Ellie wakes up in a panic. David is cutting on her back again. She doesn't know how or why, but somehow she just dreamed everything about Maria, and she's still lying on her stomach in the woods under David. Her body goes limp, and she makes a weak whine like an injured dog.
"Shh, honey, it's me," Maria says.
Ellie is worried it's too good to be true. "No, David-"
"It's just me, Ellie," Maria says. "I was worried about your back getting infected."
Ellie strains her neck to look over her shoulder, and sure enough, Maria is sitting next to her with a bottle of alcohol in one hand and a damp cloth in the other. Ellie falls back into her pillow. She starts shaking so hard her teeth chatter. Maria pulls the blanket back up to Ellie's shoulders.
"Don't fucking wake me up like that!" Ellie says into her pillow. "You scared the shit out of me."
"I'm sorry," Maria says. "I was just trying to take care of you."
Lying on her stomach, even in a soft bed wearing a clean pair of cotton pajama pants (which she doesn't actually remember owning, much less putting on), is too much for Ellie. She rolls onto her side, facing the wall.
"You can finish," Ellie says. "I just couldn't handle waking up like that. Or lying on my stomach. It's... it made me feel like I was back there, in the woods. I don't know the word for it."
"Triggering?" Maria offers, taping more gauze across Ellie's back.
Ellie ponders the suggestion. "Yeah," she finally says. "I guess so." She glances over her shoulder at Maria and realizes it's either still daylight, or else it's daylight again. "Hey, what time is it?" Ellie asks.
"About dinner time," Maria says. "You slept for around six hours."
"Jesus," Ellie says.
"You needed sleep. Feel any better?"
Ellie stretches her legs out. "Better in some ways, worse in others. My ass really fucking hurts. I'm not looking forward to the next time I have to poop. Maybe I just won't eat for a few days."
"I can ask Doc Freeman to make a house call for you." Maria rubs some kind of gel on Ellie's lower back. "Pilar could come hold your hands and compliment your muscles while the doc takes care of you."
"No!" Ellie curls back up at the thought of getting her ass examined with Pilar in the room. "No, I don't want Pilar to see me like this."
"I see. Well, offer still stands. Say the word and I'll run and get Doc Freeman to come take care of you. No Pilar."
"I'm good for now, thanks." Ellie wiggles her feet against the super-soft sheets. "What does my back say, anyway?"
"You don't want to know," Maria says.
"Yeah, I know I don't want to know, but tell me anyway," Ellie says. "It's my back. I have a right to know."
Maria sighs. "It says, 'XOXO, David.' And then the bottom part is a bunch of tally marks."
"Fuck!" Ellie says, trying not to cry again. "Fuck, shit, goddammit! What does XOXO even mean?"
"Hugs and kisses," Maria says.
"Fuck!" Ellie presses hard on her eyelids. "This is all my fault. I'm so fucking stupid."
"You're not," Maria says. "Stupid people don't tend to stay alive very long anymore. What makes you say that?"
"I gave him mixed messages!" Ellie says. "I didn't mean to say 'Hugs and kisses' in my goodbye note! I just thought it was, you know, what you put instead of those finishing words."
"Aha," Maria says. "And if you'd just said, like, 'Warm Regards, Ellie,' you think that would have prevented him from coming after you?"
"I don't know. But that wasn't the message I meant to send. Fuck..."
"It doesn't matter." Maria tears off a strip of tape. "He's dead, and you're alive, and that's all I care about. How are you holding up?"
"I don't know," Ellie says. "Hurting, obviously, but that's kind of to be expected, I guess. Mostly, I'm... confused? I'm having a hard time hating David as much as I want to. Pretty stupid, huh?"
"Sounds normal enough," Maria says. "You gotta remember, Ellie- if you wouldn't think Pilar was stupid for saying something, I'm not gonna think you're stupid for saying it. I've gotten kind of attached to you, kiddo. I know you lived with David for a long time, and he did a lot of good things for you. The anger might come later, or it might not, but it's okay either way. Tommy and I are already plenty angry enough for you."
Ellie's throat feels like it has a huge bite of mashed potatoes stuck in it. "Thanks."
"So, are you gonna want dinner?" Maria rubs more ointment onto Ellie's back. "I decided to throw something on the stove, since you and Tommy are both hurt and laid up for a while. It's nothing fancy, just some venison stew."
The thought of eating deer meat reminds Ellie too much of David. She swallows burning stomach acid back down and shakes her head. "I'm good, thanks."
Ellie lies there for a while, enjoying Maria's touch. It's not a sensual, tickling touch like David's. It feels safe, protective, nurturing. If Pilar has the hands of a doctor, Maria has the hands of a soldier. She might not have medic training, but Maria knows how to patch up a fellow warrior after a particularly brutal fight, and she could do it all while using herself as a shield and shooting down enemy helicopters. Ellie imagines the two of them wearing those helmets from World War One that look like turtle shells, crouched in a trench somewhere while Maria bandages up Ellie's back.
"I still can't believe you took him down by yourself," Maria says, sticking one last piece of tape on Ellie's back and pulling the sheet up to Ellie's neck. "I mean, I can believe it because it's you, but Tommy said he was about twice your size. You must have some wicked skills with that machete."
"I told him I was pregnant," Ellie says. "When he was finished, he turned me over and was gonna stab me, so I started crying and said I was pregnant."
"Yeah?" Maria says. "That was real smart of you, Ellie."
"Yeah. And then I stole his machete and stabbed him about fifty times. Seemed like a fair trade for what he did to my back. And face. And ass."
"I'm sorry, Ellie." Maria lies down in the bed next to her and puts her hand on Ellie's shoulder. "You deserved so much better than that. I'm sorry Tommy and I couldn't protect you from him."
"It wasn't your job," Ellie says. "I look out for myself. I've always looked out for myself, because no one else ever has."
"I know, but you're so..." Maria sounds like she's about to say 'little' or 'young,' but she stops. "Never mind. I just wish I could have helped you, whether it was my job or not. You deserve to have people taking care of you and looking out for you. It doesn't seem fair."
"Well, according to every teacher I've ever had, 'Life isn't fair.'" Ellie rolls onto her other side and snuggles her face into Maria's chest.
"It's true," Maria says, hugging Ellie around the shoulders. "We all gotta steal happiness wherever we can. No one gets a happy ending that doesn't fight tooth and nail for it."
Ellie crosses her arms, creating a barrier between her stomach and Maria's. "Man, fuck David," she says out of nowhere. "I want to scrape all the skin off my fucking back and walk around with all the muscles showing. When I think about what he did to me, I just want to shoot myself in the head."
"Don't do that," Maria says. "We can tattoo over it. This time next year, the scars will be tough enough to get inked. It'll be badass, and no one but you will ever know what it's covering up."
The idea does make Ellie feel better. "That would be pretty sweet," Ellie says, and then her stomach clenches up. "But I probably won't even be alive then. I've gotta get to Salt Lake City as soon as my ass is healed enough to ride again."
Maria sighs. "You're really going back out there? After all this?"
"I have to," Ellie says. "I'm supposed to be the person who saves the world from the Cordyceps. David was always trying to keep me from saving the world, and that's the whole reason I left him. I have to go to Salt Lake City."
"Okay, then. I won't try to talk you out of it."
"Thanks," Ellie says.
Maria's walkie talkie beeps, and she sits up. "I've gotta go back out and take care of some things. Will you be okay for a few hours?"
Ellie nods. "I feel bad enough taking you away from the people that need you already."
"Don't be silly. You needed me way more today." Maria stands up and tucks Ellie back in. "I'm glad I was around to take care of you. And I'll be around again later tonight, so don't sneak off or try to hurt yourself, okay?"
"Pfft." Ellie rolls her eyes. "I'm not that dumb. Go take care of shit and don't worry about me."
"All the same, Tommy's gonna be around," Maria says. "Will you check on him for me every hour or so? I don't want him sleeping with that concussion he got. I know you don't feel good, but I could use your help."
Ellie nods. "Cross my heart and hope to die," she says, making an X over the blanket covering her chest.
"Thanks." Maria kisses Ellie on the forehead. "I'll be home soon."
Ellie lies in her bed for a long time, just thinking about everything, and then suddenly it's completely dark outside and she realizes she never checked on Tommy like she promised she would.
"Tommy?" Ellie shouts from her doorway. "You still awake?"
"Yep," Tommy says. "You need anything?"
"No, just checking on you," Ellie says. She crosses her arms over her bare breasts to shield them better, and then yells, "Actually, can you bring me my backpack?"
He doesn't answer, but his heavy boots quake the stairs a moment later. Ellie pulls the sheet off her bed and wraps up in it. Tommy may be a good guy, but she doesn't want any guy to see her half-naked right then.
"Here you go," he says, setting the backpack on the floor of her doorway. "You need food or anything? You been up here forever."
"I'm good," Ellie says. "Thanks. You can go now. I'm gonna get dressed."
"Holler if you need anything," Tommy says, pulling Ellie's door closed.
Ellie dumps out her backpack and finds a clean shirt to put on. After wincingly pulling it over her back, she checks every pocket and pouch of her remaining clothing, searching for her switchblade. With every piece of clothing she shakes out, Ellie gets more freaked out and upset. As she unfolds the very last shirt from the backpack, something hard falls onto her lap. It's not her knife; it's the Walkman David fixed for her.
"Goddammit!" Ellie throws her Walkman at the wall. "Fuck!"
There's a knock on her door.
"What?" Ellie demands. "What the fuck do you want from me?"
Tommy pushes open the door and sticks his head in the room. "Are you okay?"
"No!" Ellie is so mad her eyes are starting to prickle with tears. "I can't find my fucking knife!"
"The machete?" Tommy opens the door all the way and steps into the room. "Maria put it up somewhere you wouldn't have to see it."
"No!" The angry tears spill out of Ellie's eyes. "I'm not talking about that! I'm talking about my mom's switchblade! Where the fuck did you put it?"
"Ellie, I ain't seen your switchblade since the day you let me look at it," Tommy says. "Where was the last place you remember having it?"
"In the fucking woods! David fucking took it away from me and threw it on the ground somewhere." Ellie tries to hold back a little sob, but she doesn't quite succeed. "You were supposed to pick it up! Why the fuck didn't you pick it up when you were putting my clothes back on me?!"
Tommy holds both his hands up. "Sorry, Ellie. I didn't even know it was missing from your pocket. And I didn't put your clothes on you- you wouldn't let me get anywhere near you to help, remember?"
Ellie doesn't. She wants to scream and swear at Tommy forever, even though it's not his fault she lost her most prized possession. Instead, she just howls in frustration and lies face-down on the floor, her knees curled under her chest. Her arms cover her head, and she weeps almost as hard as she did in the shower earlier. "Motherfucker!" she sobs. "I should have fucking stabbed him in the dick the second I met him. That fucking switchblade was the only thing I had that belonged to my mom. I spent thirteen years not even knowing her name, much less why she left me on my own, and then Marlene gave me her knife and it was like-" She blows her nose on her sleeve and keeps on crying. "It was like I suddenly had a mom, and she was protecting me through her knife or something. I know that's stupid as fuck, but that knife was the only thing in the whole world I cared about, and I just fucking left it in the woods! I'm glad my mom is dead, because that way she can't see how shitty I am at taking care of things!" Ellie starts crying too hard to talk or breath or do anything except rock back and forth on the floor.
"Jesus, I'm real sorry Ellie," Tommy says, taking a tiny step closer to her. "I swear, I didn't even see it, or I would have grabbed it for you. I tell you what. I'll take a horse and head back out that way, see if I can find it-"
"Don't bother," Ellie says, rubbing her face on her other, not-snot-covered sleeve. "You're hurt, and it's probably already ten miles down the fucking river. I'll look for it when I head to Salt Lake City in a few days, but I probably won't ever see it again. It's my own fucking fault for not picking it up. I can't believe I lost it! Goddammit!"
"You had a lot on your mind," Tommy says. "And we can probably find it, okay? You can't be such a pessimist. Maybe good things will happen- you never know."
"I'll be a pessimist if I fucking want to," Ellie says. "I know Salt Lake City is a one-way trip. I know the Fireflies are gonna have to cut my head open and take out my brain to make a cure. I'm not gonna be around to see the world get better. It makes no fucking difference whether I see my mom's switchblade ever again or not, but I wanted to have it with me on the trip out there."
Tommy rubs at the bandage on his forehead. "You're really making me worried, Ellie," he says. "Do I need to call Maria?"
"No." Ellie shakes her head. "Don't bother Maria. Just help me find David's machete and some sleeping pills."
With the help of a sleeping pill, Ellie falls asleep that night holding David's machete under her pillow. She keeps jerking awake every time she dozes off, so she finally turns the lamp on. People might get pissed, but it's not that much electricity. The lamp light finally makes her feel safe enough to let go and fall asleep.
Once she's good and asleep, David climbs in through her window and uses magic to teleport them back to his bedroom in his house. Ellie kicks away the covers, which he's enchanted to hold her in bed like a pair of ropes, and then she scrambles out of the house and into the street. He chases her the whole way, stabbing Becca in the gut along the way for helping Ellie. Ellie watches Becca double over, blood gushing past her fingers, and then she keeps running. She doesn't get far. David's friends all swarm around Ellie until she's backed into a corner in an alley.
"Get the fuck back!" she screams, holding up the machete. "Get the fuck away from me!"
"Easy, Ellie," David says, touching her arm. "Shh, just take it easy."
"Fuck!" Ellie weeps, knowing he's about to shove her onto the ground and fuck her ass again. "Don't fucking touch me!" She tries to pry the hand off her arm. "Stop! Fuck, just stop!"
"Shh, Ellie, no one's hurting you. Wake up, honey."
Ellie slashes wildly with her knife, and she's rewarded with a cry of pain.
"Ow, shit! Okay, yeah, you're going to have to hold her while I-"
All of a sudden, he's tackling Ellie onto the street, pinning her arms to her side and prying the machete out of her hand. Ellie shrieks and kicks her legs. She shouldn't have cut him! What the fuck was she thinking? He's going to do something even worse this time, and all his friends are there to help. They're probably going to pull out all her teeth and toenails and then fuck her at the same time and then cut her into pieces to feed their chickens while she's still alive.
"Fuck, no, please!" she sobs. "No, no, please don't, I'm sorry, please-"
"Goddammit, Ellie, wake up!" Someone smacks Ellie on her face.
Ellie opens her eyes, still crying hysterically. Maria is hovering over Ellie with a tired look on her face and a gash of blood trickling across her right palm and down her arm. Ellie stops struggling against the arms pinning her down.
"Shit!" she breathes. "Shit, Maria, I swear I didn't mean to-"
Maria sighs. "Tommy, get her inside. I'll diffuse things with the neighbors."
The strong, hairy arms loosen their grip on Ellie, and she rolls away into a little puddle of slush. She sprints for the house as fast as she can in bare feet. Once inside, she collapses in front of the couch and buries her face in her knees.
When Tommy comes inside, he sits cross-legged about two feet away from her. "You okay?" he asks.
"You want me to keep my distance, or can I hold your hand?"
Ellie holds her left hand out without looking up. His hands are strong and rough in the spots where his shovels and hammers have worn calluses into his skin. His thumbprints exfoliate the back of Ellie's hand. It's kind of soothing.
"I'm real sorry I let that son of a bitch hurt you," Tommy says. "I swear, I never heard him sneak up on me. I should have been listening better."
"It's not your fault," Ellie says into her legs. "He's ridiculously quiet when he's in tracking mode. He can sneak up on squirrels."
"Well, he used-to could, anyhow," Tommy says. "Listen, Ellie, I know it ain't my fault, but I'm still sorry the fucker hurt you. I get this horrible feeling in my gut whenever I remember you all shaking and covered in blood. Wish I could have shot him before he laid a hand on you."
"Me too," Ellie says.
Tommy clears his throat. "I know this ain't the best time, and I don't even know if you want to know this, but... shit, I'll just say it. Ellie, I think I might be your dad."
Ellie freezes and then laughs, raising her head. "Yeah, right," she says. "You're totally fucking with me."
"No, I mean it," Tommy says. "When I first met you, I thought you kinda looked like this girl I used to know in the Fireflies. But then you didn't have the first idea where to find them, so I figured I was wrong."
Maria comes back inside. She lays the machete on top of the mantle and then silently cleans and wraps the slice on her hand while Tommy talks.
"About sixteen years ago, I took up with the Fireflies," Tommy explains. "Hit it off pretty well with a lady by the name of Anna. We got to know each other pretty well, if you know what I mean, and uh..." Tommy scratches the gauze on his head. "There was this one time during that summer when we had sex outside on a balcony where we were supposed to be keeping watch. We were trying to be fast, and we ended up breaking the condom, and... now, I ain't great with numbers, but I know that July is about nine months before April. I left near the beginning of October, and if your mama knew you were on your way then, she kept it a secret. I never heard from her after I left, but we ain't exactly living in the time of cell phones and internet anymore."
"What the fuck," Ellie says. "Like, how sure are you that you might be my dad?"
"I'm about 99 percent sure I'm the only guy she fucked between March and September that year."
"So there's a one percent chance you're not my dad."
"There's a one percent chance that we ain't related by blood," Tommy says. "There's a 100 percent chance I would be your dad, if you let me."
"I don't know," Ellie says, trying not to let her tough expression crack. "Probably safer if you don't try to be my dad. That's pretty much begging the universe to kill you."
"I'd like to see the universe try to kill any of the three of us while we're on the same team," Maria speaks up. "No one hurts my family and lives to brag about it."
"It's true," Tommy says, smiling up at his wife. "I hear God is even a little afraid of her."
"Just a little," Maria says. She stoops down and touches Ellie's face with her bandaged hand. "So you don't have to be afraid anymore, okay? You could stay here and be part of our family and help take care of us when we're old and useless."
It takes everything Ellie has not to start crying like a baby. She just attacked Maria with a huge-ass machete and had to be tackled by Tommy before she killed them both, and the two of them are offering to be Ellie's family minutes later. She takes a deep, shuddery breath. "That's super sweet of you guys, but I'm not going to be here that long. I'm just another stupid kid passing through. Seriously, don't get attached to me. Best case scenario, I'll be dead in a few weeks."
Maria's nostrils flare a little, but she keeps her voice calm. "Well, if that's what you're determined to do, I figure you'll find a way."
Tommy sighs. "Is there anything you want to do with your last week of life?"
Ellie hugs her arms around herself. "I kind of want to watch a movie or something to help me fall back asleep. Something funny or happy, preferably about cowboys or spaceships or pirates or dinosaurs."
Tommy's face goes from glum to delighted like the flip of a switch. "How 'bout a funny space western about smugglers who play with toy dinosaurs?"
Ellie snorts. "You just made that up."
"No, it's a real show," Maria says. "It's cute. You'll like it. Anyone want some warm milk while Tommy hooks up the DVD player?"
Ellie makes it through two episodes and two mugs of milk before passing out on the couch. She vaguely remembers sticking her feet on Tommy's lap and resting her cheek near Maria's knee while she watches with one eye open. When she jerks awake from another nightmare, she doesn't recognize the bed or the room she's in. She sits up and tries to dig her way out from under the blankets.
"What's wrong, Ellie?" Maria asks sleepily.
"Where the fuck am I?" Ellie demands.
"You're in my bed," Maria says. "We were worried about you sleepwalking somewhere dangerous, so we carried you here."
"Oh." Ellie falls back against the pillow. "Where is Tommy sleeping?"
"He's on the couch," Maria says. "He falls asleep there sometimes, so don't worry about him. Just try to go back to sleep, if you can."
"Okay," Ellie yawns. She rolls a little closer to Maria, who puts her arm over Ellie.
"You okay?" Maria asks.
"Yeah," Ellie says. "Hey, that show was pretty cute."
"You're pretty cute yourself," Maria mumbles. "Now go to sleep."
She starts rubbing Ellie's arm, and Ellie is asleep again before she can remember her last nightmare.