Left 4 Dead 2: Camaraderie
"Let me out of here, prick!" Nick banged his fists against the one-inch thick solid steel prison door. No reply came from the other side, as the man that had put him in there refused to let him know his taunts were falling on someone's ears. But Nick knew he was there, listening, making sure no escape plans were being formulated or the such. "Let me out so I can ram my foot up your ass!"
He thrust one of his black shoes at the door, immediately pulling it back in pain as his foot throbbed from the impact.
"Yellin' ain't gonna help, Nick," Ellis sighed, fumbling his thumbs over the brim of his cap that he had removed from his head and into his lap.
He sat on one of the two beds in the seven-by-eight cell, both topped with a thin mattress with a number of springs protruding from the sides. The walls of the cell were also steel, painted a putrid sea green color, constantly dimmed and brightened by the periodic flickering of the single neon post light above the opposite bed. The nauseating smell of urine and sewage lingered in the ice cold air from the single toilet in the rear left corner, neighbored by a small sink.
"Christ, Ellis," fumed Nick, "It's only a matter of time before they set us up as targets on the shooting range! We've gotta get out."
Ellis took his gaze off of his hat and glared at Nick. They man in the suit was taken aback by his eyes. He had never seen the younger man express anything other than a smile and the occasional protrusion of the lower lip when he himself would criticize his stereotypical hick mannerisms. However, Ellis never took these as offensive as Nick intended, and instead bounced back smiling and laughing, somehow respecting the older man more each day.
But ever since being air-lifted from the infected New Orleans and being thrown into prison cells escorted by soldiers with orders to shoot upon disturbance, Ellis' mood had become an empty husk devoid of the joy he once carried proudly on his shoulders.
"You were right, Nick." Ellis nodded, his voice floating around sarcasm. "you warned us this was gonna happen. But we didn't listen, we were jes' so happy we weren't gonna have to fight anymore zombies."
Try as he might, Nick couldn't help but shrink at Ellis' words. He couldn't decide whether he was pointing the finger at himself or the military, but he knew that the younger man had been torn. The aura of optimism that Nick one repeatedly tried to dim had finally faded.
When Nick first met Ellis, the threat of a zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a childish self-proclaimed dare. He had jumped into the fray declaring that he was "livin' in the best shooting range of all time". Nothing that he or their other companions said could bring him down. In fact, Ellis would, on occasion, mention absurd tales about his friend Keith getting into any sort of trouble imaginable. Nick would call this "idiot's bliss" because he believed that Ellis simply did not grasp the severity of their situation. However, when confronted by Coach one day while expressing his opinion, he stated in his big hearty voice that Ellis was "the bravest one out of all of them" because he was only trying to keep their spirits up and their minds off of the constant fight for survival.
In time, Ellis hardened and matured throughout their struggles, but managed to keep his "little brother" (as Rochelle had dubbed him) demeanor.
Nick now understood that, in the end , what really kept him going was the knowledge that New Orleans would be their savior. But instead they were held at gunpoint, told not to speak or resist, and thrown into disgusting cells with nothing to look forward to but the meals of gruel, a cup of water and the ever approaching day they would be executed for carrying the disease that started the infection that engulfed the United States.
"I know they're gonna fill us with holes, Nick. Might as well enjoy the time we have left an' not piss 'em off."
From that Nick thought, 'So this is how optimism dies...'
It was like Ellis was a completely different person. And Nick knew that even though he had spent most of their journey picking on Ellis, it concerned him if not scared him, to see him anywhere within the confines of depression. In his mind, the way he saw it was that no one but himself could pick on Ellis.
He felt obligated to make whatever last days the twenty-three year old had left happy and not trodden on by the military. His first thought was the number of stories that he was unable to finish because it wasn't the proper time. Now seemed like the only time they had left.
Nick moved to the bed opposite Ellis' and sat on the side facing him. He rested his elbows on his knees and watched the flickering light along with the walls changed the sleeves of his suit from white to green then back again. He looked up in attempt to make eye contact with the younger man, however his normally shining blue eyes were hidden beneath the brim of his tow-truck cap.
Nick opened his mouth to speak, but found himself hesitating. Being considerate was something he only recently began practicing.
Finally, he found his voice. "Ellis, how about you tell me about that time Keith was attacked by a gator?" He gave no reply or sign of acknowledgment other than lifting his head no more than an inch. Nick could see his eyes now, still darkened by his hat. He tried again. "Or when he ran his car off the side of a cliff?"
For a moment, Ellis remained still. Then he gave a small laugh, the side of his mouth curled slightly out of amusement. Nick relaxed. Finally, a hint that the man in the yellow shirt wasn't completely lost.
"What's this for, Nick?" Ya never cared a lick 'bout my stories before."
There was that small pin-prick in his chest. He saw that coming.
He quickly retaliated, almost annoyed. "Because I want to hear what you have to say. Any minute now they could take us away and kill us. So whatever you didn't have a chance to say before, here it is-on a silver platter."
Ellis continued grinning. "That's almost kind of ya." He paused for a second to give another breathy laugh, shooting his eyes off towards the unsanitary sink, then back at Nick. "Sad thing is, I a'ready told ya everythin' I had to say 'bout Keith."
Nick frowned. He could swear his eye lid was starting to twitch, or maybe it was just because he had held a scrunched up face when he was shouting at the soldier. Ellis always had some tale to tell, whether it be about Keith or not. He didn't believe for a second that he didn't have one more left in him.
"Come on, Ellis. I'm trying to be nice here. How about something I can relate to. Like the first time you ran into a zombie."
Ellis' face was completely visible now, his eyes staring straight into Nick's, his hat parallel to the ceiling. He searched through Nick's jade eyes, as if looking for for one of his derogatory jokes that he managed to hide under his offer. He said "You really wanna know?" The other nodded. Ellis was convinced. "Alright. As long as you let me finish this one."
First time I saw a zombie? Well, let's jus' say it ain't nothin' to shake a stick at.
My pa ran off when I was still just bite-sized, had another lady he liked more an' my ma. So it was always just me 'n her. She always tried to make life as good as it got for me. But she was always on her toes, stressed out. Any time I got sick, she'd take me straight to the doctor, runnin' in sayin "he's dyin'! He's dyin'!". But I guess that's how it was s'posed to be like raisin' a kid by yourself. She signed me up for karate lessons an' gun handlin' classes so I'd have somethin' to fall back on if I ever got in trouble.
After I moved out an' got me a place of my own, I'd go back to her place every Sunday an' have dinner with her. All she had was me, so y'know, why leave her alone all the time, right? 'Sides, I couldn't cook worth shit compared to her. I even started up my own auto-shop with some buddies of mine so I could help her out a bit. Sure, I needed some of the money to pay the rent, but most of the time, she needed it more.
After a while, she started worryin' about the news, talkin' 'bout the flu and how we should head down to Texas, hang with some relatives while it died out. I kept tryin' to tell her that it'd be fine, that as long as she stayed clean, she wouldn't have to worry 'bout getting sick. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have just gone to Texas like she said.
Soon, a bunch of my buddies that worked at my garage kept callin' in sick. So I had to have Keith come in an' fill in for 'em. Heh...and man, you wouldn't believe how hard he could make changin' oil sound.
One day, the two of us were workin' late. A bunch a' people kept comin' in asking for us to make repairs on their cars, tryin' to get outta town and head east to get away from the flu. Happened to be a Sunday, so I invited him to come have dinner with me and my ma.
Glad I did.
We got there, and the whole place was like a ghost town ya' see in those old western movies. I swear, I thought a tumbleweed was gonna come rolling down the sidewalk. Folks'd usually be out on their porches enjoyin' the cool night air and watchin' the stars. Most of them had either left for a relative's or they just weren't there.
Ya' ever had somethin', Nick, that when your mom made it for dinner you could just about keel over, it was so good? Gotta say, my ma was one a' the few women you'd ever meet that could grill a steak real slow, like all day, an' marinate it a whole bunch a' different stuff. She'd make it different every time. Along with her mashed 'taters and a slice a' bread, what more could you want?
(Ellis, you're making me hungry for something besides the shit they shove down our throats here. Mind getting on with it?)
Oh, right. Sorry.
Well, we were just sittin' there, eatin' all. I tried to talk about stuff other than the flu, and how the guys at the garage were getting' sick. Keith managed to keep his mouth shut about all the stupid stuff he'd go off and do just for a kick. I told 'im about how that stuff would upset her. And wouldn't ya' know it, she can't help herself but worry. Kept bringin' up how we should be goin' with everybody else to wherever. Said some of the other ladies down the street would bring her cookies and stuff like that to wish her luck and health.
The doorbell rang in the middle of dinner and she went to answer the door. I was just about to take the plates to the sink when we heard her scream. Hearin' your own ma scream, that's something that'll make your whole body go cold. Keith was closer to the door, so he got there first. First thing I saw when I rounded the corner was him pushin' someone out the door and corrallin' off my ma with his arm.
She kept shouting "Mr. Johnson" like it was one a' her neighbors or somethin'. I looked around Keith and it was a dude with black hair and a sweater shirt. But there was somethin' off 'bout him. His eyes were blank, rolled to the back of his head an' his skin was as pale as a ghost. Looked like he had rabies too, the way he was droolin' all over himself. He kept stumblin' and tryin' to get up.
I moved my ma into the den and that's when I heard Keith sock it in the face, sounded like he broke the nose. I might've karate, but Keith was a big boy, he could take care of himself. But the damn thing just kept on getting' up. I tol' my ma to go upstairs to her room and lock the door. Then I took the handgun from underneath one a' the coffee tables when she started headin' up the steps.
Keith was out there on the front lawn havin' a wrestlin' match with it. That's when I filled its head full'a lead. Only took one shot and it fell over right where it was. Keith managed to get out with nothin' but a scratch on his face.
I went to go get my ma from her room after we dumped the body in a nearby trash can. Didn't want her seeing all the fuss and shit. She was nearly in tears when I brought her down, almost fell apart just seein' the scratch on Keith's cheek and the pistol in my hand. Not to mention we forgot to clean up the blood and the bullet shell from the lawn. That's when we saw the broadcast on TV 'bout CEDA evacuatin' people all 'round Savannah.
We headed off to the Vannah the next day. On the same roof where I met you guys.
Nick sat there, listening more intently than Ellis had thought possible. He just never seemed like the type of guy to give a shit about anyone's past, thoughts or opinions. Insensitive, Ellis managed to describe it. But that just proved that Nick wasn't the same person that he had met on top of the Vannah hotel a few weeks back.
The man in the white suit had to close him mouth once Ellis finished. He had found himself actually paying attention and delving into the story. He thought to himself, 'Never once did I think that Ellis would be the sensible one in a group of people. Out of his worried shitless mother and assclown dumb fuck Keith, I guess it makes sense.'
"Nick, you okay?"
Nick blinked a couple of times and snapped to attention. "Yeah, yeah. Sorry about your parents. Hard to be as positive as you are with a childhood like that."
Ellis nodded and adjusted his hat, as he often did habitually. "Guess that's where I get it from. Figured that no one else but me could make her happy." He paused a minute and tilted his head slightly. "What 'bout you, Nick?"
Nick chuckled, his shoulders moving up and down with his laugh. "I'm not going to be as long-winded as you."
He looked to the floor at Ellis' work boots. His smile soon faded. It didn't take him long to remember why "Don't ask me how I know that" became one of his favorite cover-up lines. But if any time was a good time to come clean, it was now. Ellis already spilled his secrets, it was only fair that he did as well.
"You know how I told you that you guys were the first three people I ever trusted? Well, my pops was always getting thrown in jail, and mom was hardly any better with her drug addiction. They didn't even notice when I ran off."
Nick's voice quieted as he finished the latter sentence, then cleared his throat and continued rather quickly, blending sentences together. "I lived off the streets and got into a habit of stealing for food. I got into gambling pretty early, went into casinos to practice my trade. It wasn't a very good start. Soon I was left with nothing, and I got a job as a bouncer at a local night club just to make ends meet."
He stopped for a brief moment to check on Ellis' reaction, to check for any signs of disappointment or frown. But Ellis remained firm and continued to patiently listen. He returned his eyes to the floor, proceeding to be lost in the recollection of his memory.
"Once I had made enough with that and the cards stacked together, I managed to start traveling. Tried getting married once, cops chased my ass off the altar when her dad found out I had sticky fingers for her money and jewelery. Got sent to jail for aggravated assault and all those thefts I did."
At that, Ellis slanted his mouth and nodded. Not out of spite, but more like a body language that he was thinking yup, typical Nick.
"As soon as I got out, I started doing it again, even found a bunch of suckers to con my way into their wallets. I bet you already figured this, but I stole this suit from a high-end men's tailor. Most of the jewelery I have I got off of the dopes I played poker with. Eventually I came here, hoping to find more easy money. That's when I got stuck in Savannah with the infection. I was at a pool hall when one of the guys at a table beside us jumped me. Smacked the shit out of him with the pool stick, then made a run for the Vannah."
He looked back up at Ellis. He wasn't frowning, nor smiling. His face was somewhere in between. "Sounds like you've had it rougher than me. I guess I knew from the start you were a crook. But in a zombie apocalypse, why should it matter where you come from or what you've done, so long as you can help others as well as yourself, right?"
There is was, finally. Something that Nick had missed. Ellis' naive sense of character and position. As well as a rare gift – Sensitivity.
Suddenly, whatever magic that Ellis specialized in began to work. Because from his top hat – or is it tow-truck hat in this case? - the sense of tranquility and peace came into the room. There was no zombie apocalypse. Everyone they knew wasn't dead. The room they were in didn't seem so restraining. The military wasn't threatening to kill them like criminals on death row. Nothing was wrong in the world.
This was what Coach meant by "bravery".
Nick smiled. "If this was the first day I met you Ellis, I swear I would have said that you're full of shit."
"And I wouldn't have cared." Ellis returned with a grin that outdid Nick's. "But it's funny. You said you ran away to get away from all the shit your parents were doin'. In the end, I guess it made no difference."
Nick paused for a moment to think on that, then replied. "No. In the end, I ended up better than them. And more importantly, better than myself."
Ellis stifled a laugh and said in a half joking tone, "Damn, I should've recorded that for Coach and Ro when we get outta here."
Nick lifted an eye brow and lowered his voice as he leaned forward closer to the younger man.. "You thinking about getting out?"
Ellis leaned forward as well, showing his teeth in the most confident grin he had given since arriving in the compound."Come on, Nick. We've been attacked, barfed on, tackled, charged, smashed, burned, scratched, clawed...do I really need to go on? After all the shit we've been through just to get thrown in a room and wait to get shot by a itty-bitty little bullet..." He shook his head and chucked. "Well...I'd say our little misadventures together are just startin'."
Nick smiled then. "Ellis, I don't think I've ever heard better words come out of your annoying hillbilly mouth."
As usual, the capped man took Nick's insult with a grain of salt and laid on back. "I gotta sleep on our escape plan. I'll tell ya' in the morning if I have something." His eyes changed then, to stare Nick back with eyes that held a promise, a commitment. "You try to come up with something too."
Nick returned the gesture with lowered brows and a glaze in his eye that shined trustworthiness.
Ellis tugged on the brim of his hat and pulled it over his eyes.
"I'll try." Nick said before laying himself down on his bed.
Nick rolled over on his side and stared into the green paint on the wall, counting the rivets in the wall between the bed and eye level. Then he raised his voice barely above a whisper.
The other shifted then. "For what?"
Nick waited, tried to find the right words. "For being you. And for helping me become a better man."