The Man on the Mountain
Eugene Linden was a lot of things. Loud. Hairy. Always smelling like a week-old bologna sandwich. But damn if he didn't grow the finest weed east of Jackson.
'Course he was probably the only man who'd thought a marijuana farm was a solid business venture during the apocalypse, but it wasn't like Ellie had ever smoked better anyways.
She took a long drag and chuckled as Eugene blew a perfect ring towards the basement ceiling. "Show-off."
"It's a habit. I literally couldn't stop if I tried."
"Sure." Ellie exhaled an unimpressive stream up at the exposed pipes. The smoke twisted and curled under the bare fluorescents. "Seriously, this is good shit."
"Thanks. You owe me a hundred bucks."
"This is medicine. For my old bones."
"And this is America. Fuck you."
Ellie flicked ash at him, and both of them fell into a quiet laugh. Eugene was just brushing fifty – anything he knew about America was a collection of jokes and stereotypes passed down from old farts like her. Jokes she only knew from a childhood with Joel, Tommy, and Jackson's first generation of adults.
2099. Hard to believe it had been so long. Hell, there probably wasn't anyone left anywhere who had actual first-hand experience with America, or any other country the world might once have held.
The thought sobered Ellie, though Eugene still seemed content, puffing away with the occasional loving glance at the many tables of potted plants surrounding him. Like a proud father surveying his successful offspring. Gossip in Jackson always painted Eugene as a hippy teenager trapped in a man's beer-bellied body, but Ellie had a sneaking suspicion that it was about more than the drugs. Eugene just really loved gardening. His own special brand of it, sure, but gardening nonetheless.
"'Gene," she said, to draw his eyes lazily back to her. This was the state she'd been hoping to get him to: relaxed enough not to freak out at what she asked, but not so blazed he became useless. "I need a favour."
"You're holdin' it."
"Not a joint."
"'You ain't gettin' a plant."
Just say it, Ellie. Spit it out. Commit. But the words still stuck in her throat, no matter how much she hated herself for it. Felt like once she said it, there was no going back.
I shouldn't want to go back.
"Fireflies, 'Gene. I need to find the Fireflies."
Immediately, the pleasant half-smile was gone. Eugene took his feet off the table and sat right up in his chair, no trace of dopiness left in his bloodshot eyes. Maybe she hadn't waited quite long enough.
"Why," he began slowly, "the fuck—"
"I can't say."
Ellie hesitated. Was there any reason not to tell him? Joel had made her hide her condition from everyone in Jackson, out of fear that someone might think her infected and shoot her (though now she knew the truer reason). She remembered the tears, the pain, that night Joel had gone at her arm with a jar of battery acid. She also remembers agreeing to do it, to cover up the bite. It was what Joel had wanted, after all.
She flexed her arm, masked twice over now by black-inked ferns and a moth in flight. That had hurt too, but Cat had been just as kind as Joel in her treatment. Some old asshole in Jackson back then had told her she'd regret getting a tattoo, that it was permanent, dontcha know, and what would she do when she had kids? Well, Ellie married the tattoo artist and hadn't bothered with children, and even at eighty on her saggy skin the art still looked pretty damn badass, so thank you very much.
Eugene had his own ink, a gaping skull on the back of the hand that was currently trembling around his joint. She wondered if he realized he was pointing the burning end at her like a gun. Answer me, or else.
Yet all she said was, "It's complicated."
Eugene gave a disgusted snort that hit Ellie harder than she'd expected. Still, Joel had been – don't say right, he wasn't fucking right – cautious, and not without some reason. Everyone in Jackson kept a knife at their hip, which was better than the guns they used to have before bullets started running low, but still. Ellie could see Eugene's own ten-inch cleaver glinting by his belt, a nasty, discoloured piece he'd walked into Jackson with nearly twenty years ago. Without all his wits present, she wasn't wholly comfortable confiding her deepest, darkest secrets in him. Don't get her wrong, she liked Eugene. But trust? That just wasn't how the world worked anymore.
Who told me that? Joel?
Oh, there's a fuckin' doozy.
"So you show up here, no warning whatsoever, you get me high, and then you drop the motherfucking Firefly bomb on me – which, by the way, we've never fucking discussed ever – and you want to do this no questions asked?" Eugene stubbed out his half-finished joint, then immediately reconsidered and grabbed another from the table. "That's bullshit, Ellie, and you know it."
"I do. But it is what it is."
"That's also bullshit."
Eugene sighed. He fished about in his camo jacket, presumably for his lighter, but when he withdrew his hand, he held something else between two fingers. A round metal tag with a little ring that jingled as he twisted it. There was text on the front, a logo on the back. Ellie didn't need her glasses to know what either signified.
"You know I wasn't a legit Firefly. They were long gone by the time I signed up."
"Yeah, I know." All the legitimate Fireflies died at St. Mary's. "But you guys called yourselves Fireflies."
"In name only."
"If you were just a gang, you woulda come up with your own name. You must've had some intention of restarting the movement."
Eugene's bushy brows were drawn low, so much so that the shadow they cast made his eyes look black. Ellie had never seen him like this, and something hot twisted in her gut (guilt? fear?), but she pressed on regardless. "C'mon, you never found any stragglers? There had to be some in Denver."
"Military wiped most of 'em out. We did try to save 'em, or at least find 'em at the start, but . . ." Eugene had started to flip the tag in the air, like a coin. Heads, tales, heads, tales. "Our leader was crazy. Absolutely batshit – or he wasn't, not in the beginning, but he went that way in the end, y'know?"
And she did. She understood, fully, but Eugene didn't believe her. She didn't think so at least – he wouldn't look at her at all, just kept flicking the tag into the air and grabbing it and flicking it again. Until his hand wobbled so badly that his thumb caught it wrong and sent it shooting off across the basement. Ellie heard it land in the shadows with a distant plink.
Eugene's fingers curled around the air, searching for some kind of anchor. He looked half-ready to light another joint just to keep both his hands busy; Ellie rested her palm on his instead.
"You want to talk about it?"
"No, I do not want to fucking talk about it."
She nodded. So they sat there, for a moment. Just smoking and breathing.
Finally, Eugene said, "The Mullinses."
"Pair o' brothers. I've done some trade with the older one, Leon. Never met the younger one, but apparently he used to be with a new gang of Fireflies, once upon a time."
Ellie's heart skipped a beat, which at her age was more nerve-wracking than exciting. "You know where?"
"The Fireflies were? No. But the brothers are up in that chalet north o' Jackson. Tim's the one you want."
Tim. It was a start, at least. She wasn't even disappointed not to get anything concrete – she'd lived too long to assume this was going to be easy.
Also maybe I ain't as keen on this as—
"Anything else?" she said, a bit too loud to her ears.
"Tell Leon I sent you and he shouldn't shoot you on sight. Probably. Actually, here." Eugene grabbed a glass jar of joints from the table and tossed it into her lap. "Peace offering."
"Thanks." A wry smile twisted at her lips. She shook the jar. "What do I owe you now, eight hundred bucks?"
Eugene didn't laugh. Nor did he respond when she murmured a quiet, "Thanks."
It wasn't 'til she'd hauled herself up and hobbled to the stairs that he spoke again. "Ellie?"
When she glanced over her shoulder, she found his eyes finally back on her. The light could catch them now, and she could see a glassiness there that had nothing to do with the weed.
"I did a lot of bad shit back in Denver. With the Fireflies – or whatever the hell we were." His voice caught briefly; he swallowed hard, took a drag, and exhaled a formless mess of smoke. "Really, really bad shit."
Ellie swept her arms out at the rows of plants. Her smile was teasing, but her eyes were kind. "And now you're every teen in Jackson's hero."
"Hah." He looked back at the plants, but there was no pride this time; just a sad melancholy as he softly echoed the word. "Hero . . ."
She left him there to chew on that. No point in hanging around; she wasn't good with shit like this, and anyways, Eugene was growing all the comfort he needed.
Besides, she had to pack.
Ellie didn't have much in the way of "stuff." Cat had been the one for art, and flowers, and spare dining sets (and knickknacks, God, the fucking knickknacks). After she'd passed two years back – two years, eight months, eleven days – Ellie had gotten rid of most everything in the house, which was a hell of a coping mechanism, but then look who'd been her goddamn role model for weathering the death of a loved one.
Thankfully, that didn't leave much shit to deal with now. She taped a note to her door that Patrick Havershed could have the house since he was so desperate to move out of his parents' place. Another note for her comic collection, because Bethany Marcher was the only one with any taste in this godforsaken town. Erin Gilbrady would get her strawberry jam stash. And Noah Ryce could take the guitar. She hadn't played it in years anyways, and she sure as hell wasn't about to pick it back up.
Clothes, food, medicine, and other necessities were packed without emotion. At the first hint of dawn, Ellie bundled herself in a thick down coat and locked her place up for the very last time before fetching Shimmer from the stable. The poor girl would bear the brunt of her equipment; Ellie didn't have the shoulders for hauling shit anymore.
Why, why, why did you have to wait until I was fucking eighty . . .
Despite this town being pretty much her whole life, Ellie found it surprisingly easy to slip away silently into the early dawn. She was the oldest person in Jackson by more than a few years – it used to be Cat – so she had no close friends, and of course, no family. There were people she knew, but no one who would mourn her leaving any more than a passing stab of disappointment. Especially after the last two years . . . well, she hadn't exactly made an effort to be an "active member of the community." So she didn't stop, not once, as she turned Shimmer down the road out of Jackson.
Until she hit the graveyard.
She'd known it was coming, but it still stopped her cold to see it. All those rows of wooden markers standing solemn in the pale morning light. Winter hadn't yet released its hold on the valley, but somehow there was still a small, purple flower place atop a nearby mound of snow. One spot of colour in a landscape of grey.
It wasn't on his. No, his was much further back. One in an innumerable sea of markers, and yet she knew exactly where it lay.
She wasn't coming back. Ever. Either she'd die on this journey or . . . well, she'd die at the end of it. Whatever the case, no more Jackson. Any goodbyes had to be made now.
For far longer than she meant to, Ellie stood hunched against the wind on the other side of the squat, one-foot fence that marked the edge of the cemetery. Words swirled in a mad tornado inside her mind, so fast and loud she couldn't discern any of them. Arguments were spat half-formed, insults were screamed, answers demanded. And none of it would do a lick of good.
Just a piece of wood with a name on it, she thought, before she turned and hobbled away.
The trail up the mountain wasn't treacherous, but it was tricky – all the better, since Ellie couldn't let her mind wander. Shimmer was reliable as ever, even though she was almost as old as Ellie (at least, in horse years). Together, they made slow but steady progress as the day wore on. A light snow started later in the morning, but it faded by mid-afternoon. Maybe spring was on its way after all.
There was still enough of a dusting on the ground, however, that Ellie could make out fresh boot prints when she hit the main road. Four pairs heading up. None coming back.
Red flag. Anything unexpected was. But she reasoned that the older brother, Leon, was a trader. Maybe his customers made house calls.
Ellie had a bow and quiver of arrows slung across her shoulder. But instead, she reached for the hidden holster beneath her coat and withdrew her pistol.
Weapons in Jackson were kept in one storehouse, guarded and, in the case of the guns, under lock and key. With so few of them left, every bullet was saved for absolute emergencies—Infected-level emergencies. Even most patrols didn't get 'em unless they knew their route went through spore territory. Hence why everyone had started getting real good with bows; they were useless in close combat, but then, if you were that close to an Infected, you were probably dead anyways. As for person-on-person combat, well, no one mentioned that anymore. Jackson had managed to claw back a sliver of civility that no one was keen on giving up. Brawls? Sure. But no one had ever killed anyone in all the time Ellie was there.
Yet Joel had still squirreled away the gun, told her to keep it hidden. "Just in case."
She'd forgotten he'd been the one to give it to her.
The cold metal warmed against her wrinkled palm; she hated how naturally, even now, it snuggled in her hand. Like she was fourteen all over again. Ready to drop some motherfuckers.
Thought this trip was about saving lives.
She shook her head, urged Shimmer up the road, and came across the first body splayed out across the chalet lawn.
Ellie yanked Shimmer to a halt, back within the treeline. Her vision may be blurry, but she still knew a human shape when she saw it. That one in the snow. And another draped over the chalet's outer railing. Both dripping red, fresh blood from the arrow shafts skewered right through the centre of their skulls.
Neither of y'all better be Tim.
Ellie slipped ungracefully off of Shimmer, overtop of the heavy saddlebags. All she had in her own pack was a flashlight, one day's worth of rations, and a small first aid kit. After a moment's thought, she slipped the jar of joints out of Shimmer's bags and into her backpack as well. You never knew.
Shimmer whinnied softly as Ellie tied her to a tree, gently shhhing her all the while. She wouldn't be alone for long – ten minutes was all Ellie would need to know whether or not this was going to be an absolute shitshow.
Bad idea. Baaaaaad idea. Go back to Jackson. Warn them about this.
Yeah, fuck the rest of the world, right?
Clenching the pistol tight, Ellie stepped out into the snow.
No one immediately shot her, so that was nice. Didn't seem to be anything going on outside, at least. But there was smoke coming out of the chimney, and accompanying firelight flickering in the glass triangle of the chalet's side. Two sets of footprints – messy, running – split in different directions, circling the chalet.
Surrounding the area after their guys got ganked.
Ellie stepped up to the nearest corpse, reaching out a foot to turn his head towards her while her gun stayed trained on the glass. A quick glance down was all she needed: black hair, stubbly jaw, bland as hell face. The kind of guy who could get lost in a crowd, if crowds were still a thing. No one she knew, at any rate. No uniform either – his clothes were a patchwork collection of scavenged winter gear: threadbare mitts, huge boots, a bright orange parka. No wonder he got shot first.
Ellie mentally flipped a coin then followed the prints to the right. No signs of life came from the windows as she crept through the snow. Which was good, she supposed. Only victory would bring whoever was in there outside, and she had a sneaking suspicion "victory" meant her guy was gonna be dead.
The prints led her to the back of the chalet, where the snow was piled in high enough drifts that the second level was nearly reachable. Nearly. Someone had conveniently leaned a dead plank of wood from the outer fence up against the low balcony, forming a sort of ramp, but Ellie guessed whoever had gone up first was feeling way more athletic than she was. Cat had always tried to get her dancing; said it'd be good for her shitty balance. She was probably laughing it up now.
No. Ellie rubbed her knuckles hard against her forehead, as if that could help erase the thought. At the funeral, lots of folks in Jackson had made the "she's looking down on us from above" speech, but it had never sat right with her. If death really sent you up to some kinda "great theatre in the sky," then it wasn't just Cat sitting in the front row. Every fucker Ellie had ever killed would be there too. Plus Marlene and all the Fireflies. Her mom. Riley. Joel.
Best she think she was alone.
On trembling calves and thighs like jelly, Ellie inched her way up the plank, arms wavering wildly at her side. She nearly fell once, a drop that was only about three feet but probably would have broken something she couldn't recover from (not exactly a comic book ending to a save-the-world quest), yet eventually, with a good deal of huffing, puffing, sweating, and praying, she made it to the top. The balcony's glass door was shattered; a raggedy old curtain billowed softly in the breeze, as if beckoning her inside.
The pale overcast light of winter barely penetrated the room beyond. There was a hint of a large bed, a flat-screen TV. Other than that, it was darkness.
This'll be fun.
Ellie withdrew her flashlight, hating how much the beam jiggled in her shaking palm, and stepped inside.
The room was country-styled and hotel-ish in design, long-since ransacked of anything useful. A thick cloud of dust mushroomed up from the comforter when Ellie mistakenly leaned against it for support; hacking wildly, she tripped over a fallen chair and barely saved herself from face-planting into the peeling wallpaper. She held her breath, as if being quiet now would save her case, but no one came barreling into the room, fists raised. In fact, now that she'd stopped to listen, the chalet was eerily silent. The only sound was the soft creeeeak of the door as she inched it open and peered down a long corridor.
Most of the other doors were open; she gave each a quick pass with her flashlight, but there was little chance of spotting anything. It wasn't like she could be particularly quiet, tottering down the hall and frequently pausing to catch her breath. Whoever was in here, they'd find her first.
Unless they were dead. Which was precisely the state she found the next man in. Slumped right at the top of a staircase, eyes and mouth wide open, stabbed what had to be twelve goddamn times from shoulder to hip.
There was a scattering of arrows around him, along with a broken bow and two homemade shivs (very effective, judging from the scene). The paneled wood was scuffed, in one case cracked through, the surrounding splinters stained red at the tips. More smears of blood continued down the stairs, which were beat to hell. Looked like someone had taken a tumble.
However, when Ellie shone her flashlight down to the bottom landing, she didn't find another body. Only an open grey door, with red streaks leading through it.
Now that she had paused, she realized she could actually hear something other than the oppressive silence of the chalet. A muffled, almost rhythmic thump.
Thump, thump, thump.
One foot in front of the other, Ellie followed the stairs down.
The door opened onto the chalet's main room, packed with tables and chairs, a bar in the corner. A fire roared beneath the rustic stone chimney, providing a dim orange light in contrast to the bright triangle of glass on the opposite end of the room.
Here, silhouetted by the sun outside, one dark shape loomed over another, both hands curled around something long and thin and solid.
"What did you do to him?" came a deep, gruff rasp. The arms rose and fell.
"What did you do?"
Ellie raised her pistol as the standing figure swung again into the prone one's stomach, eliciting a low moan. But her hands were nowhere near steady; the barrel wavered crazily from the attacker, to the victim, to the window behind them. She'd never make the shot from here.
"What did you DO?"
Another thump. A crack. And, shockingly, a wet, gurgling chuckle. A thinner voice spoke, slurred but without the Southern drawl that even now most in Jackson still carried. "You're amateur. Isaac's a professional."
The stander paused. Then shockingly swift, he reached down, grabbed the one at his feet, and started dragging him towards the fire.
The flames exposed appearances previously hidden by shadow. The man on the floor was in another rough assembly of winter gear, coat and pants alike now spattered with scarlet. His face was a bloody wreck, so swollen his eyes were nothing but black slits in a mess of purpling flesh. The only identifiable feature was a long tail of bright red hair, currently clenched in the fist of the other.
The other. Tall but wiry, dark blond with a ragged stubble that was cut through by an older scar and two fresh trails of red from a busted nose. His shirt was plaid (red again, both in design and from the stains), one sleeve torn half off, and his dirt-caked pants were slashed and bloody along the left calf. He had the look of a man who'd come out of a nasty fight on the winning side, but the murder in his eyes said he wasn't done yet.
Eyes that now panned directly towards Ellie.
He balked momentarily. "Who the fuck—?"
The question died in a pained hiss as his victim lurched up suddenly and dug deep with jagged fingernails into the gash at his leg. His other hand came up – the weapon was an iron poker, Ellie now saw – but the man on the ground grabbed his shirt and yanked him down before he could swing. The poker clattered away uselessly as they scrabbled on the floor, punching and clawing and biting in a battle for dominance.
"Hey!" Ellie shouted, waving her pistol futilely. "Hey!"
Neither so much as looked her way. Shit. There was nothing else for it.
She raised the gun and blasted a shot straight into the ceiling.
One less Infected Jackson coulda stopped.
Her ears were ringing, and she was half-deaf – Jesus, she'd forgot how loud a shot could be. The two men on the ground reacted instantly, splitting apart and rolling away, hands on their heads. She brought the gun back down as they each cautiously crept to their feet, hands raised.
Ellie looked from one to the other, then went with her gut. "Tim?" she demanded, pointing the gun at the plaid shirt.
"Tim Mullins, are you Tim Mullins?"
The man only glared, but the one beside him spat out a wad of blood and brought up his fists. "Yeah, that's the fucker—"
She didn't think. Just swung around and pulled the trigger.
The other guy dropped. Part of the glass behind him shattered. The one confirmed as Tim raised a brow at Ellie's smoking barrel.
Another stolen bullet.
To Tim, she said, "We need to talk."
"Goddammit." Ignorant to the pistol now once more trained on him, he moved from the body to the window, where glass still tinkled as it fell. "You fucking moron—"
"Hey. I've got questions—"
"Whole damn mountain heard that—"
"You need to tell me—"
"Where there's a Wolf there's a pack—"
"The hell does that even mean—?"
This time, Ellie was the one cut off as the man she thought she'd shot sprung to his feet and slammed his fist right into her gut.
Jesus CHRIST. She wheezed, choked, and folded like a paper doll. Her eyes went blurry; she couldn't fucking breathe. Her heart was pounding, pounding, pounding in her ears, just like Cat had described after her first attack.
Oh god. She was dying. Right here. Right now.
She was utterly defenseless, on all fours trying to throw up and cry at the same time. But no finishing blow came – the man's face was right in front of her, temple streaked red, but then he was turning, scrambling on the ground after something. Tim turned at the window, stepping forward, but then the man came back up with something in his hands, shit, the gun, her gun, pointed directly at Tim—
There was one last thing Ellie had brought with her. It was as closest as she'd got to sentimental, because she'd never actually believed she'd have any use for it.
Now, she tore the switchblade from her pocket, flicked it open, and with such familiarity she could do it even in the throes of death, she drove the tip right into the side of the man's neck.
Then she sawed.
Muscle, veins, and finally skin tore open in a shower of blood. Arterial spray coated Tim from head to thigh in deep splatters of red. Ellie staggered forward from the effort, warmth coating her hand, as the man dropped immediately to the ground. Convulsing. Then simply twitching. Then, finally, still.
Tim stared. Ellie collapsed into the nearest chair and gasped, "You're welcome."
And of course, that was when the glass wall exploded in a hail of gunfire.
Hello again! Thanks to all the faves, follows, and especially the kind words of your reviews! Here we are finally with the first "real" chapter of this story. Obviously a couple similarities from Part 2 . . . and a ton of differences. There were a lot of elements in Part 2 that I thought were interesting, but they went in different directions from what I was expecting, so this is gonna be a hodge-podge of "canon" and my own storyline because it's an AU and I do what I want.
Thanks very much for reading!