "More than one, actually. I made some choices for the group that… well they…" I pause, trying to come up with the right words to say. Ellie's nothing if not perceptive, but I know her well enough that I can figure out how to get through to her. At least it's worth a shot. "It ended up getting people hurt – "
"Killed?" she pipes in, looking deflated when I hesitantly nod my head.
"Yeah… that too," I admit, playing the girl like a fiddle as I lower my gaze to the side. I don't really want to make eye contact right now. It's bad enough that I'm lying to her, but to look at her straight in the eyes and do it might be even worse. She can't just take my word for it, though. The idea has to seep within her brain.
Nothing passes between us for a little while; no accusations, no glares or hostile tension, which I had partially expected. Ellie doesn't storm off in a huff, or bang her fists on me stomach and call me a murderer.
But after waiting for a few seconds, I gaze back down towards the little girl, and what I see brings a knot to my stomach. She knows about everything – although I had never explained to her what happened that night, I don't think I really need to. She knows that Zayne is dead because of me, because I killed him when nobody else was around. She knows that I've done all kinds of horrible shit to keep us going, and I think she's starting to put the pieces together as to why we're running from our own family.
"Stop," she tells me, a look of disappointment flashing in her eyes as she starts to realize just how bad I've become. "Can we just get out of here? Please? It's… I'm tired," she excuses herself as I reluctantly nod. She's right, of course. It's probably a good idea to find somewhere to rest a little for the night anyways. Preferably somewhere outside of Texas, but beggars can't be choosers out on the road.
Giving our little walker pal over here one last look-over, I drag him to the side of the road and leave him in the grass when I find that he's got nothing useful on him. Must've been an older one, but even the walkers don't all deserve to rot on the pavement. It's not their fault that they're like this, after all.
By the time that I'm finished lugging him by the legs, I notice that Ellie's already made her way forwards up the hill without me. I have half a mind to yell for her to stick close, when all of a sudden she stops curiously. "What is it?" I shout up to her, but she doesn't seem to hear my voice as she breaks into a jog and darts out of my site. "Dammit, Ellie!"
Quickly placing my gun back into my pocket, I zip my leather jacket back up and try to follow suit. My legs are already cramping up a little bit as I charge up the hill, and my feet are killing me right now, but I ignore it as I come across a familiar passage. A large dirt path surrounded by trees, many of which have been burned down for some reason, leads the way as I see Ellie's small footprints laying her trail out before me. If there's one thing that I can give that girl some credit for, it's that she certainly knows how to move quickly. More than once she's escaped a lecture from me just in the nick of time by darting to some hiding spot within the camp. I guess we can't really do that anymore now, though.
But the further along I walk, the more my brow scrunches up. I know this place! It seems like almost a lifetime ago, but I could've sworn that we were here at one point. It was such a short period of time now, but as I finally make my way towards the place, my mouth breaks into an astonished grin.
Houston Hills, or what's left of it, stands as a burned ruin in front of us, with some of the old Victorian-style pillars still intact as well as some of the windows, but other than that, the place looks mostly destroyed.
"Think there might be anything we can use in here?" Ellie pipes in, already sticking her hand into some of the wreckage and digging through for whatever she can find. She has no idea what this place meant to me, to Lilly and Jane, too.
"Worth a shot," I answer simply, patting her on the back as I put my pride aside. "C'mon, kiddo. Stick closer to me this time, would ya?"
My gun hangs lazily at my side as I turn the corner and make my way into the kitchen, or at least what remains of it. There's not really a whole lot of point having it out, since with the noise we're making a walker would've come looking for us by now. But instinct has taught me over time that it never hurts to be prepared, and so I scavenge through the ashes with a finger primed for firing.
This place had seen much better days, there's no two ways about that. For a few months at least we had lived a pretty comfortable life here, all things considered. We had always left at least one person to guard the place while the others would sleep, chill out or go for a run into town. I can remember the little garden we had out in the back, having to plant nothing but potatoes or something like that because we only had one type of crop. I remember playing cards against Lilly and Jane, almost getting my ass kicked by them on a regular basis since they'd never let me win. And there were couches – big, leather-clad and woolen things – right over in the room next to me. The kitchen counter is still here, somehow, but the couches along with most of the walls, windows and chairs are gone. More than likely they burned along with the rest of this place.
"Must've been a hell of a setup back in the day, huh?" Ellie chimes in from behind me, standing on her tippy toes to try and peer into the cupboards. So far she hasn't really found anything except for one of Lilly's old Savage Starlight comics, but she's got some spirit for trying. Lilly wouldn't mind her taking that one, I'm pretty sure. She was more a Batman fan, anyway.
I don't think I'm going to tell her about this place, or the fact that I rested my head upstairs once upon a time. At one point I was pretty fond of this house, it's true, but those moments are long behind me. Right now isn't the time for me to reminisce about the good old days – I had tried that, once. I remember one day when Ellie and I were heading through an old pet store deep within the city, and I had made an offhanded remark about my old hamster that my family used to have back in Atlanta. As I had spun the little hamster wheel around, I found Ellie just kind of sitting by the door quietly, with her hands folded in her lap as she waited patiently for me to finish up.
"What's up?" I remember asking her.
Sitting along the windowsill and glancing around at all the various items that used to be for sale, Ellie shrugged her shoulders and explained to me, "My mom told me that once all of this was over," she sighed, "that we'd be able to adopt a dog for ourselves. Head out to Boston and live with my grandparents somewhere. I'm… not so sure that's really an option anymore."
About two minutes later, I had hurried to the back room, grabbed what we came for and headed back. The whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, seeing as how she'd likely never be able to have the childhood that I'd gotten, however brief it was. Guilt didn't even begin to describe how I felt that day – Ellie had never been a spoiled kid, and had hardly asked for anything that she didn't really need. Apparently asking for a normal life with a family that cared about her would be too much.
"I think I'll check out back," she tells me as I nod to give her the go-ahead. There's no sliding glass or screen door for her to head to the backyard anymore, much to my dismay. It's weird, but hearing the sound of that door opening used to fill me with a sense of comfort and warmth; that there was a friend around to keep me company when things had gotten too bad.
The old clock, no longer hanging on the wall but now sitting idly on top of the stone fireplace, is somehow still ticking, and with a curious smirk I walk over to see that it reads three thirty-six in the afternoon. Obviously it's completely wrong, as the moon is still hanging ominously in the sky, but if something as insignificant as this had somehow managed to survive, then I hold out for a sliver of hope that some of the other belongings are still here as well. The only question now is where to find them.
After I poke my head out to check on Ellie, who's currently trying to get the cellar door open to below ground level, I frown and bite my lip as I try to loot my way through the remains of the house. This was a lot easier when there were two floors, but at least with the upper half either collapsed or burned away, it's all in one location.
I never really knew what became of the place after we were rudely forced to leave. Jane and Lilly had mentioned a few names of the people who took them, but I had forgotten them a long time ago. Didn't really matter too much, I guess, but now at least I know what they must've done to the house. I guess it really was a close call with me in that cellar, after all. If I had stayed just a few minutes later, I probably would've been barbecued.
Almost everything's grey and black, charred to bits from nearly a decade ago as I keep my wits about me. I wonder how many others had come through here after we left, or if we're the first ones to disturb the ashes since that fateful day. There's no real way to tell, since the wind had probably blown away any traces of other scavengers. There are a few empty bullet shells here and there, but those are probably leftovers from when we had that standoff with the group that kidnapped Lilly and Jane.
Just as I'm about to head down the barren hallway towards the front of the house for the first time in forever, I stop as my foot stumbles upon something I had forgotten about. A ramp – mostly torched to shreds, but still held in place. Lilly had installed them for…
Frowning deeply, I cut off my thoughts as I turn my gaze to the left, and there it is, clear as day. The wheelchair that I'd sat in for months on end, making me hate myself every day for being so stupid and letting myself break both of my god damn legs. I spent a lot of nights silently crying myself to sleep, lying in bed while Jane and Lilly would sit by my side into the small hours of the morning. I know they hated seeing me like that just as much as I did, and I could tell that they trying so hard to be strong for me. After all, who knew if I'd ever walk again?
I don't remember if I had ever properly thanked them for all of that. They went out of their way to help me through that difficult time without anything in it for themselves. I remember even telling Lilly one time to leave me and take off, just as she had tried to do before that. She had knelt down in front of me, placed both of her hands on my shoulders, and gave me a rough shake. She told me to snap out of it, and that she wasn't going to ever give up on me because of what I did for her. I didn't understand what she meant at the time, since generally she was the one who was constantly saving my ass.
"No, Clementine," she had said more softly, then, "you saved me from myself."
Clutching the back handle of the wheelchair, I slowly rock it back and forth as I watch the wheels spin. The steel has mostly rusted away after being exposed to the elements for so long, and the axels squeak as I push it, but other than that and a singed seat, it's still in relatively working order. Good lord, that's infuriating. How is it that out of everything we had here, everything we shared together, this stupid fucking piece of plastic garbage is one of the only things to have survived?! Why?! Why couldn't it have been something I could look back fondly on?!
Taking both hands to the back of the wheelchair, I angrily shove the thing over, turn it on its side and slam it to the ground; only getting more pissed when it hardly even puts a dent in it.
"What's the matter? Afraid of your past?" the stranger torments me in my mind, causing me to collapse to one knee as I shudder and breathe heavily. He's standing over in the corner and towering over me with an empty look in his eyes, I know he is. The same asshole that lead me astray, that took me away from Lee. "It's alright, sweetie. We can go somewhere nice and safe. You do want that, don't you? All you have to do is just take my hand…"
Instantly his phantom image is gone, and I blink a few times to see that there's nothing in the corner except for the shattered mirror I used to use. I couldn't have imagined that… or was I simply looking at my own reflection? Is that what spooked me?
"Hey, are you gonna be okay?" she asks me sweetly, and I can't help but smile and close my eyes in reassurance. How Jane used to go it alone back in the day is beyond me. I'd probably have gone off the rails by now. "I thought I heard a noise back here. I didn't think those fucking things got in here, but you never know."
Shaking my head, I stand up again and try to brush off the ash from my knees. All that ends up doing is smudging it a little and getting tiny pockets of soot to cover my fingers. "Wasn't that. Just knocked something over."
I can't really tell if she buys that answer or not, given how dark it still is, but she doesn't press the issue as she walks closer towards me. "Well, the place is a dud, mostly. That door out back has the lock fused together so there's no getting into it," she mentions, gesturing backwards with her thumb. Good thing, too. I don't want her to see what's down there. "But hey, we're pretty far from the city. Do you think we might be able to stay here tonight? Just for a few hours?"
Mulling it over for a bit, I shake my head as I take off my hat to itch at my scalp. "I don't think so, bud. Too many ways for us to get spotted, and too many entrances for bad folks to get through. Besides, I doubt you'll want to wake up with cinders in your hair," I joke, thinking that her hair is already auburn and red enough to catch fire at any second. "Look, I know you're exhausted. I am too. But I promise, the next building we see that looks like it's safe, that's where we'll sleep. Sound fair?"
Seeing that that's the only straight answer I'm going to get, I tell her to take point and that I'll be out in just a minute. I wait for her to leave, and then once she's disappeared from sight, I lower my gaze to the ground and shake my head. This CANNOT keep happening. I can't keep losing my shit like this, seeing things that aren't there and talking to people who no longer exist. Ellie must think that I'm losing my damn mind the longer I'm out here, and at this point that might not be so far from the truth. It's almost as if somebody had screwed in a voice recording machine into my head when I wasn't looking.
What's worrisome now though is that these voices and visions… they're actually starting to hurt. As in, physically. I'm getting these huge headaches that just don't ever seem to be going away, and I'm not sure if the lack of food, water and rest is just adding all of these problems up on top of each other or not but… shit. What am I going to do if one of these days I just completely blow up and put her in danger? If I start shooting or striking out, I'm not really sure what she'd do.
If it ever comes to that though… a part of me wants her to just put me down. Maybe it'll be easier that way, for the both of us. She could go wander off and do her own thing, and the Fireflies would have one less person to worry about.
Until then, I'm going to try and do right by her; by my friends. If I care about any of them at all – Ellie, Jane or Lilly – then I owe it to them to try and keep myself in check. There's just too much at stake now for me to let this schizophrenia get the better of me.
I don't even realize that I've been crying a little until I wipe my face with my hands, getting rid of the tears as I swipe them off with the back of my sleeve. Nothing to do now but move forward, I guess. I just hope that Ellie didn't see me like this.
Before I head back out to meet her, however, I stop short when I notice that under one of the few chairs that remain sits a dusty, old box – sealed air-tight by some masking tape. Curiosity gets the better of me as I bend down and grab onto the box, kicking the wheelchair farther away as I set it in front of me. I sit cross-legged as I try to pry open the box with my bare fingers, but this thing's probably been shut away for so long that it won't budge. Not wanting to break the contents inside, I look around for something sharp to use, and settle on a shard of the broken mirror as I tear through the tape with ease. The glass cuts me a little bit as I wince, but barely any blood's been drawn as I turn my attention back to the box.
Chuckling in disbelief, I lay some of the contents on my lap as I start to go through them one by one. A nail file from Jane, the hair clips that Lilly had given me from before she stole the RV, a scrap of paper with tallies from who won the most card games… this is the memento box that I had insisted on keeping locked away. Lilly wasn't exactly on board with the idea, thinking that we could use most of the stuff we were placing inside, but my stubbornness had actually outweighed hers that day, and she had relented; even throwing in some of her dad's old coins that she kept after he passed away.
There's a bunch of other stuff in here, too, but it's mostly just miscellaneous items: sketches that I had likely drawn purely out of boredom, the spray can of silly string that I had sprayed both Jane and Lilly with (although that alone makes me laugh from the fond memory), a whole pack of crayons, and some kind of pun book that we must've found lying about at one point. Thinking that Ellie might get a kick out of it, I take that along with the nail file and put both of the items in my coat pocket. The rest, although special to me, will have to stay in the box. We can't be too dragged down by things that we don't absolutely need. And who knows? Maybe someday another person will come and get more of a use out of these items than I would. Not very likely, but you never know.
"Clem? You coming?"
"Yeah, just a sec!" I yell back in reply, getting ready to put the lid back on the box and place it back where I found it the first time. Just as I'm about to do so though, I stop myself and dig to the very bottom of our makeshift time capsule.
It's a picture – Jane, Lilly and I, with me putting on a shit-eating grin while Jane seems to be laughing about something. Most likely, if the expression on her face can tell me anything, Jane and I had played yet another practical joke on Lilly, and were trying not to burst into a crazy fit of laughter. For some reason though, Lilly's the one holding the camera in front of us, but I don't really question it. This is amazing… I can't believe we would've left something like this behind. I mean, there was a camera floating around the space centre, which the kids were having a blast with, but I think this might just be a keeper. Back to a simpler time when all we had was each other.
Brushing my thumb tenderly along Jane and Lilly's faces, I try not to ruin the picture as I carefully fold it in half and place it inside of my interior coat pocket; right next to my heart.
Feeling satisfied with my haul, I nod and take one last look at what used to be Houston Hills. You know what? For all the bad shit that happened to us that split us apart afterwards, I'm still glad that Ellie and I came back here. This trip has already been worth it. I just hope that the rest of it will bear the same luck.
Ellie's leaning over the railing when I come out to find her again, nose-deep into her newest Savage Starlight book. Her eyes are glued to every page as she flips to the next one, but she can still hear my footsteps coming down the wooden stairs. "What were you doing in there? Digging to China?" she inquires, stopping for a second as I hand her the book I found. "No Pun Intended: Volume Too," she reads with amusement, flipping to the first page as I hear her snort. "Okay, I think you've just dug yourself an early grave here, Clem. I'm gonna be belting these out every time I get a chance!"
"As long as it keeps you from swearing at me," I poke her lightly on the nose, "I think I'll take that as a win."
"Pfft! Yeah, okay then! I don't fucking swear!"
Laughing at that despite myself, I do a few back rotations in order to stretch out a little bit before telling her to follow me. We've only got a little bit of darkness left I'd imagine, seeing's how a little bit of light is popping up on the horizon, and I'd rather not be caught out in the open when we haven't even left the state yet.
We make pretty good headway from that point, walking for probably a solid two hours without having to stop for anything. We're taking the backroads instead of the main highway, since I'm not entirely convinced that that's not congested with broken-down vehicles. A few walkers managed to give us a little bit of trouble a few roads back, with one of them putting up a hell of a fight, but fortunately we were able to save our bullets by leading them over to a small ravine underneath a wooden bridge that leads to the next row of rural neighbourhoods. In fact, we didn't even need to use any weapons at all – we simply taunted them to come over towards the bridge, dodged their bites at the last second, and then shoved them the rest of the way over. Ellie had cringed as we heard their necks snap once they hit the bottom, but I just wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kept us on the path.
However, the Texas heat is notorious for making you feel like you're living in a furnace, and even two days into our escape, we're already starting to feel the effects of our lack of resources. Ellie's been trying to cover it up, but every now and again I can hear her stomach growling and see the beads of sweat perspiring on her forehead. The roof of my mouth is almost completely dry, and I've been feeling pretty dizzy over the last stretch of mile. I'm kinda wishing now that I hadn't sent that walker straight into the ravine… might've been safe for us to drink out of.
Ellie's about to roll both of her sleeves up to try and suppress the heat, but hesitates once she remembers what's forever planted onto her left forearm. She traces her fingers along the scars, and although they'd healed long ago, I still see her doing this sort of thing from time to time; rubbing at it and looking grimly in the distance.
Once I see her nearly trip over an exposed crack in the road, I decide that enough is enough. Rubbing my eyes for a second, I take off my dad's old baseball cap and place it on top of Ellie's head. Surprised, she immediately turns around to look at me. "Can't remember the last time I've seen you without this puppy on."
"You and me both," I admit, feeling a little bit empty without it sitting atop my crown. I've never gone anywhere without it, and as strange as it sounds, I actually think that I've felt more like a leader while wearing it. Maybe the hat's got super powers or something, I don't know. "It's better than you getting heat stroke, though. We both need to keep our strength up if we're gonna make it."
"Do you know how far we've gone? Shit, it feels like we've been walking for days…"
I'm just about to pull out the map and answer her, when all of a sudden I spot a trio of shadowy figures up ahead in the distance. Unless it's a mirage, which is entirely possible due to the heat waves bouncing off the pavement, I can see a man, a woman and a horse walking across a farmer's field. And if they have enough food and water to keep a horse going, then that means…
"Look, up ahead!" I point out, with Ellie scrunching her eyes to try and see what I'm talking about. Once she spots them, too, her eyes light up with excitement.
"Holy shit," she exclaims, jogging up to a road sign reading twenty-five miles per hour. "You don't think they might be Fireflies though, do you?"
"Way out in the middle of nowhere like this? I doubt it. We're miles out from Houston," I tell her, all sorts of ideas running through my mind as I pull out my pistol. "C'mon," I tell her, failing to notice the look of worry crossing the girl's face, "let's follow 'em, and see where they're holed up. With a little luck, we might be able to – "
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back the hell up for a second," she interrupts, clearly not on board with… whatever it is she thinks I'm doing. "Clementine, what the fuck's wrong with you?! You just happen to randomly see a group of strangers out on the road, and now you're gonna go kill them for their fucking supplies?! You can't just slaughter them like that!"
"Hey now, nobody said anything about murdering these people!"
"Oh yeah, because the way you're holding that loaded gun doesn't totally say, I'm a bandit whose come to shoot everyone on sight!"
"You seriously think I'd…?" I cut myself off, reluctantly placing my gun in my pocket for the time being. Maybe now I can try and get her to understand. "Listen, that's not what's going down here, okay? I wouldn't do something like that without a damn good reason," I explain, practically pleading with the kid to see things from my perspective. "But unless they want to trade us a few cans of food for a pun book, we don't have anything to offer them. We need this food and water, Ellie – we're gonna die out here without it. That's why we have to take it with us."
"And when they all die because of what we stole from them?" she challenges with a disapproving glare, the crescent moon shape of her eyebrow creasing ever onward. "What makes you think they're just gonna let us take their stuff, anyways? You're the one who told me doing this was wrong in the first place!"
"This is different."
"How the hell is it – "
"Because this is how the world works out here, Ellie!" I cut her off, getting slightly anxious that we'll lose these people if we're not quick enough. I know her heart's in the right place, but she's never really known life outside of the city. She's been living under the roof of a community settlement for years now, and hasn't had to resort to these kinds of things just to get by. I was feeling the same way, in fact. As ridiculous as it might sound, living at that space station… it kept our guards down, made us vulnerable. We may have had walls to keep us going, but those bandits were able to get inside because they were veterans at this – they were hardened survivors, and knew that in order to get what they wanted, they had to do whatever they had to.
Ellie, still looking as though she completely disagrees with what I'm proposing, averts my gaze and shakes her head.
"We're not going to take it all," I tell her, tilting her chin up with my spare hand as I try to regain her trust. So far, I don't think it's working. "All we need is enough to get by for a little while. That's it. We'll be nice and quick – nobody has to see us, and nobody has to die. Sound fair?"
Deep down, I really can't believe that I'm advocating this, to a child no less. It feels so wrong, and I know that she's got a point – stealing too much from these people might be the same as shooting their shins and leaving them to the walkers. But to do nothing, to just leave them alone and continue on our merry way, would be too big of a risk. Who knows where or when our next meal will be, if we even get one, that is. If there's a chance for me to put some food into her stomach, then I'm game.
My stomach drops a little bit though, when Ellie suddenly violently shakes her head. "You do what you want," she insists, "but count me out. I'm not having any part of it. We're not fucking thieves."
Sighing in defeat, I stand back to full height and scan the horizon for where they may have gone… Good, looks like they're still in sight. If we… er, I… can follow along without being spotted, then all the better.
"I'll make it quick, then. You've got a gun?" I ask her, concerned when she shakes her head. Making a last-minute decision, I turn around and tell her to trade me for her switchblade. "I'll take good care of it, I promise. But if anyone comes near you, take that pistol and fire. Run if you have to, but just make sure you put as much distance between you and your target as possible."
"If you're going on a killing spree, won't you need a gun?" she sarcastically asks me as I roll my eyes.
"I learned from the best," I ominously reply, flashing back to my time spent watching Jane on runs and in the training yard. "This'll go a lot smoother if I'm quiet. But come on, we need to catch up to them. No need to get into something bigger than necessary."
"That's too bad, then. Looks like you just walked into it," taunts a voice from behind us, causing me to stiffen up and curse our dumb luck as I feel the cold metal of an assault rifle against my neck. The hairs on my arms stick up as he practically growls his demands at us. "Weapons on the ground, now. Don't try me, girls. This don't need to get bloody."
I hadn't yet gotten a chance to trade my gun over to Ellie, put I carefully shift my gaze over to her and wink. Wait for my signal, kiddo, I silently tell her. Doing as the guy commands, I drop my pistol to the ground and leave my hands above my head.
"That's better," he murmurs, and I can hear the cocky smirk within his words. "And what about you, huh? Turn out them pockets – ain't no way you ain't packin' heat, too."
"I'm the only one with a gun. I'm just trying to protect her, so how about you walk away and let us go?"
"Protector, huh? Doing a mighty fine job of that now, ain't ya? And do you really think I'd just let you ladies leave without a hitch? Tsk-tsk-tsk, I'm afraid that's not how it works," he chuckles humourlessly, turning back to Ellie without skipping a beat. I can tell this guy's done something similar before. "Last chance, girlie. Empty them pockets, or else your friend here's getting a noggin full o' lead."
Ellie, still wearing my hat, shifts her eyes over to me for the go-ahead, and I nod at her… but not before winking at the same time. This guy may think that he's in control, but we've got him wrapped like putty in our hands. Thank god he can't see my face from back there, though.
"Well? Quit dallying, now! Out with the weapons!"
Seeming to get my message, Ellie turns back to our assailant and reaches further down into her pocket. "Slowly," he warns, aiming his gun over at her for a moment as she complies. If that gun of his was aimed somewhere else right now, I'd be tempted to try something, but this might still be able to work in our favour.
When Ellie reveals what's been sitting in her pocket the whole time, I nearly snicker at what she's holding. A set of keys for her room back at the space centre, with a mini toy screwdriver attached to it just for show.
Clearly, this man isn't impressed. "You think this is a fucking joke or somethin'? What're you playing at?!" he snarls, shoving his gun at the back of my head and pushing me forward a little. "Answer me, dammit! Where's yer fucking gun?!"
"I told you already, I'm the one protecting her!"
"Well, we'll just have to test that out then," he snaps, grabbing onto Ellie's collar and forcing her to walk beside me. Pointing his gun to the east, the bandit spits on the ground by my left foot and swears at me under his breath. "That your camp over there?" he questions with a thick, southern drawl. I had almost started developing one last year, but Jane had laughed at my change in voice one day so hard that the water she was drinking from nearly came out of her nose, so I've been trying my best to stop it ever since.
Gulping, I see that Ellie's about to answer when I beat her to the punch.
"Yeah, that's us. We don't want you to hurt anybody though."
Ellie, raising an eyebrow at me, thankfully remains quiet as I continue on with our little charade. It seems that he didn't really pick up very much on our earlier conversation before threatening our lives. Ellie's life…
You know what has to be done, Carver glowers at me, his gruff voice drowning out anyone else's. Lead him on like a fucking dog, Clementine. That'll be your moment to strike – don't squander it.
"I won't," I bark back. What the hell does he know, anyways?! I'm the one trying to get us out of this mess! Carver's got no business being here! He's not my friend!
Our attacker swiftly smacks me on the side of the head with his gun, causing Ellie to jump in surprise, but I try to shake it off as I feel a trail of blood slowly trickling down my right cheek. "Like hell you won't," he grunts angrily. "Now, here's the thing. Me and my friends here are gonna stand right behind the both of y'all," he explains as I grit my teeth in annoyance. Almost all at once, in comes four or five more people from the brush, all armed with pistols and hunting rifles. It's hard to tell from here, but they still look like a ragtag bunch of morons who're probably too stupid to organize an assault like this. "And we're gonna walk you right inside, nice and easy. No mess, no fuss. Next, you're gonna tell your hillbilly leader that we want what was stolen from us. Ammo, food and meds. All of it, or we're coming in and killing every last fucker in there. Do we have an understanding?"
"Yes sir," I woozily reply, a small smirk eluding the unsuspecting assholes as Ellie looks over towards me with concern. She doesn't have to worry, though. I've already got all of this sorted out in my head.
Sure thing, buddy. I'll play along. We'll walk right into "our" camp and lead your gang inside. Nice and easy, like you said.
Only this time, we're gonna get away with so much more.