"Joel, I'm hungry."
"I know. I am too."
"I'm so hungry my stomach hurts."
He looked towards the east, "By the time that sun comes up, we'll be right on over that hill. Sure there's a few things we can find to eat."
Ellie rubbed her belly," I hope so."
At last, at last they were clear of Clickers and on their way to the next town. This town looked like any other town that they came across. One with a big meadow, a couple of farms, an empty pharmacy and abandoned theaters with nature running wild through the street cracks and walls. Only this time there was a rusty looking carnival sitting all alone without any clowns or cotton candy.
"Whoa! Look, Joel! Is that a Ferris Wheel?"
Ellie ran down the main dirt road and to the Ticket Gate. On top there were poster boards with pictures of lions and tigers and hoops of fire with clowns and elephants. Reluctant, he followed her through the ticket gate with a thumb on his rifle.
This carnival was the sight of lost innocence. His best guess was that the circus came to town on the day that all hell broke loose, and every family in this town were victims to the Clickers. No one would've ever seen it coming.
Walking, he gazed down upon an elephant doll with blood stains all over it, dry and crisp from years of exposure. He picked it up.
He shifted, "Can't stay long, Ellie... Gotta keep moving on if we want to- What the hell are you doing?"
Up on the control stands, Ellie was pressing every button she could. She kicked open a tin box and pressed the buttons, flipped the switches, and repeated the whole thing. Nothing happened, until a few lights flashed on and off, some light bulbs busted like firecrackers.
"Ellie come on, get down from there."
"No way," Ellie smiled," I've never been on a Ferris Wheel before. Do you know how much of my childhood has been taken away?"
He growled," Come on. Fun's over."
"The fun hasn't even begun!"
It seemed impossible; there was no way that thing was going to work.
He walked up," Wasting your time. This thing's been here for years, there's no way in flamin hell that it's going to-"
The Ferris Wheel beamed to life, slowly moving and breaking away from the vines and crust that kept it dormant all these years. The copper rust broke apart like sand, snapping in half then releasing to a rolling turn. The whole machine looked beautiful with its lights and flashing red colors and blue colors and green colors and yellow colors and purple colors.
"You were saying?" she smiled at him," Come on! I gotta ride this thing! I put it on Automatic, so we don't get stuck!"
The entire wheel would pause at the landing zone below waiting for passengers and the seats swayed back and forth to every halt. It moaned deeply, it's arms and legs rubbing metal against metal like a dungeon door. Happy keyboard piano music hummed softly through the speakers adding more excitement.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him forward, "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!"
"Ellie!" Joel protested," That's not such a good idea... for me."
Not listening, Ellie bounced into her seat. She was like a hyper energetic hamster, cute and curious. But Joel needed to be the serious one here. Both knew they couldn't get sidetracked like this, it was too dangerous. He stood there leaning his body against the frame of the entrance and watched her enjoy her fun. He couldn't join her but he could strap her in correctly so that she wouldn't fall out and break a limb.
"Sit tight. Now you're gon' go around just once. Once only, then it's time to hit the road."
"Sit with me."
He didn't say anything. The seat already began to move without him. The wheel picked her up, lifting her towards the sky in a slow ascend upwards. Ellie frowned looking at him as she was lifted higher and higher towards the early rays of the morning rising like a beautiful sea turtle of gleaming shining colors of red, yellow, and pink. The light slowly casted over her like a blanket from head to toe, carefully highlighting her eyes and hair in pulsing shine. The whole edge of the planet was on fire, licking away the green trees and sweeping up red leaves like the feathers of a phoenix bird. Before she knew it, she felt like she was on top of the world.
"Oh man," she gasped, enjoying the first warm rays," Wish you were up here, Joel…"
Soon her seat glided backwards on the wheel, sending her back to the loading zone. Joel seemed to grimace, annoyed of the time wasted playing around in this abandoned place. He came forward and unhooked her from the seat before going to the controls and shutting the wheel off forever. Ellie looked back at the gentle giant and mentally thanked it for its ride. She had a big smile on her face. She'll never forget this. Ellie was about to turn towards Joel when she spotted what appeared to be… blood stains… on the seat.
"Let's get a move on," he called.
He tucked his rifle behind him, before turning his heel then walking on outta there. He had enough of this place; it was too creepy. Before he knows it he might see an undead clown trying to pie them to death. No one would want that.
Ellie glanced quickly back at him, thankful that he did not witness the smeared blood. The red stains looked fresh and it was pooled exactly where she sat. She slowly began to panic. What if she was turning? What if she put both of them in danger? Was her infection finally taking its toll? Her hands patted her shoulders, chest, belly, and legs. She didn't feel any pain from an injury.
"What the fuck," she whispered, trying to locate the problem.
Whimpering, she came to a 'Whacky Mirror" and looked at herself closely and carefully, turning in circles. Her head had doubled its size, her waist looked 3 inches wide, and her legs looked massive than her ordinary figure. When she would move, her image would change in the most bizarre ways.
"Ellie, let's go. Time's flying," called Joel.
"Be right there!" she replied and then whispered softly to herself," I just need to find out what's wrong with me, first."
She covered her hand with her sleeve and wiped the mirror down. The dust rolled off the mirror revealing a large bloody spot between her legs which soon began to tell her that she was in a lot of trouble. How was this happening? She didn't feel any pain. The blood couldn't be hers, could it? Unzipping her jeans and touching her panties, the blood was fresh and evident. It was warm to touch, almost hot, softly cramping her hips in the most uncomfortable way. Perhaps it's so painful that she's unaware that she's gone into shock? Should she tell Joel?
"Ellie!" he barked.
"Coming!" she ran towards him.
Her pants sending awful friction burns between her upper thighs, damp from the blood. When she thought about how damp it was, her stomach settled with a rather painful feeling when she breathed, almost like a balloon filling with hot air. Like a rock had somehow planted itself in her belly, making her feel heavy and grumpy at the same time.
Both travelers exited the park with silent companionship.
For the next 3 hours Joel had no idea of Ellie's situation. The town was far, far behind them, and he reckoned that the day had gone smoothly so far. But one thought lingered in his mind, which was the little girl walking next to him. She was more silent than the grave which was a problem because… she was never quiet for so long. His eyes darted her way. Her cheeks were blushing. Could it be possible that was her best poker face? He needed to investigate.
"You're bothered by something," he stated, lifting his chin higher as she glanced up at him.
"No I'm not."
He clicked his tongue, "Ain't foolin me, kid."
He glared down at her.
She bit her lip," Okay, um… What if… something… happened back at the Ferris Wheel? Something… that I didn't expect."
Now he's curiosity was up.
"And what was that?"
He titled his head," Go on."
She wiped her face," Well it's just something that's super… uncomfortable… and burning… and is… literally a pain in my ass…" she shifted awkwardly, moving her thighs back and forth," Also really sticky and… scary."
That last word caught his attention, stopping his tracks, turning his chest towards her entirely to earn all of her attention.
He grabbed her shoulder," Alright, what is it? You hurt or something?"
"I don't know."
His shoulders flexed," Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well it seemed a bit embarrassing if I thought about telling you and-"
"Hush. Lemme look at you," he held both her shoulders.
His thumb and forefinger opened and stretched her eye, looking for anything unnatural. His fingers checked her ears and her hair. Nothing suspicious. She didn't move as he began scanning her from her head, to her neck, to her shoulders, to her arms, to her stomach, and to her- Oh.
She noticed his reaction," What's wrong with me, Joel? Am I finally turning? Am I going to be a Clicker?"
He stood completely and utterly silent.
She gulped waiting for him to reply.
With tears she shoved him," Joel!"
He hushed her," No. No. No, it's just…" he took a quick breath," Oh, hell. This is definitely not my area of expertise."
"Am I dying, Joel?" she whimpered, shutting her eyes," I fucking knew my luck would run out."
"Hey, no, you're not dying! Trust me, I know this. You need to… get out of those pants and quick. Come on. We need to go to the nearest water source and get you cleaned up. Now, you ok to walk on your own?"
"I don't think so. My stomach hurts. Feels like I ate a brick."
Later that day
Ellie bathed naked in the creek where shallow water assured her that she was not going to drown in deep water. All the blood flowed down with the current, disappearing over the ledge of stone rocks. Flipping her hair from her face, she stood to reach Joel's jacket and stepped out to dry in the sun. It was quite a filthy piece of clothing smeared with dirt, grass stains, oil, blood, and sweat but Joel insisted that she take it. After her pants were ruined, what could she do but to take what she could and he didn't mind at all.
Far on the other side of the water, he scratched his beard and wiped his face. His mind could not stop riding a tornado of thoughts. What to do? What to do? He knew that she was very tenacious and curious girl with a taste of adventure and suicide missions, but this…. This was a problem.
She'll want to know about…
How the body changes…
Basically the whole speech about… the birds and the bees
She'll want to know about… the difference between… a girl's body… and… a boy's body
The difference between… a man… and… a woman
Nope! No-No-No- No way in hell that he's going to give her "The Talk" and maybe there was no need to talk to her about the situation. Shivers went up his spine just thinking about it. Speaking of the devil, the little girl came walking up through the water with his jacket over her shoulders with her hair tied back in her regular pony tail shivering. He knew that she was halfway naked under his jacket, no pants only a shirt and her backpack dripping wet.
Saying nothing at all, he walked away.
Later that Day
"Hey, you've been ignoring me for the past 4 fucking hours how long am I supposed to walk like this?
It's true; he let her walk behind him with his jacket wrapped around her stomach covering her up nearly half naked without saying a word about it. Once before she had complained that her stomach was acting up and he didn't say a word about that neither. Once again she told him that her waist had felt heavy and uncomfortable- he ignored that too.
"Hey! I'm fucking talking to you!" Ellie yelled trying to catch his pace," We both haven't had anything to eat all day but that doesn't mean that you shun me from your conscious. Can you please tell me what's—"
He barked," I got nothing to say!"
She snorted," Well how about 'Are you ok, Ellie' or how about 'You're not going to die, Ellie' or even find a way to stop the fucking bleeding!"
He swung around towards her and she was right because her legs were spotted with blood, creating little streaks of blood running down her legs, staining his jacket and rendering it unhealthy and useless. She opened the sleeve arms and her knees were dry and crisp from walking too look and exposed to the air while her shoes were red with polka-dot spots. He took a long thoughtful breath before unbuttoning his shirt from his chest to his waist, stripping it off and handing it to her with very slow movement. Shit, this was every father's worst nightmare.
"Take this," he handed her his shirt," I'll look away," he turned his back.
Ellie stood there, realizing what was happening.
The privacy wasn't enough to keep her from blushing a deep crimson red because she's never seen so much of him before. His back was battered with cuts and bruises that looked like purple roses stretched over muscle and spine, giving him an attraction she never realized until now. This poor man had been through so much in his lifetime and Ellie pitied him while she suppressed the urge to caress his back and embrace him into a hug. Setting aside that thought, she covered herself with his massive shirt.
"Okay, you can turn around now…"
He turned to see his over-sized shirt dwarfing her small slim figure and if his shirt wasn't a button-on it might've been easily mistaken for a dress. She tucked in the sleeves and did her best to recede the length of the shirt to go past her thighs but it wouldn't. Indeed it did look like a dress. Fortunately she wiped the blood from her thighs so they were milky clean again. Her little hands stretched the shirt downwards but it didn't budge. Both of them noticed that her exposed thighs were particularly… revealing. It bothered Joel because she didn't seem to be bothered as much as he was that she was so undisturbed that she was nearly parading herself around.
"Ellie," he mumbled," Ellie, cover yourself up."
"Um," he averted his eyes, lifting his chin to the trees," Try stretching it again."
"It won't budge, it's not stretching any further," she tugged.
Joel peered down cautiously watching her adjust with her little hands trying to pull his shirt down over her waist like elastic. His body was more massive than hers so it shouldn't be a problem.
He cleared his throat," Grab the hem and pull."
His neck still craned upwards, trying not to look at her too much.
"I am!" she pulled.
"Ellie pull harder, just try and stretch it," he watched her adjust from the corner of his eye," No, undo the buttons first then pull," he watched her wiggled the shirt," Oh for heaven's sakes!"
He kneeled down," Stand still."
The buttons flew off as he adjusted it perfectly to fit her. His shirt ripped, stretching to her knees. Her hand rested on his shoulder to hold her balance. He stood back up, turned, then began to walk down the road trying to calculate how much time they've lost and how much time they'll have to gain back. They lost about an hour. How many will it take to reach the next town? Could they make it before nightfall? Calculations. Calculations. Calculations. It didn't matter.
Today Ellie had become a woman, and it rested on his thoughts. She was still curious about where the bleeding was coming from. Tonight, he'll have to bite the bullet and give her "The Talk."
Later that Day
"Now would you stop being all mysterious and tell me what's going on with me? I mean it's not that bad! No one's around here to listen to us," she stated, laying on her back glancing at him.
His fingers twitched nervously," Um, Ellie."
Oh the awkwardness.
He took a sharp breathe," There is something called…. T-The next level for a girl right around your age. When something happens to you. Now that 'something' isn't anything for you to be scared about…. Um, it's when you bleed but there aint nothin wrong with you. You still got your health," he gulped hard," Ah jesus, Ellie, your…body…. Is…"
He fake coughed.
She narrowed her eyes," My body's what…?"
He gave a quick scratch behind his neck," You're…"
"Are you making a move on me?" she asked.
Shock hit him, "What!?" he trembled before her," No, no, no, no, no I'm just telling you about your situation. Explaining what's goin on with you. What I'm trying to get out is… that… your body is changing…"
She glanced down at herself," What's changing? I mean I know I grow taller and walk farther and run faster every day and someone told me that my hair might change color when I'm around 19 or 20 but I don't believe 'em…"
"Point is Ellie, that," he gulped," Your bleeding won't stop for another 3 to 4 days and that's not something that we're going to worried about. Now I'm sure there's something I can get for you from the next town we go to, but I need you to keep put and stay here."
"Okay," she stared thoughtfully," But what is happening to me? Is it something that I'm only going through because… I'm immune?"
His knee twitched, "No, this happens to every girl at your age. It's something special and what-not. Though I'm telling you right now that this is not a man's business so you're gon make an effort to take care of yourself when I'm gone. Go on to the river and wash up if the blood comes again," he looked far ahead to the meadows," There's a gas station about 2 miles from here. Reckon I won't be back for at least an hour or two."
Ellie nodded," Okay."
Not turning back to her, he said," Stay here. Wait for me. You have your rifle. If you see anything or if anything happens to you, you shoot. I'll hear the shot and high tail it on up here. Got it?"
Later that Day
Perhaps the blood was special. Ever since yesterday and the day before and the week before Ellie has been thinking about… girl stuff.
Her mind would linger on boys and what it would be like to talk and socialize with boys her own age, and what the community was like 20 years ago before the outbreak. She was a bookworm, always reading magazines and teen books about dating and hair and makeup and nails and salons and spa treatments and skirts and bras. But none of those books mentioned anything about blood coming between her thighs.
All those teen books were about different memoirs of 'childhood to teenager' with stories about abusive fathers and drunken mothers. But they also told stories of romance. Romance on boys and college boys with great hair and clean white t-shirts with blue jeans and black leather jackets. A perfect Prom Date.
"Weird day," she whispered as she thought about the blood.
Maybe… it was a rite of passage? All those books always told her about 'mean girls' and high school cafeteria 'clichés' and the vital importance of 'tampons' in the middle of the day (whatever those were). Maybe Joel wanted to keep it a secret from her because it was a dangerous topic to mention.
After all he was… twitchy the entire time he talked.
But she was still confused.
She'll get to the bottom of this when he returns.
To be continued: