Author's Notes: Well, everything comes to an end at some point. I can't think of a more powerful way to send off the story of Joel and Ellie. I've actually had this chapter typed up since the hiatus, and I'm glad I started that early, because this chapter came a LOOOOOONG way since then. Since first typing this up, it ended up being about 60% rewritten, and the finished product I feel is really something special. This chapter is a powerhouse, in many aspects. I really think I outdid myself with just how involved this chapter is, and how many different themes it covers. It really surpassed anything I thought I was capable of writing. Somewhat unrelated: Throughout writing this whole story, and I had a feeling this would happen, my lyric writing has also improved enormously. As I've become a more competent writer, my lyrics have become more cohesive and coherent, and overall matured more. I've also been exploring a wider range of topics like more abstract and conceptual themes and not only struggles, faith, family and friends, or problems in society like when I first started writing lyrics. Basically, writing this fanfiction was beneficial in more ways than I thought it would be.
Now, for this chapter, I know a lot of you might be wanting a "happy ending," get that thought out of your head. The game didn't have a happy ending and neither will this - at least not completely happy. Something happens in this chapter that will not be easy to comprehend, and you won't want to believe it's actually happening. This will be a difficult read because what happens is so shocking and so brutally sad, but it does end on a hopeful and positive note. Just be prepared... this chapter is a serious emotional roller coaster. It goes through a ton of different emotions, sometimes all at the same time, and will go through the absolute extremes of sad and happy. If it gets to be too much and you need to walk away for a little bit when you're reading, go right ahead, but please read to the end. I promise it isn't depressing the whole time. In fact, I pinky-promise. There is something very controversial in this chapter - there's no way you could miss it, so I'm expecting there to be an immense disparity between the reviews, i.e. the good reviews will be really really good and the bad reviews will be really really bad. I don't expect a lot of middle ground. I took a very ballsy chance, but I'm hoping it was a smart chance to take.
I was going to work in one of my original lyrics, but I changed my mind and used a song that already exists instead. I also want to apologize for the length of this chapter, as it's more than three times longer than the next longest chapter. I considered dividing it up into two chapters, but there wasn't a point where I could make a smooth "transition" between the chapters. So, sorry, it might take multiple sittings to read the whole thing.
At the end I will go more in-depth about this chapter. I will talk about my thought process when writing, why what happened happened, and why I feel like it's for the best. I will also announce what the spin-off will be about, and an estimate of when to expect it. All the more reason to read to the end. And I think I may need to clarify something: A spin-off is another story that directly ties in with this one. People have suggested Joel and Tess, or Joel and Tommy before the game, that's not what a spin-off is. It will be related to THIS story.
Now, are you anxious to see how Joel and Ellie's story is resolved? I bet you are, so enjoy the final chapter! (And good luck to the crybabies out there.) Also, I'm sorry. I'm really terribly sorry.
Disclaimer: I do not own The Last Of Us or the characters, except the ones I introduce. All credit goes to Naughty Dog. I do not own the lyrics used. All credit goes to Seether.
Brand New Start
Final Chapter: Solace
It happened again. For the fifth morning in a row Ellie had woken up far earlier than she wanted to. This time was even earlier than usual; the sun hadn't even started coming up yet. All the other times she's woken up she's stayed in bed hoping to fall back asleep, but it always eluded her. This time she wasn't even going to try to get more sleep. She rubbed her eyes and got out of bed.
The main problem wasn't that she kept waking up; it was what was causing her to wake up. Every night she's had disturbing dreams. Those dreams always ended the same way: with her dying in gruesome ways. The most recent one involved being chased by a group of hunters and getting shot first in the chest, and then in the head to finish her off. The others involved being burned alive, strangled, ripped apart by a Bloater, and getting her throat slashed. Normally she wouldn't be bothered by dreams like that, but since they've happened five nights in a row, she felt like something was wrong. She engaged in a mental conversation with herself, debating whether or not to tell Joel.
I really should tell him. He's always comforted me when I was stressed, I'm sure he'd be able to help me.
Nah, it's just dreams, and you know that dreams are harmless.
But it's really disturbing me. Obviously if I keep dreaming about dying there must be something causing me to be worried about that.
Don't worry about it. They're just dreams, you know that's what Joel's gonna say.
Yeah, but I still think I should.
She finished arguing with herself and then walked to the stairs. She stopped at the top of the steps when a more pleasant thought hit her. That's right, I'm sixteen now!
She sat on the couch with the light on reading a book she got from Paul. She had been thinking about the dreams ever since she woke up. What could they mean? When Joel gets up, I'm gonna tell him. She was so absorbed in the book that she didn't even hear Joel coming down the stairs. When she saw him step into the room out of the corner of her eye, she jumped and let out a startled gasp.
"What're you doin' up this early?" Joel asked.
Ellie sat in silence for a brief second waiting for her heart rate to slow back down from being startled. Just tell him. He's here to help. "I couldn't sleep," she said defensively, and immediately winced at it. Ooh, I did not mean to say it like that.
"Is everythin' okay?" Joel asked, slightly concerned.
Tell him now. "Yeah, everything's fine." Dammit.
"You sure?" he asked again.
Tell him, you chickenshit! "Uh-huh." Goddammit! You know what, fuck it. He'd dismiss it as just dreams anyway.
Joel still didn't believe she was telling the truth. "I'm just sayin', if somethin's wrong feel free to-"
"Joel," Ellie cut him off. "I'm fine."
Joel could tell she was hiding something, but he wasn't in the mood to argue. "Okay, if you say so."
"But while we're on the topic. Why are you up so early?"
It was very early by Joel's standards. He usually slept several hours longer. "Tommy and I have been plannin' a huntin' trip for today. We wanted to get up early to get a head start."
Of course you did. And of course you didn't tell me. "And when were you going to tell me about this?"
Ellie became frustrated. All the times Joel has gone out, he had never once offered to take her with him. "Joel-"
"Because I was gonna offer for you to come with us as a sixteenth birthday present."
Ellie's face lit up. Finally he was letting her tag along. The pitch in her voice rose in excitement as she started to stand up. "Oh, that sounds…" Then she remembered the dreams she was having. It was uncharted territory out in those woods. Once she went past the ridge, anything could be out there waiting for her, as she learned soon after arriving in Jackson when she encountered bandits in the woods. "Actually… I think I'll pass."
Joel looked at her with a very confused expression. "You sure you're okay?"
Ellie didn't respond; she just glared at him.
"You're right, I'm sorry." He held up a hand, indicating that he took back what he just said. "It's just that… you're always goin' on about how I never take you anywhere. I thought you'd really like this."
Ellie didn't want to tell him the real reason she declined his offer. She felt genuinely worried, and he would just dismiss her worry and try to drag her into somewhere she didn't feel comfortable being. She made something up off the top of her head. "Well… I guess since I'm almost an adult, I feel like I need to be a little more independent. I want to prove to you and to myself that I'm not completely clingy like I used to be."
Joel accepted her reasoning. She was practically an adult; she wanted to prove she can handle the independence of being an adult. "I understand."
"Plus Hannah and I haven't really spent a full day together recently. I figured with you out hunting and Jeffrey on guard duty, we can have the day to ourselves."
"I guess that's a good reason."
"I promise I'll come with you next time though. Maybe you and Tommy can set something up in the future where I can tag along." Hopefully the death dreams stop by then.
Joel nodded. "We can definitely set somethin' up for the future; I'll be sure to talk to Tommy about it. Right now I'm gonna head over to his place and see if he's up."
"Okay," Ellie said as Joel walked outside.
After Joel left and the door had closed, Ellie heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Hannah stepped out of the stairwell shielding her eyes from the bright light in the living room. "You know, sound travels really easily in this house."
Oops. "Oh, sorry, did Joel and I wake you up?"
"Yeah, but I'm not mad. I'm a light sleeper anyway." She sat down on the couch next to Ellie. "So, you turned down a hunting trip with Joel even though you always rag on him about how he never takes you, huh?"
"Yeah. I made up some bullshit about wanting to be more independent…" she stopped herself. Surely she could tell her best friend about why she turned it down.
"But that's not the real reason?" Hannah asked.
Ellie sighed before telling Hannah. "I've been having these dreams. For like a week I've had a dream where I die every night. It's really been disturbing me. Usually dreams aren't a problem, but recently they have been."
Hannah tried to offer support, but it was not the way Ellie hoped she would. "Ellie, they're just dreams."
"See, that's why I didn't tell Joel. Because I knew that's what he would say."
"What else is there to say?" Hannah asked as she shook her head. "Dreams are harmless, no matter how disturbing they are. I really don't know how else to help you." Ellie looked down. Hannah put her hand on Ellie's shoulder for support. "There's nothing to worry about, Ellie. You're just having bad dreams. They're harmless and they'll pass. Don't dwell on them."
It wasn't what Ellie wanted to hear, but after some deliberation, she realized Hannah was right. "Yeah," she sighed. "I guess you're right."
Joel, Ellie, and Hannah sat on one bench at their usual booth in the diner. Tommy, Maria, and Jeffrey were getting plates of food for all of them. "Now girls," Joel said, "I'll be out with Tommy all day and Jeffrey has guard duty in the afternoon. And since I already know it's pointless to ask you to stay out of trouble, Maria's gonna be at our house keepin' an eye on you."
Ellie groaned loudly. "Joel, we're sixteen. We don't need a babysitter."
Joel waved his hand, as if he was brushing off what Ellie said about Maria being their babysitter. "Nah, don't think of it as babysittin'. Think of it as, uh… female bonding time." He put a stupid, satisfied smile on his face and began laughing under his breath. His lame humor amused himself tremendously.
The girls just rolled their eyes, and Ellie bit her bottom lip out of mild frustration. "That's not funny, Joel," she said with an annoyed smile.
"Course it is," he said as he nudged her. "You just don't have a sense of humor."
She put on the straightest face she possibly could. She turned to him with a squinty glare and spoke in a low, breathy voice. "Yeeaahh… that's it." Joel continued giggling, but clearly his enjoyment of his stupid humor wasn't shared.
Tommy, Maria, and Jeffrey arrived at the booth with the group's food. Tommy sat down by the window, Maria sat next to him, and Jeffrey pulled up a chair from another table and sat at the end. They were all a little surprised that Maria had gotten twice as much food as usual, but nobody said anything. Tommy spoke to Joel about their hunting trip planned for later in the day. "So I was thinkin' we leave about an hour after breakfast and head up to that sweet spot where we always find all the deer. We snag what we can and get back here about two hours before dinner time."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Joel said.
Tommy then turned to Ellie. "I was surprised to hear you turned down this trip. I thought you woulda really enjoyed it."
Ellie shrugged her shoulders. "I gotta become independent at some point. I'll come with you next time though."
"That'll be a month from today. And as my birthday present to you, I've added your name to the guard duty rotation and put you right at the top." Ellie lit up again. "You start with the mornin' shift tomorrow." She was a little disappointed that she would have to get up early, but she had been waiting over a year to be able to get guard duty. She was more than willing to sacrifice a bit of sleep to do something she had wanted since she first arrived at Jackson.
"Thank you, Tommy."
"And Maria, while the girls are at the house I'm gonna need you to keep an eye on them. Don't let them out of eyesight or earshot," Joel told his sister-in-law.
"I'll watch 'em like a hawk." The girls looked at Maria with disappointment, but she just smiled at them. Maria took a bite of one of the biscuits she got, and immediately appeared confused. "Did Allyson do something different with the biscuits? They taste different than usual."
The rest of the group took a bite of their biscuits, and none of them reported any different taste. "Don't taste different to me," Joel said. "Must be in your head."
Maria accepted that she must have been imagining things, and continued eating. Tommy was suspicious that something had changed with Maria, but didn't think it was worth bringing up at the moment.
The group made their way to the stables as Joel and Tommy prepared to leave for the hunting trip. As Andrew got the horses ready, Joel turned to the girls. "Now, don't give Maria any trouble. I know that'll be tough for you, but please try your hardest."
"At this point I don't think I need to tell you not to get your hopes up," Ellie said to him.
"Joel, we're ready to head out," Tommy called to him.
Joel gave Ellie a quick hug and turned to walk towards the stables. Ellie called out as he started to walk away. "Joel." Joel turned around to listen. "Be careful."
"I will," he said. "And when I get back… I promise I'll finally sing for you," he said with a smile.
Ellie had waited almost a year and a half to hear him sing. He always seemed to be shy about singing, but finally she would get her wish. He just needed to make sure he got back safe. "Yay!" she exclaimed as she threw up her hands.
"Keep a close eye on them," he called out to Maria.
"Will do," she assured him.
Ellie was in her bedroom cleaning her knife. She was wearing a light blue long-sleeved shirt and white pants. Jeffrey had left for guard duty just twenty minutes ago, so they were now under the full supervision of Maria. Hannah walked into the bedroom with wet hair, having just stepped out of the shower. Ellie turned to her when she heard her walk in. "Hey, you enjoy your shower?"
"Yeah, it was good. Cleaning your knife?"
"Yeah, I do that when I'm bored. It's getting kinda dull though; remind me to take it to Tomas at some point so he can sharpen it." Tomas knew his way around a knife better than anyone. He and his family had kept to themselves ever since they arrived at Jackson, but Tomas would never turn down an opportunity to work on a knife. If he couldn't bring it back to perfect shape, nobody could.
"Sure thing. You know, I've been thinking…"
Ellie's curiosity was peaked. "Oh, yeah? What about?"
"Well… I've lived in Jackson for most of my life, and I've never actually been outside the wall and just explored the woods right outside. I was thinking, maybe we could go out for a while."
Ellie liked the idea, so long as they stayed close to town, but didn't think they'd be able to do it. "Uh… sorry, I don't think so."
"Aw, why? Why don't you want to?"
"It's not that I don't want to. I think it sounds fun, but there's no way Maria would let us go out. What if something happened? If one of us got hurt, it would be Maria taking all the heat from Joel."
"Ellie, do you honestly think something will happen?"
"No, but Maria promised Joel she'd keep an eye on us."
"Look, if we take weapons with us and stay close, there's no way Maria would say no."
"Weapons wouldn't change anything. She made a promise to Joel."
Ellie thought, and decided that they could at least ask Maria. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to ask. Just don't expect her to say yes." Ellie grabbed the rifle Joel had been given a couple months ago as a gift for his year of serving guard duty.
"Hold on, I want the rifle," Hannah said.
Ellie laughed. The rifle was almost as big as Hannah was. Her skinny, fragile frame wouldn't be able to handle the recoil. "Hannah, I don't think you can handle this."
"Sure I could."
"Have you ever even shot a rifle before?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "No, but you could teach me while we're out."
Ellie sighed, and eventually agreed to give her the rifle. "Here," she said as she reluctantly handed it to her. Hannah pulled the bolt back and loaded it up with three rounds, and stuck another three in her pocket. Ellie grabbed her pistol, put seven bullets in the clip, and tucked it in the back of her pants. She picked up her knife and clipped it to her right hip. They didn't expect to use their weapons, but it was the only way to make Maria feel comfortable letting them out of the town.
They walked downstairs with their weapons and saw Maria standing in the middle of the room. "Hey Maria," Ellie said.
"What do you girls think you're doing with those guns? Go put them back."
"We want to go outside the wall. Just explore the woods a little while."
"No way; I promised Joel I'd keep an eye on you. I'm not letting you go out with the dangers out there."
"What dangers are there if we stay below the ridge? What do you think could happen?" Hannah asked.
Maria paused, realizing that Hannah had a point. "Nothing, but that's not the point. I promised not to let you out of eyesight or earshot, and that's what I intend to do."
Ellie nudged Hannah, and held her arm out to Maria. "Well, what if we take a radio with us? We can keep in contact while we're out so you know we're safe. And if we get into trouble we can call for help."
Maria looked around, thinking intently about what the girls were saying. If they stayed below the ridge there was no harm. Still, she told Joel she would keep an eye on them. She sighed heavily and shook her head. "I cannot believe I'm going to do this." She looked at the girls. "Come with me, I'll get you a radio. Now, promise me you'll keep your weapons on you at all times, stay below the ridge, be back within an hour, and keep in contact."
"Yes ma'am," the girls said.
At the guard station, Maria got a spare radio to give to the girls. Before she gave it to them, she made them run through the conditions again. "Now, girls remember what I told you."
"Keep our weapons with us, stay below the ridge, be back within an hour, and keep in contact," Ellie said.
"And, most importantly, be careful." Maria handed the radio to Ellie. "And please don't tell Joel I let you go out."
Ellie smiled. "Not a word."
"So where are you taking us?" Hannah asked her friend who was leading the way through the forest. Ellie wanted to show Hannah the ledge she found which provided an amazing view of the valley.
"You'll see. We're close I think."
Hannah stopped for a moment to appreciate the environment she was in. She had no memory of walking through woods, and she found the woods around Jackson to be particularly beautiful. "It really is amazing, isn't it?"
Ellie stopped as well. "Isn't what amazing?"
Hannah held up her arms gesturing to the forest surrounding them. "All this. Not just the trees; the mountains and the entire valley as well. We're surrounded by things hundreds, maybe thousands of years older than us. It really makes you feel insignificant when you have some perspective of the world around you."
Ellie looked all around, admiring everything after what Hannah said. "It's impressive, that's for sure. Now come on, we're almost there." Ellie ran ahead and Hannah followed. After a while they caught sight of what Ellie took them out to see. "There." She pointed to the outcropping, and ran up to it. "Follow me, you gotta see this." Hannah followed her around the back of the ledge and they walked up onto it. When they got to the edge and got a view of the entire valley, Hannah's jaw dropped.
"Wow!" was all she could say. She could find no other words to describe the view.
Ellie sat down with her feet hanging over the ledge and Hannah did the same. "Is that everything you were hoping for?" Ellie asked.
Hannah sat in silence for a while, still awestruck at the view. "Everything and more. You can't deny that view." She looked at Ellie with a large smile. "Thanks for bringing me out here."
Ellie smiled back, but both smiles disappeared when they heard something in the woods nearby. Footsteps. This time they could not be mistaken for deer footsteps; these were definitely human. They couldn't call for help over the radio or try to run away. The footsteps were too close, and they would give their position away to whoever was with them. They had no choice but to face them on their own. "Shit," Ellie whispered. She thought about the death dreams she was having, and was afraid that they were about to come true. This is how I die, isn't it? This is what the dreams were warning me about.
"What do we do?" Hannah whispered back.
Ellie pulled the pistol out of her waistband. "You ready your rifle; I'll jump down and take a look."
"Ellie, please be careful," Hannah begged.
Ellie jumped down off the ledge, keeping low and tight to the rock wall. She moved to the corner and went to take a look around. When she stood up, she was greeted by a scavenger who grabbed her and slammed her head into the rock, leaving her stunned. He reached for her gun which now lay on the ground as Hannah yelled out. "Hey!" she screamed as she stuck the rifle over the ledge. She fired, but the combination of the awkward way she held the rife and the sharp angle she was aiming at caused her to miss by more than a foot. The recoil knocked her backwards, and when she looked back over the ledge, the scavenger turned and ran into the woods. Hannah quickly pulled the bolt back and chambered the next round to fire. She aimed at the fleeing man and fired again, hitting a tree as he passed behind it. "Balls!" she exclaimed as she chambered the next round. When she slammed the bolt forwards, it caught for a second, but eventually slid closed. She jumped down next to Ellie, who had gotten up to her hands and knees but was still dazed. "Ellie!" She put a hand on Ellie's back.
"He's not armed," Ellie informed Hannah. They didn't know why an unarmed man would attack two people who were clearly armed. They figured he must have had a death wish.
"He's coming around the outcropping. When he sticks his head out I'll waste him." Her heart was racing. Not only from the attack, but also because it meant she would have to kill someone for the first time in her life. She did not think she was ready to do it, but she didn't have much of a choice; it was kill or be killed. She aimed her rifle towards where he would stick his head out. He came around the corner and she pulled the trigger. Click… jammed. "Balls!" She frantically tried to get the gun unjammed, but the attacker charged her and grabbed the other end of the rifle. The two wrestled for it as Ellie got to her feet and flipped out the blade on her knife. The scavenger managed to wrestle the gun from Hannah, and smashed the stock against her head, knocking her unconscious.
Ellie charged at him and dug the switchblade into the back of his shoulder. She took it out and he caught her with a hard backhand, knocking her to the ground and sending the knife flying. She scurried along the ground to reach the knife, but before she could grab it, the attacker rolled her onto her back using his foot, and pressed it onto her chest. All the air was squeezed out of her lungs, and a crushing pain shot through her breasts. She tried as hard as she could to take in a breath, but she couldn't. The pain was intense, but the knife was almost within reach. Her fingertips touched the handle, and she managed to get a hold as spots began to fill her vision. The man reached down and grabbed her arm, but she broke free of his grip and dug the knife into his calf, causing him to yell in pain and take his foot off of her. She gasped for air as she stood up and tried to get some distance between her and the scavenger.
She felt a grab on her left arm and she spun around swinging the knife like a sword in an errant backhand swing. She missed her target, and then swung again, aiming the pointed end directly at his head. He grabbed her arm before she connected, and she flailed her arm around wildly trying to break free. "Get off me, fucker!" For a man with an obvious death wish, he was certainly fighting hard. Suddenly his other hand grabbed onto the one in which Ellie held the knife, trying to pry it from her grip. "Nooo!" she screamed as she grabbed on with her other hand to prevent him from getting the knife. If she lost her grip, she was dead. She was literally holding on for her life. She saw Hannah stir, and called out to her. "Hannah, help me!" She knew she was outmatched and outmuscled; she had no chance to win this battle on her own.
The first thing Hannah saw when she came to was Ellie in a life or death struggle with the scavenger. She got up and made her wobbly way over to where Ellie's pistol lay on the ground and picked it up, aiming it at the back of the scavenger. Time slowed down, and she was overcome with a thick feeling of dread. It had finally come down to it; she was about to kill someone for the first time, and she was scared. She had to put the fear aside, because if she didn't react fast enough, the bandit would kill her only friend. She had him dead in her sights. All she had to do to save Ellie was pull the trigger. The fear made her hesitate... and that's when her world as she knew it stopped.
The attacker ripped the knife out of Ellie's hand… and buried it into her abdomen. She let out a loud, pained grunt as the blade sunk into her gut. A look of extreme shock came over Ellie's face... and she knew immediately that she had just been killed. She tried to tell herself this was just another death dream, but the pain did not lie. It was not a dream, it was very real.
Hannah recoiled in horror, and the gun fell out of her hands to the ground. "No!" she cried out as she staggered backwards. A jolt of shock shot through her entire body; she felt it in her head, chest, arms and legs. She caught a glimpse of Ellie's face and saw that her friend was just as shocked, if not more, than she was, and it only added to the horror.
The man withdrew the blade from Ellie's gut, and she stumbled forwards slightly. She glanced down and saw blood quickly seeping out of her belly. She looked up at Hannah and the two locked eyes for a brief second. Hannah looked deep into Ellie's eyes in that second and saw intense pain and fear. She had never seen pain and fear so plainly expressed on someone's face, and it broke her heart to see it on her best friend. Then... Ellie collapsed; first to her knees, then the rest of her body fell forwards to the ground. Her arms landed in front of her head as if she was making an attempt to prevent her head from hitting the ground first.
"No, no, no, no," Hannah repeated as she continued backpedaling. The shock she felt nearly made her collapse as well. Oh God, I just watched my only friend get killed. Reality began to fade, and the world around her slowly turned to gray. The only thing that registered was Ellie lying face down on the ground, dead for sure. She was brought back to her senses when the man turned and charged at her, wielding the knife with Ellie's blood on it. I should let him kill me too. If Ellie's dead, I can't live without her... No! She mustered all of her courage, and all of her anger, letting out a loud "FUCK YOU!" and running forward to grab the gun. The attacker made a move to stick Hannah with the blade... but she was quicker. She pulled the trigger and the bullet embedded itself in his heart. She stepped to the side to avoid his body falling on top of her, and in an outburst of sheer rage fired the remaining six shots into him when he was on the ground. That's what you get for killing my friend you fucking bastard! After the gun clicked empty, she threw it on the ground next to his body.
In that moment after she ended the life of the man who cut down her only friend, a multitude of emotions swirled in her head all at once. Fear, sadness, anger, but the guilt, oh God… the guilt overpowered all other emotions. Seeing Ellie get stabbed, not being able to save her in time, getting the idea to go out there in the first place. It's all my fault. The whole world spun around her, blurring reality and trying to hide the awful truth from her. She could not escape reality though, no matter how hard she tried.
She ran over to Ellie and got down at her left side. She could hear that Ellie was breathing irregularly and whimpering in pain. She was still alive… but only just. Hannah rolled Ellie over onto her back. The fear lingered in her eyes, and her sky blue shirt now had a large red spot from the blood. "Ellie!" she cried out as she pressed both of her hands onto the wound to stop the profuse bleeding. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry I dragged you into this!" Hannah could feel Ellie shaking from a combination of the deep fear and unbearable pain she felt.
Ellie grabbed onto Hannah's arm and pulled herself closer to her face. She tried to speak, but her sputtering breathing made it very difficult. "You gotta… g-g-get me back… to t-town," she said in a panic. She let go and her head and upper back fell back to the ground. Her incessant puppy-like whimpering jerked tears to the surface of Hannah's eyes, but she was able to keep them contained for the time being.
"Uh…" Hannah looked her wounded friend over, trying to figure out how she would get her back to town. Ellie was still heavier than Hannah was, so carrying her was out of the question. Even if Hannah was strong enough to carry her, she would without a doubt bleed to death before they got back. "I can't carry you, Ellie. How do I get you back to town?" Her question immediately answered itself when Maria's voice came over Ellie's radio.
"Ellie, we heard gunshots. Is everything okay?"
"Answer it," Ellie said faintly.
"What am I gonna say?" Hannah was afraid of telling Maria what had happened. Maria had told them at first that they were not allowed to go out. She went against Joel's instruction thinking the girls just wanted some time alone. Hannah didn't know how she was going to explain to Maria that Ellie got stabbed when they weren't supposed to be outside in the first place.
"Just… a-an-answer it," Ellie pleaded. She was barely able to speak through her broken breathing.
Hannah reached for the radio, being sure to keep one hand on Ellie's wound, when Maria's voice came over again. "Ellie, can you hear me?" The fear was as evident in her voice as it was in Ellie's eyes.
Hannah frantically spoke into the radio. "Maria! It's Hannah, we need help! Ellie's been stabbed!"
There was a long pause at the other end, as if Maria was taking time to let what Hannah said sink in. "She what?" she asked after several seconds. Maria had heard what Hannah said, but she didn't want to believe she heard correctly.
Hannah's voice was much quieter the second time, because she was on the verge of tears. "She's been stabbed... It doesn't look good."
"Andrew and I have already left town and are on our way over there. Stay put, we'll be there as soon as we can!"
"Please hurry," Hannah said weakly.
"We will, sweetie."
Ellie's gut-wrenching whimpers and cries of agony cut through Hannah like a hundred knives, chilling her to the core and making her numb. The knowledge that Ellie was in such excruciating pain tore her to pieces. That, combined with the sight of her so helpless and her pained noises, was too much for Hannah to bear. She put her left forearm under Ellie's neck, keeping her right hand on the wound, and lifted her up off the ground slightly. "I gotcha Ellie. I know this hurts, but just hang in there. Help's coming. We're gonna get you back to town, get you patched up… You're gonna be fine, trust me. And I promise we'll never do anything like this again." Hannah tried to tell Ellie that she would be fine, but her already dire condition was getting worse fast. Her breathing was becoming more and more broken, her whole body was trembling, and the life was starting to leave her eyes. Ellie, as much as her friend tried to convince her otherwise, was dying. But she knew that she only had mere moments left to live. Ellie had already accepted the fact that she would be dead soon, and at that point she welcomed death to come and put her out of her misery. "Don't give up on me. You're gonna be okay; stay with me, Ellie." Just then, a sickening choking and gurgling noise came from Ellie, and she began coughing up blood out of the corner of her mouth, nearly causing Hannah to vomit. "Oh God," Hannah said as she turned her head away in disgust. "Ellie, please don't do this," she begged as she began to cry.
Through Ellie's weak and failing breathing, she managed a broken sentence. "T-T-Tell J-Joel that… I'm ssssorry."
"Ellie, why are you saying that?" Hannah asked through her tears.
Ellie put her hand on top of Hannah's - one final gesture of affection to her friend - since she knew her time had run out. "I'm… n-not gonna… m-m-m-make it."
Hannah got close to Ellie's face. "Ellie, stop talking like that," she demanded. "Of course you're gonna make it." Ellie was talking like she she was about to die, but Hannah knew she wasn't. "You're gonna be fine." But Hannah was wrong. Ellie's injuries would prove to be too severe to overcome. Her whimpers quieted down, her eyes closed, her head hung backwards over Hannah's forearm... and then she died, finally putting an end to the extreme anguish she was in. "Ellie, no!" Hannah screamed just as Ellie let out her final breath and fell motionless in her arms. Her suffering, mercifully... was over. "Ellie?" Hannah pleaded desperately. Ellie's trembling, whimpering, and broken breathing had all stopped. "ELLIE?" she called out again with increased desperation and horror. When Hannah realized that she had just lost her best friend, her voice rose in pitch to the point where it was nearly inaudible. "Don't do this to me, Ellie," she whimpered feebly, as she broke down into a torrent of tears. "No... O-Oh God n-no," she cried as she bowed her head. "E-E-Ellie, I'm s-s-so s-sorry-y-y-y," she said through her uncontrollable blubbering. She became overwhelmed with sadness and guilt, since the only friend she had ever known now laid dead in her arms. Just as quickly as Ellie had come into Hannah's life, she was taken out of it. The two had been inseparable in the time they had known each other. Hannah's friendship with Ellie was the best thing she ever had in her life. Now that Ellie was dead and their friendship over, Hannah was utterly and completely lost. She sat bawling for several seconds, before she sucked up her tears and screamed out, "No, no, NO!" Ellie could not die like this, she just couldn't.
Desperation had gotten Hannah's adrenaline flowing stronger than she could ever remember. She put her arms behind Ellie's upper back to support her began shaking her as she pleaded in a panic for her to wake up. "Wake up! Wake up! Ellie, please wake up!" She slapped Ellie's face a couple times, hoping to shock her awake. "Ellie you have to wake up!" She slapped Ellie's face again, harder than before. "Wake up!" Her efforts amounted to nothing, and she started sobbing once again. "Wake up, Goddamm-i-i-i-it." She was blubbering violently at that point. "OHHHH!" she bellowed out from overpowering sadness. As she cradled her best friend in her arms, she was bawling hard enough to put herself at risk of straining something in her body. Tears flowed down her face like waterfalls, and her chest and shoulders heaved mightily as she bawled like a baby because of her grief. The pain she felt from losing her only friend could not compare to anything she had ever felt before. She wrapped her left arm around Ellie's head, wrapped her right arm tightly around Ellie's torso, and pulled her lifeless body closer as her voice grew considerably softer. "No, no... no no no no no," her voice was more like squeaking rather than actual speech as she held Ellie's dead body tightly against her own. "Ellie, please wake up… please… please w-wake up," she begged softly. She had shed practically her own weight in tears by that point. "Don't do this to me, Ellie... please don't do this... please, please don't... Oh God, Ellie, please..." The unbearable sadness she felt made her entire body feel numb. She had heard of times where people would die from extreme grief, and she was genuinely concerned that would happen to her. She had never truly experienced loss before, and the first person she ever lost just happened to be her only friend.
Even though Hannah knew that Ellie was dead, she wanted to try one more thing, just in case another miracle could happen. Ellie was able to bring Hannah back with just her voice, so Hannah was going to try the same to Ellie. It was more than a long shot, but there were no other options. Hannah could not lose her. You saved my life, now it's my turn to save yours. She lowered Ellie's body a bit and looked directly into her face. "Ellie, listen to me, you can't... you can't die. Please, you have to pull through. You've done it before and I know you can do it again." She waited for Ellie to open her eyes, or show in some way that she was alive, but she did nothing. "I don't think I can carry on without you. You saved my life after the fire. I owe my life to you, Ellie. But more importantly you're my friend. You're the only friend I've ever had and I can't live without you." Once again she waited for a response from Ellie... nothing. "Ellie, please don't leave me. I need you. I need you in my life, so for God's sake... WAKE UP!" One last time Hannah waited for a response... but there would be no more miracles like what brought her back. Admitting defeat, Hannah threw her head back and let out an earsplitting and blood-curdling shriek that could have been heard throughout the entire valley. "EEIIYYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!" She stopped crying, but only because she had been bawling so hard that she dried up her tear glands. There was now not a hint of doubt that Ellie had been killed.
Hannah set Ellie's body back down on the ground; she was nothing more than an empty shell at that point. If there was ever any hope that she would make it, it was gone now. Along with having no heartbeat, she was starting to get cold; a telltale sign of death. On top of that, the red stain on her shirt now covered the majority of her torso, and she was starting to go pale because of how much blood she lost. Hannah sat next to her deceased best friend and stared off into the distance. She was not staring at anything in particular, just staring. Watching Ellie die right before her eyes had rendered her shell-shocked. Everything around her ceased to exist because of the shock, and she was trapped inside her own body. She could not see, she could not hear, and she had lost her entire perception of the world around her in that moment. It was just her and her thoughts, and all she was thinking about was how she wished the end would soon come for her so she wouldn't have to go without Ellie. She was so lost in herself that she did not hear the horses that Andrew and Maria were riding come up behind her.
When Andrew and Maria rode up and saw Ellie lying motionless and covered in blood, they were struck with horror. "Shit, I hope we're not too late!" Andrew shouted as he and Maria jumped off their horses.
Maria ran up to Hannah, sitting next to Ellie's body, and pulled her aside. "Move, Hannah!" Andrew and Maria picked Ellie up, without checking to see whether or not she was alive first, and carried her over to Andrew's horse. "We don't have much time, get her on the horse right now." They hoisted Ellie up on top of the horse, and Andrew sat in the saddle with his left arm wrapping across her chest to prevent her limp body from falling off. "You get her to Brenda's… as fast as you can," she said to Andrew. "I'll catch up; I need to talk to Hannah." Andrew turned his horse around and rode back to town with Ellie's body. Maria took the radio off her belt and told the gate guard, "Andrew's on his way back with Ellie. She's in bad shape." She wasn't aware of just how bad it was.
"Understood," the voice on the other end said.
She walked up behind Hannah, who was still staring off at nothing, and tried to assure her that Ellie would make it. "Hannah, I know it looks bad, but I promise Ellie's going to be fine. We're gonna get her to Brenda's and give her the medical attention she needs. Brenda will nurse her back to health and she'll be back on her feet in no time." Hannah did not look away, or say anything. She was locked in her trance. Maria had seen this before: the thousand-yard stare. People would sometimes stare at a point seemingly miles in the distance after witnessing something traumatic. For Hannah... it was the death of her only friend. Maria, however, for some reason believed that Ellie was not dead. "Don't beat yourself up over this; it's not your fault. You girls just had an innocent request. I'm not mad at you, so don't be mad at yourself. The only person who should be mad at theirself is me." Again, Hannah did not acknowledge Maria. She had toned out the world around her completely. Maria walked over to her and grabbed her arm. "Come on; let's get you back to town."
Finally, Hannah broke out of her stupor and spoke. "I can't go back."
"I can't ever show my face there again. Everyone will just see me as the girl who got Ellie killed."
Maria walked around to face Hannah and got down at her eye level. "Hannah," she put her hands on Hannah's shoulders. "You did not get Ellie killed. I told you she's going to be fine."
Hannah looked at her in disbelief. Everything she had seen told her that Ellie was already dead. "You swear?"
"Yes, I swear," Maria said without hesitation. She looked Hannah in the eyes, desperately trying to get her to see that Ellie would make it.
Hannah did not believe her, but she had no choice but to accept what she said. "Okay."
"Tracks pick up again right here," Tommy said as he bent down. The two had been tracking a large buck they saw, but it had gotten away. They had finally picked its trail back up. "What'd I tell ya? Never lost a deer in my life," he told Joel.
"I'll have to take your word for it," Joel said.
Tommy hit Joel gently on his shoulder. "I don't plan on lettin' this be the first. C'mon, let's go," he said as he ran ahead. Joel took a small step forward, but did not continue past that. Tommy turned around when he saw that his brother was not following him. "Joel, let's go before it gets away."
Joel shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, I'm just… lost in thought."
Tommy knew it was about Ellie. Joel's constant worry about that girl was getting annoying. "Don't tell me…" Joel shook his head, and Tommy let out an aggravated sigh. "Dammit. What's it gonna take for you to stop worryin' about her?" Tommy's voice became stern as he reasoned with Joel. "Look, Maria is watchin' out for them. There's no way anythin' can happen to her."
"I know I shouldn't be worried… but this time ain't like the others. I can't shake the feelin' that somethin's seriously wrong."
"Yeah?" Tommy asked as he got up in Joel's face. "Well shake it, because there is nothin' wrong. You're bein' completely irrational. I ain't gonna say it again, let's go." He ran ahead again, but Joel still stayed put. "Joel! Let's get a fuckin' move on!"
Joel took a few steps backwards. "I'm sorry."
"I gotta get back to town." Joel turned around and ran back through where they had come, trying to get back to the horses. Tommy reluctantly followed.
"Goddammit, Joel! Maria's gonna have our asses when we show up back there empty handed because of YOU… worryin' about nothin'!"
"It ain't nothin', Tommy!" Joel called back as he kept running. "Ellie's in trouble, I can feel it!"
"You're gonna feel my fist against your head if you don't stop RIGHT NOW!"
"I need to get to Ellie!" Nothing was going to get Joel to turn around. He needed to get to his baby girl, and he was not going to let Tommy stop him.
Maria and Hannah rode back through the gate. On the ride back to town, Hannah had told Maria the details of what happened, and that she had been traumatized by watching Ellie die. Maria firmly believed that Ellie was not dead, but Hannah thought she was in denial. Ellie had shown all the signs of death without showing even a slight glimmer of hope. Maria had gotten Hannah to suspend her fear of Ellie being dead for the far-fetched hope that she was somehow still alive. "Andrew got back here with Ellie about five minutes ago," Houser informed them. "They're at Brenda's right now."
"Thanks Houser," Maria said.
"There was a lot of blood," Houser said. Maria stayed to hear what he had to say. "It looked bad. I can't see how she could still be alive."
Maria didn't need his pessimism. Her gut told her that Ellie was alive, and her gut was never wrong. The only reason this all happened was because she went against her gut in the first place. "Let's go." They rode quickly to Brenda's house and saw Andrew's horse outside. Maria dismounted and then helped Hannah off of the horse. They ran up to Brenda's door and barged in without knocking. "Brenda!" she called as they ran in. They were stopped in their tracks by what they saw inside. Ellie lay in one of the beds, covered head to toe with a blanket that had been soaked with her blood. Nicky sat curled up on the floor at the foot of the bed crying. Brenda sat in a chair in the middle of the room. Tears seemed to be running down her face as well, and she had an unmistakable look of total dejection and failure on her face. Andrew simply stood with his back up against the wall and his arms folded across his chest, staring at the floor. All signs pointed to the worst.
"No," Hannah whispered.
Maria stepped forwards. "Brenda…" she held out her hand. "Please tell me… that Ellie's okay."
Brenda sighed and shook her head gently. She looked at Maria, and told her the tragic and unthinkable news. "She's dead." Those two words sent a palpable shock through the room.
"Noooo!" Hannah yelled as she ran over to the bed Ellie's body lay in.
Dead... Maria couldn't believe it. The shock caused a knot to form in her chest and stomach. Ellie, the sweet little girl she had come to think of as her niece over the last year... was dead at just sixteen years old. It was her birthday too. On a day that was supposed to celebrate another year of life, she had hers taken away from her. Maria looked down, and covered her mouth with her hand. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she could not suppress them for long. Her sobs came out as soft whimpers as she tried to fight them.
"I'm sorry," Brenda said remorsefully as she turned her head away again.
I'm gonna throw up. Maria felt lightheaded and sick to her stomach upon hearing that Ellie had died. She truly felt like she was about to either vomit or faint. "No…" she cried. "She can't be dead. Brenda you have to bring her back."
Brenda looked at Maria with deep sorrow. "I can't…"
"You've done it before."
Brenda looked down at the floor. "She's beyond my help. The knife…" she hesitated, "…pierced her liver." She paused for a long time after saying that. A blow to the liver could not be survived; Ellie never had a chance. It was a grisly way for someone to die, especially someone as sweet and well-loved as her. "Nobody can recover from that."
"She was already dead when we found her," Andrew added. "There wasn't anything that could've been done to save her."
Maria had failed Ellie, Joel, and most importantly herself. Her agreement to let the girls go out had gotten Ellie killed, and in the process forever shattered any trust between her and Joel. Worst of all for her though was that she would live the rest of her life knowing that her ill-advised decision is what directly led to Ellie's death. "I am such a shitty person," she said.
Brenda tried to reason with her. "No, you're-"
"No, you don't understand!" Maria snapped aggressively as she cut Brenda off. "It was my job to look after her today! Joel put me in charge of keeping an eye on the girls, and I fucked up." She began to cry again. "Ellie died… because I went against Joel's instruction, and my better judgment. What am I supposed to tell him? How can I possibly explain this to him?" She shook her head. "There's nothing I can say."
"Just tell him the truth," Brenda told her.
Maria considered it, but she couldn't find any way to break the news to Joel that Ellie was killed because of her. With how much he loved Ellie, he could snap and kill Maria out of blind rage. "I can't…"
"Maria, it's the only thing you can do. You can't hide the fact that she's dead from him, you may as well just admit how it happened."
She considered it more, and then she got the call over the radio that she dreaded more than any other time. "Maria, Joel and Tommy are coming down the road. They're way earlier than expected."
Fuck, I can't do this right now. I'm not ready to face this kind of test. She had no more time to think about it. She took the radio off of her belt, told Houser, "I'll be right out," and clipped it back onto her belt. She looked down, then at Brenda. "He'll want to see her."
"Of course," Brenda said.
Maria looked at Hannah and Nicky sitting at the foot of the bed. They were both holding each other and crying. They had lost their friend at far too young an age. She suppressed her own crying, and fessed up to the situation she faced. She turned around and walked out of the house, knowing that it might cost her life.
She stood on the front porch waiting for Joel and Tommy as they rode up on their horses and dismounted in the street. Joel approached Maria as if he was ready to start swinging, and stopped just in front of her. "Where's Ellie?" he barked. Maria remained silent. She was still debating whether or not to tell Joel the truth about exactly how Ellie died. "You were in charge of keepin' an eye on her. Now where is she?" his voice increased in volume and anger.
Maria lowered her head. To her it was a case of how she would prefer Joel to kill her. If she told him the truth, he would simply kill her now. If she lied and he found out later, he would kill her when she wasn't expecting it. Finally she picked her head up; she had made her decision.
"She was out with Hannah… outside the wall." Joel had a bad feeling he knew where this was going. "I told them they could go… only if they promised to take weapons with them, stay below the ridge, be out less than an hour, and use a radio to keep in contact. They did all of those things." This was not what Joel wanted to hear. He gave her specific, simple instructions to keep an eye on the girls. "They were attacked… by a lone unarmed scavenger who came unusually close to the town." This better not be goin' where I think it's goin'. "Together they managed to fight him off… but Ellie paid the price."
Tommy immediately knew what she meant. "Oh shit," he said as he put his hand over his face, trying to keep a grip on his emotions after Maria broke the news of Ellie's death.
"And what do you mean by that?" Joel growled. He had a bad feeling he knew what she meant, and if it was what he thought she meant, there would be hell to pay.
Maria hesitated, trying to figure out how to break the news gently. She eventually realized there was no way to let him down easy, so she decided to just spit it out. "Ellie's dead, Joel." She saw Joel's expression change from anger to shock and disbelief. "She was stabbed with her own knife." Joel staggered backwards as if he had been punched hard in the chest. The news hurt him almost as much as when he fell on the rusty piece of rebar two autumns ago. "I don't know what to say, other than I feel like complete SHIT."
"Joel…" Tommy said gently. He knew this was a delicate situation, and Joel would likely be very unstable as a result of this shocking news. "Just take it easy Joel." The one girl Joel couldn't live without was gone. Ellie had been killed and it was all because of Maria. Joel snapped out of his state of shock, and looked at Maria. He had a murderous look in his eyes that she saw plain and clear. He reached to his waistband and pulled out his revolver; holding it point blank to Maria's face. She threw up her hands indicating she wasn't going to resist, but Tommy had other plans. "Shit!" he screamed as he moved to get the gun from Joel. Joel grabbed Tommy and forced him against the pole supporting the roof.
"STOP!" Maria screamed at them.
Joel now had Tommy pinned against the post with a gun at his head. Tommy held his hands up beside his head with a look of terror on his face. "Don't you dare get in my way, boy!" Joel barked at him.
"BOTH OF YOU STOP THIS IMMEDIATELY!" Maria screamed again. "Joel, you let him go right now! Tommy, you stay out of this, and let me handle it!"
"Maria…" He begged his wife not to take this on herself, but she was adamant.
"Stay out of this, and let me handle it," she demanded to her husband. "Let him go Joel," she said softly. Joel kept the gun pointed at Tommy's head for a while, before eventually letting him go. He kept the gun aimed at Tommy as he took several steps backwards. When he felt Tommy was back far enough, he turned back to Maria with the revolver raised.
"You sent Ellie to her death," he said with the gun aimed at her face.
Maria didn't try to argue; she knew he was right. "I didn't want to let them go at first. But they begged and begged… you know how they get like that. It was just an innocent request they had; they wanted some time out in the woods. They stayed close to the town; there was no foreseeable harm-"
"And she got killed and it's YOUR! DAMN! FAULT!"
"JOEL, LISTEN TO ME!" she snapped. She flinched, having caught herself off guard, and continued her defense. "This is not what I wanted, you have to believe me. You know that my instincts are never wrong… well I went against my instincts like a fucking idiot. It's not like I had any reason to think something would happen. You know just as well as I do that lone bandits never come that close to town. I wish I could go back and make the smart choice to not let them go out, because I feel like shit right now for allowing this to happen."
Joel was not budging any time soon. "You shouldn't have let them go out in the first place. You got her killed; it's all your fault! Now you've gotta answer for it."
"Look, you can be mad at me all you want, you can threaten me all you want, but it's not going to change anything. I'm not gonna stand here and pretend that I don't feel responsible, because I do. And if you're going to shoot me, then just go ahead and do it," she began to cry, "cause I don't want to live with all this guilt on my shoulders." She bowed her head as she sobbed. "It's too much weight for me to carry."
She looked back up to see that the gun was still pointed at her head. Joel still had the deadly look in his eye and his finger on the trigger. She hoped that her bluff would strike a soft nerve and get him to ease up. She did not actually want Joel to make good on his threats, but if he did, she felt like it would be deserved. She saw his finger start to tighten on the trigger and pull it back slightly. This is it. I fucked up and got his girl killed and now I'm about to get what was coming for me. She mentally prepared herself for what she knew was about to happen. Joel hesitated, thinking about the consequences that would happen if he pulled the trigger. After a pause, he pulled it back the rest of the way. The gun went off, a bullet struck Maria in the head, and she fell to the ground in a heap.
"Maria, NO!" Tommy cried out as he ran to his dead wife. He held her in his arms - the first woman he ever loved – murdered by his enraged brother. "Joel, what have you fuckin' done?" he asked as he started to cry. Just like how Ellie was everything to Joel, Maria was everything to Tommy. Joel lowered the gun, but felt no remorse for what he just did; no guilt for killing Tommy's wife in cold blood. "You fuckin' monster!" Tommy screamed as he set Maria's body down. He turned to face Joel and began screaming at him. "Were you even listenin' to her?! She felt like shit! She didn't plan this, she didn't want this! She was tryin' to apologize, Joel, she was ruined by what she did! You didn't have to fuckin' kill her! What does this accomplish?! Is this justice?! Is this supposed to be an eye for an eye?! Because it ain't! This is just murder!" He turned back and held Maria in his arms again. "Maria, baby, I'm so sorry about this. I know you didn't mean no harm."
Joel listened to what Tommy had said, and realized that he and Maria were both right all along. His heart rate sped up when the realization of what he had done hit him. What have I done? He stumbled backwards and looked at the gun in his hands, cursing it silently. Maria did not willingly or intentionally send Ellie to die, but he had murdered her like she did anyways. Even though it cost Ellie her life, it was an accident, and there was no reason for Maria to die because her mistake. Tommy's right, I'm a fuckin' monster. What he did was not retribution. It was savagery. He was no better than the bandit who killed Ellie.
Tommy turned to Joel again. "Joel, give me the gun before anyone else dies." Tommy reached out for the revolver in Joel's hand. Joel started walking backwards as Tommy got closer. "Give it to me now!"
"Stay back, Tommy," Joel said as he kept walking backwards. He needed to answer for the wrong he just committed, and he only saw one way to go about it.
"Don't do it." Joel didn't stop. Tommy could see desperation and tremendous regret in his eyes. "Don't you fuckin' do it!" Suddenly, Joel turned the revolver to his own head. "NOOO!" Tommy screamed as Joel pulled the trigger. A shot rang out; Joel saw a bright white flash…
…And once again he found himself face-to-face with Maria, still begging him to forgive her. Maria was still alive, he was still alive. It wasn't real. None of that was real. The vision had rattled him, but he was relieved that it was just that… a vision. It must have been some kind of intervention to show him the horrible things that would happen if he followed through with his threats. After he calmed down, he realized that his finger was still squeezing the trigger. He was a mere millimeter from ending Maria's life and causing what he just saw to happen. He couldn't let that come to pass. The murderous look in his eyes disappeared. He took his finger off the trigger, clicked on the gun's safety, and tucked it back in his pants.
Then, the harsh reality hit him like a charging Bloater. Ellie's dead… Oh God… Both of my daughters are gone… He dropped down to his knees, buried his face in his hands, and erupted into tears. He had lost the most important person in his life. There was still so much she never got to do. She never got to hear him sing, she never learned to play guitar, she never learned how to swim, and once again Joel would not be able to see his little girl become a woman. One of the proudest moments for any father should be watching his daughter become a woman. Once again, Joel was robbed of that opportunity. Tommy came up behind him and put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder to comfort him as he sobbed audibly. Maria took it a step further. She got down to his level and wrapped both of her arms around him. Joel hugged her back tightly, and cried into her shoulder. "Maria, I am… so… sorry." He desperately tried to apologize to her, but he feared it was in vain. Maria wouldn't just forgive him after he threatened her life.
To his surprise, she did. "It's understandable," she said. "I know how much you loved her – how much a lot of people loved her. I know it won't soften the blow, but I can say with certainty that she touched a lot of people here in Jackson, and that she'll be deeply missed by everyone." Joel continued crying into her shoulder. She released him from the embrace but kept her hands on his shoulders. "Would you like to see her?"
Joel managed to stop crying. "Yes," he said as he nodded. "Please."
"She's inside," Maria said as she helped Joel to his feet. She opened the door and let Joel go inside first. He stepped into the house and saw Ellie lying in a bed with a white blanket covering her up to her shoulders. His stomach churned when he saw the large blood stain on the sheet, as well as how pale she was.
"Christ," he said softly.
Hannah looked up and saw Joel standing there. She let go of Nicky and ran over to him. "Joel!" she said as she threw her arms around his waist. "Oh Joel, this is my fault. I wasn't able to save her, and it was my idea for us to go out in the woods in the first place. I'm sorry I got her killed; please don't hate me because of this."
He should have known Hannah had something to do with it. She had gotten the girls into trouble several times before. This time the consequences were more serious. Instead of being angry at her, he put one hand on her back and the other on top of her head. "It ain't on you, kid," he told her. He turned back to Maria and shot her a look. It was not a look of anger, but one of forgiveness. Maria took note of it and nodded. He let go of Hannah and started walking towards the bed.
"She was thinking about you in the end," Hannah informed him. Joel stopped and turned to her. "Right before she died… she told me to tell you she was sorry."
He didn't know what Ellie could have been sorry for, but it was at least somewhat reassuring to know that she was thinking of him in her final moments of life. "You mind givin' us some privacy?" he asked the group of people in the house.
Brenda nodded, and motioned for everyone to go outside. "Come on, let's let Joel have one last moment alone with Ellie." They all went outside, and Brenda closed the door behind them.
Joel walked over beside the bed Ellie's body lay in and knelt down next to it. He had never given any thought towards what his final words to her would be. He didn't expect the time to come so soon, and he never thought that she would die before him. He said the first thing that came to his mind. "Hey kiddo. I just want you to know that… I'm sorry I couldn't be there to protect you like I have been. And… whatever it is you're sorry for… I'm sure I'll be able to forgive you." He looked at Ellie's face. Her skin had lost much of its once radiant color, and her brilliant green eyes would never shine again. "Before I met you, I never thought that I'd get to know the feelin' of havin' someone in my life to care for again. If someone had told me that I'd be able to love someone again like I loved Sarah… I never woulda believed them. I wish I coulda gotten another chance when you were alive to tell you how much you meant to me. I wish we coulda shared one last hug." He felt tears start to build up in his eyes, but luckily the dam held. The fact that Ellie was dead hadn't fully sunk in yet, and he know that later he was going to bear the full brunt of the shock of her death. Their time together was so short, and the end came so unexpectedly, he hadn't had time to fully process the fact that she was gone. "You changed me, Ellie. I'm a different person cause of you. I'd like to think I'm a better person. Not only that, you gave me hope. You gave me hope in a world that didn't give me any reason to, and I want to thank you. I'm truly grateful for every moment that we spent together. And even though you're gone, I'll still love you for the rest of my life." He brushed a loose lock of her auburn hair behind her ear. "Goodbye baby girl." He stood up, kissed his hand, and placed it on Ellie's forehead. He turned to walk out, but turned back to say one more thing to her. "Oh, and one more thing. Everythin' we went through… it wasn't for nothin'."
He turned around again, and Danni flung the door open with a look of panic on her face. "No!" she cried out as she caught sight of Ellie lying in the bed. She ran over to the side of the bed and placed her hands on Ellie's cheeks. Her skin was ice cold. Danni's breathing broke for a second because of the shock, and she started to cry. "I heard that… that Ellie died, but I d-didn't think it was t-true." Danni had gotten very close to Ellie in the months before she died, and was devastated knowing that Ellie was gone. As she stood over her body, her sadness turned to anger. "What kind of savage could possibly kill such a… bright, beautiful young girl?"
Joel put his hand on her shoulder, but did not say anything. Danni's anger turned back to sadness as she wiped the tears from her eyes. As she was grieving over Ellie, Derek walked in. "Oh my God," he said. He slowly walked towards Danni and Joel while looking at the bed Ellie's body lay in. "They weren't lying."
"She's gone, Derek," Danni cried as she wrapped her arms around him.
The towering young man embraced her and tried to calm her down. "It's okay Danni. It's okay babe."
Her face was buried in his chest as she sobbed. "No it's not. It wasn't her time… she still had so much to do."
"Danni, I know it's hard, but these things happen." Derek was keeping his composure well so far. He had not spoken to Ellie often, but he thought very highly of her. She was the one who gave him the advice to ask Danni, the woman to whom he was now engaged, to dance for the first time. Though her death was shocking and he was hit hard, he was not showing it as much as Danni was. The couple had never told Ellie about their plans to get married, and they were both heartbroken that she would never get a chance to see that happen after bringing them together over a year ago.
"It shouldn't have to happen to someone like her. I want Ellie back."
As Joel observed the young lovers' reactions, he realized that Maria was right. Ellie had indeed touched a lot of people in Jackson. He was able to take a little bit of comfort in knowing how much she was loved around town, but the pain of losing her was still overwhelming for him. He turned back to Ellie in the bed to take one last look, then covered her once again with the blanket.
Joel stood next to Ellie's grave in the church cemetery. This was the second time he had to bury one of his children; biological or surrogate. Having to do it just once was something no one should ever have to go through. He was one of the pallbearers, and carrying the coffin containing the body of Ellie from the church to her final resting spot was the heaviest load he ever had to bear in his life. A wooden cross standing about three feet tall with her name carved into it marked where she would forever rest. Nearly the entire town showed up to Ellie's funeral; each person wearing some black article of clothing. Though just about everyone had already left, Joel stayed behind. He wanted to spend more time with her; he was not ready to let his baby girl go yet. He delicately placed a hand on the cross that served as her headstone, and a somewhat comforting thought hit him. "Looks like you and Sarah can be friends after all." He had told Ellie before they got to Jackson that he thought she and Sarah would have been good friends. Now that they were both in Heaven, or so he'd like to believe, they could be. Then he grew somber when he thought about Ellie's last words. Tell Joel that I'm sorry. He thought about what she could have meant, and remembered a conversation they had a few days after they first got to Jackson.
**"Promise me you'll never put me through anythin' like that." He was making her promise that she would never put him through the pain of losing her, after a night of irresponsible drinking nearly gave her alcohol poisoning.**
**"I promise," she said as she wrapped her arms around him.**
She had broken the promise; that's what she was apologizing for. "Oh, baby girl." He didn't feel like she had any reason to apologize. She couldn't have known back then when she was going to die, but she obviously felt like she let Joel down by leaving him after so little time together.
As he stood beside her grave, he was wondering how he would manage without her. They had always been there for each other in the time they knew each other, and they had saved each other's lives on multiple occasions. Joel had real doubts about if he could go on without her in his life. After he lost Sarah, Ellie was the one who filled the void she left. Now that he had lost Ellie as well, he was left with nothing. He couldn't wrap his head around the thought of life without Ellie, and he tried to tell himself that she wasn't actually dead. But when he looked at the cross with her name on it, he was immediately reminded that she was, in fact, gone.
He felt a tap on his shoulder, causing him to start, and he turned around quickly to see Jeffrey standing there with tears in his eyes. Ellie had held a special place in his heart because of everything she did for his daughter, Hannah. When he first heard the news of her death, his immediate thoughts were of Joel, before his own grief overtook him. He approached Joel to share a moment of mourning. "I… I just came to… pay my final respects." He sniffled and tried to fight back the tears. "Ellie was a… a magnificent girl. She brought out happiness and a good spirit in Hannah that I had never seen from her before. And I'm still convinced that she saved Hannah's life after our house burned down. She really was an angel and… it pains me greatly to know that she's dead. I regret never taking the chance to tell her how truly thankful I was when she was alive." He put his hand over his mouth, trying to contain his emotions.
"Don't worry, Jeffrey. I'm sure she knows," Joel assured him.
Jeffrey nodded. "Hannah feels very guilty. She feels like she's solely responsible for this. I'm afraid of how she's gonna take it."
"It ain't her fault, Jeffrey. Just talk to her tonight and make sure she knows that."
"Yeah, I'll do that. And, I'm… I'm sorry that you have to go through something like this."
"You don't need to worry about me."
Tommy and Maria arrived back at their house after Ellie's funeral. They didn't bother Joel, figuring he'd want to be alone with her one last time. After over a year in Jackson, Ellie was essentially family to them. Her death had left them both heavily grief-stricken. Maria was affected more so than Tommy. When she and Ellie first met at the dam two years ago, they bonded almost instantly. Maria grew fond of her quickly, and after she and Joel came to settle down in Jackson after their travels, she grew to think of Ellie as her and Tommy's niece. Ellie's death devastated her nearly as much as when her father passed away, and she was having trouble coping. After Tommy closed the door, he and Maria hugged each other tightly as Maria cried into his chest. "Why her, Tommy? Why did Ellie have to die?"
There was not much, if anything, that Tommy could say to comfort her. "Why're you askin' me that? You know I don't got the answer."
"It's not fair. She was so young, so sweet and so kind; she didn't deserve this. God, this is all because of me."
"Maria, it ain't your f-"
"Yes it is," she cut him off. "I disobeyed Joel's orders to keep an eye on her, and she died because of it. Joel would've been justified to shoot me."
"You know that ain't true."
Maria had ingrained it in her mind that by letting the girls out of her sight, she had indirectly killed Ellie. Nothing Tommy could say would be able to make her think otherwise. "It would've been what I deserved. I don't deserve to live knowing that I'm responsible for Joel losing everything he loved. Ellie was his entire world and now she's gone, and it's my fucking fault. I'll never be able to live with myself, Tommy."
Tommy needed to step in and try to reason with her. "Maria, I know how you feel. I'd come to think of Ellie as family, just like I know you had." His voice became choked up, and tears started to leak out of his eyes. The grief from Ellie's death was starting to take a hold of him. "Ellie was a real good girl, and I know it'll hurt like hell not havin' her around anymore, but you gotta get it outta your head that it's because of you. You may feel responsible, but there was no way you coulda known what was out there."
Maria wanted to believe Tommy. She didn't want to believe that she was the reason Ellie died, but it was hard for her to accept that. "I'll try."
Their conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. "I'll get it," Tommy said. He let go of his wife and turned around to open the door. Hannah was there by herself with tears running down her face. "Hey, Hannah. You come to talk?" Tommy asked as he gestured for her to come in.
"Yes. Thank you," she said as she walked in. Hannah was the one hit hardest apart from Joel. Ellie was the only friend she ever had, and when she watched her die, it left a permanent scar that would never heal. She was overwhelmed with the guilt of not pulling the trigger in time, which led to Ellie getting stabbed. She also felt bad about not being able to give any comfort to Ellie as she was dying, knowing that she suffered greatly before the end finally came.
"Where's your dad?"
"My dad's still in the cemetery talking to Joel. I didn't want to be anywhere near there but I needed someone to talk to."
Tommy hesitated before saying anything to her. He didn't want to say the wrong thing and upset Hannah more than she already was. "I can understand how hard this must be for you. I know how close you and Ellie were, and no one should ever have to say goodbye to someone that close. I really am sorry for you."
"I should be the one saying I'm sorry… to Ellie." She began sobbing as she sat down on the couch. "It's my fault she's dead. I h-had the bandit l-lined up in my sights, but I didn't shoot. I could've saved her; I could've prevented this. It's because of my hesitation that he killed her."
Tommy had just finished having this exact conversation with Maria. "Hannah, I said this to Maria just before you got here, but it applies to you too. It ain't your fault. It ain't any of our faults. You need to realize that."
Hannah didn't contribute any more to that specific conversation. "There's this one moment that was especially haunting for me. I was holding her in my arms, and… she looked at me with this look in her eyes. I can't describe it exactly, but it was as if she was trying to tell me something with her eyes. There was something loving about that look. Then… she put her hand on top of mine, and she told me she wasn't going to make it. I didn't believe it, I said 'Yes you are Ellie, of course you'll make it...'" she hesitated before continuing her story, "...b-b-but she didn't." Once again she started sobbing. "Just l-like that… m-my best friend, my only f-friend, w-w-was gone. I d-don't have an-any r-reason to l-l-l-live anymore. R-Right now I w-w-wish I was d-dead too so I… so I can be with E-Ellie," the words were almost indistinguishable from her blubbering.
When Hannah mentioned that she was thinking about ending her life, that threw up red flags for Tommy and Maria. "Hannah," Tommy said, "there's always a reason to live. Don't ever say there isn't, and don't ever say you'd rather be dead. There is nothin' - nothin' at all - that would ever justify takin' your life. I said this to Joel after he lost his daughter, and I'm gonna say it to you now. No matter what, you keep findin' somethin' to fight for. Think about your father. You're the most important thing in the world to him. If you took your life and left him without his only child just because you lost someone you cared about, that would be awful selfish of you, wouldn't it? I want you to think real hard about what you feel right now. You feel a lotta grief don't ya? Could you put your father through all that and more because you felt sad about losin' Ellie?"
Hannah hadn't even thought about what Jeffrey would feel. Just that was enough to convince her that taking her life was stupid to even consider. "N-No, I… I couldn't."
"And what about Ellie? You know she cared about you very much when she was alive. Don't you think she'd want you to keep soldierin' on?"
Hannah wiped the tears from her eyes. If Ellie was still looking out for her, she'd want more than anything to see her carry on in her absence. Hannah certainly didn't want to disappoint her best friend. "Yeah, s-s-she would."
Tommy put his hand on Hannah's shoulder. "You hold onto that. Ellie wouldn't wanna see you give up, and your father still loves you, so keep on fightin'."
Hannah hugged Tommy; it was the first time she had ever done that. "Thank you, Tommy." Tommy hugged her back gently.
Maria let the two have a moment, then went over to Tommy. There was something on her mind that was not related to the conversation, but was very important, and that moment seemed like the best time to get it in the open. "Tommy, I need to tell you something."
He let go of Hannah to listen to what Maria had to say. "I'm listenin'…"
"Well, I talked to Brenda earlier today and…" she stopped speaking briefly, and decided it would be best to whisper it into his ear. Tommy was quite shocked at Maria's news, but on second thought, he was kicking himself for missing all the signs. Nevertheless, he was caught off guard.
"Shut up… You serious?"
A smile and a nod was Maria's only response.
The sun was setting over Jackson. Most of the residents were on their way back to their homes from the diner, but Joel was walking back to the church cemetery carrying the guitar Ellie had gotten for him. The people looked at Joel with confusion and curiosity seeing him walking with a guitar, but he did not notice them. There was something he needed to do; one last obligation to his baby girl. He made a promise to Ellie before she died that he would sing for her, and he was not going to let her death stop him from breaking his promise. He arrived at her grave and got down on one knee next to it.
"Hey, Ellie. I don't know if you can still hear me, wherever you are, but if you can… I made a promise. I fully intend to keep that promise. So… I'm gonna play a song for you." He set the guitar on his knee and prepared to play. He had not played this song in over twenty years, so he was afraid of messing it up. "God, please let me play this right."
He began the slow, sad pattern on the guitar, each note filled with lament for his loss. As he played, he hoped that Ellie would be able to hear him from up in heaven. He also hoped that he wouldn't break down in the middle of playing. The first verse came, and he began singing with the most heartfelt sorrow he could. "I wanted you to know, I loved the way you laughed. I wanna hold you high and steal your pain... away. I keep your photograph. I know it serves me well. I wanna hold you high and steal your pain.
"Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm oooooopeeeeeen. And I don't feeeeeel liiiiiike I am strong enough. Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm loooooonesome. And I don't feeeeeel riiiiiight, when you're gone away."
He was only at the second verse and he could already feel tears forming in his eyes. "You've gone away." He could feel that a breakdown was inevitable. "I don't feel you... anymore." He was unaware that a crowd was starting to gather around him. He tried as hard as he could to fight back the tears and sang the second verse.
"The worst is over now, and we can breathe again. I wanna hold you high you stole my pain... away. There's so much left to learn, and no one left to fight. I wanna hold you high and steal your pain.
"Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm oooooopeeeeeen. And I don't feeeeeel liiiiiike I am strong enough. Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm loooooonesome. And I don't feeeeeel riiiiiight, when you're gone away."
As he concluded the second chorus, it was taking all of his will to keep his tears contained. The crowd around him was growing, and many of them were just as emotional as he was. He didn't attempt to play the solo, and just kept the rhythm going. With each note that fell from the guitar, so did some of his pain. Playing that song for Ellie was therapeutic. He didn't know if she could hear him, but he mostly just cared about how it was soothing his grief from her death. He was lost in the song; everything vanished except him, the guitar, and the grave of his surrogate daughter. He summoned all of his emotions, put them into the music, and sang the final chorus.
"Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm oooooopeeeeeen. And I don't feeeeeel liiiiiike I am strong enough. Because I'm brooooookeeeeeen, when I'm loooooonesome. And I don't feeeeeel riiiiiight, when you're gone away."
For the final guitar passage, he played and sang much softer. "You've gone away." If she was able to hear him, there was no doubt she enjoyed the song. "I don't feel you... anymore." The song came to an end, and Joel found himself in tears. He felt the song did the situation justice, and he gently placed a hand on the ground that Ellie was buried under. He kissed the body of the guitar and rested it against the cross at her grave.
The crowd started clapping, taking Joel by surprise. He turned around to see at least thirty people gathered around him. He got to his feet and Tommy walked up to him, snatching him up in a tight bear hug. "Hey, that was beautiful if I do say so myself." Joel hugged back gently after a few moments. Tommy let go and backed off slightly. "Listen..." Tommy wiped a tear from his right eye, "I know you loved her, and after what you went through with Sarah, this is probably extra hard. I ain't gonna say dealin' with this'll be easy, but you'll be okay... I know it."
"Tommy… Ellie was everythin' to me. She was the only thing I had to live for. I don't think I can go on without her."
"Don't say that, Joel. There's still people in this town that love you and care about you. I love you, I care about you. Maria loves you, she cares about you… And I'm sure the little one will too."
Joel looked puzzled. He didn't know what Tommy could have meant. "Little one? What're you talkin' about?"
Tommy smiled, and told Joel the news. "Maria's havin' a baby, Joel." He looked down for a second, and then back at Joel. "I'm gonna be a fuckin' dad."
Joel wanted to smile, but the grief he felt from losing Ellie prevented him from doing so. "Good for you, little brother."
"See, you need to stick around. I don't want my baby to grow up without an uncle. Now, I'll let you go on home. You think you'll be okay on your own?"
"I don't know."
"Well try. If you need to come over to our place, you're more than welcome to."
Joel lay in bed tossing, turning, and muttering in his sleep. "Ellie." His dreams were filled with horrible visions of Ellie getting killed in different violent ways. "Ellie." He watched her die over and over and over again, powerless to stop it. "Ellie." Suddenly he awoke from the nightmare. He was facing the door with his back to Ellie's side of the bed. His heart was racing and he was drenched in sweat. After waking up he remembered the events of the day before. He remembered that Ellie died, and once again he was overcome with grief. But he felt something else as well. Whenever he was near Ellie he felt a comfort that was unmistakable, like nothing else he had ever felt. He felt that same comfort now; he could feel that she was in the bed next to him. Despite the vivid memory of burying her the day before, he could feel her right by his side once again. That must have all just been one elaborate dream. She's still alive and she's right here next to me, just like she's supposed to be. "Ellie?" he called her name and rolled over to check on her… only to find her side of the mattress vacant. It was not a dream. She really was gone. He immediately began to cry, and he reached a longing hand over to her side of the bed and placed it on her pillow right where her head used to rest. It felt like reaching into an icy void. "Oh, Ellie... Oh, baby girl, why'd you have to leave me?" He buried his face in his pillow, and through his tears began begging God to bring her back. "Please God… please don't let her be dead. Please bring her back to me… please… please… please…" It was no use. His baby girl was dead, and no amount of wishing or divine intervention would bring her back. He realized that all his begging was for nothing, and he admitted defeat.
The next morning at breakfast time, the diner was mostly silent, except for the occasional crying from grieving patrons. The town was still mourning the tragic and untimely passing of Ellie, one of Jackson's most beloved residents. Joel sat at his usual booth resting his arms on the table, but Ellie would never again be able to join him. Her absence was felt by everybody in the diner. Everyone in Jackson had known her to some extent, and many had strong feelings for her. Several people had come up to Joel to give their condolences and to tell him what a wonderful girl Ellie was. It was very clear that Ellie would live on in the townspeople's hearts and be very fondly remembered, but that still offered no comfort for Joel.
Tommy and Maria were up getting plates for the three of them. Jeffrey and Hannah would not be joining them for breakfast that day. Hannah, unfortunately, had been suffering from severe PTSD because of Ellie's traumatic and violent death. She woke up that morning in a fit of terror wailing like a banshee, and had another outburst later in the morning. She also kept slipping in and out of a trance, unable to escape it for more than a few seconds at a time. Joel and Jeffrey were deeply worried about her, so she was getting looked at closely by Brenda.
Suddenly Joel thought he felt someone place a hand on top of his. There was an endearing quality to it though, like someone was genuinely trying to reach out and comfort him. It was exactly like the way Ellie put her hand on his to comfort him after he opened up to her about how he still felt the grief from Sarah's death. The hand even felt the same size as Ellie's. He looked to his right, expecting to once again see her at his side, but saw nobody next to him. He felt the hand lift off of his, and he immediately found himself missing the comfort it provided. He sighed and turned back to look out the window. It was raining on that dark and dreary morning; a perfect symbol for how he felt.
Tommy and Maria arrived at the booth a short while later. Tommy slid down to the window and handed Joel his plate. He felt the need to break the silence. "Maria and I talked last night, and we decided that you shouldn't have to keep stayin' at your place with all those reminders of her. We want you to come live with us. We've got a spare bedroom so you don't have to worry about sleepin' on the couch."
Joel nodded at Tommy's offer. "Appreciate it." His mind drifted to something Ellie said just before they got to Jackson. It was something that had stuck with him ever since the words came out of her mouth. I'm still waiting for my turn.
"What was that?" Maria asked. Joel looked at her, confused. "Sorry, you uh… mumbled there."
Joel didn't know what Maria meant. He hadn't said anything she could have thought she heard. "I uh… I didn't say anythin'."
Tommy raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, you did. You said somethin' about waitin' for your turn."
If Tommy heard it too, it couldn't have just been a coincidence. Joel realized he must have been thinking out loud. "Nah, it's just somethin' Ellie said before we got here."
"Well, it's obviously weighin' on you. Go ahead and talk about it if you have to."
Joel sat silent thinking about how to say what was on his mind. "She was tellin' me about how when she got bit, she was with her friend, who also got bit. Ellie's friend turned, and she had to watch her die. Then a few weeks later she saw another friend die, and then another one soon after that. All from the infection that she couldn't get. As you can imagine, she felt a lot of survivor's guilt from all that. And after she told me about how her friend died, she said she was still waiting for her turn. I didn't think she meant it, but it sounded like she… like she…"
"She wanted to find closure for all her friends she lost," Tommy said.
Joel nodded, understanding that Tommy was right. "Now I guess she's got it." His voice started to break as he said that.
"See, that should be reassurin'-"
"It ain't, Tommy," Joel snapped. He looked down and spoke softly. "I wish our places had been switched."
"Joel, you don't mean that…"
But he did. Joel would have much preferred for himself to die and Ellie to live than what actually happened. "Tommy, listen to me! I have lost… everythin'! I struggled with Sarah's death for twenty years. When I met Ellie, she filled the hole in my heart. Now that she's gone too, that hole is twice as big as it was before I met her. I can't go on without her, Tommy, I just can't-"
"What'd I tell you after you lost Sarah?" Tommy asked.
"What'd I tell you?" He raised his voice the second time he asked.
Joel remembered clearly what Tommy had told him. He had said the same exact thing to Ellie. "No matter what, you keep findin' somethin' to fight for."
Tommy nodded. "Exactly. And don't think you're the only one affected by this. Believe me; Maria and I were both hit hard, and just like you we were cryin' as well last night. But no matter how devastatin' somethin' is, things will get better. That's why you gotta find somethin' to hold onto and fight for it."
"What do I have to fight for, Tommy? I've lost the only two people I've ever truly loved. So tell me, what do I have to fight for?"
"Me…" Tommy said without a millisecond's hesitation, "Maria… and our baby. You tryin' to say you don't love us anymore?" Joel hung his head low, overwhelmed with emotion. "Ellie may be gone, but she has peace now. She lived her entire life in this God forsaken world, and now she's free. She can see her parents again, and all those friends you said she lost too - she's happy now. You have to accept it. I know it'll take time, maybe even years, but one day… you will see that I'm right. 'Scuse me," he said as he nudged his wife indicating for her to let him out of the booth. He stood up next to Joel and held his arms out. "Come here."
"Tommy, what're you-?"
"I want you to promise that no matter what happens you'll stay strong for me."
Joel didn't want to make that promise, because he didn't know if he could keep it. "Tommy-"
After a few seconds, Joel got up and hugged his brother. "I promise." The two held each other tight, and they held on for a long time. Joel didn't know if he'd be able to cope with the loss of Ellie, the girl who came to be his own daughter, but as long as he could have Tommy and Maria by his side the whole time, he certainly felt better about it.
8 Months Later
The sound of a baby crying filled the air in Brenda's house. It was the sound of a new life beginning. The birth of a child is the most happy moment possible for two parents, as Tommy and Maria were now experiencing for themselves. It had not been an easy eight months for the two, after Ellie, a girl very dear to them, tragically lost her life. Keeping the memory and love of Ellie close to their hearts, the couple powered through the grief they felt, allowing them to see this beautiful moment. Mourning had given way to celebration, because eight months after one life ended, a new one began. Maria held her and Tommy's baby in her arms, and the two looked at the newborn with equal parts wonder and love. "Congratulations, you two. She's a perfectly healthy baby girl," Brenda told the proud new parents.
"Hello, Hailey," Maria cooed her new daughter. Tommy reached out and rubbed the top of Hailey's head, enjoying the feeling of soft baby hair. The start of a new life was a miracle, and Tommy was as proud as ever to be witnessing it for himself.
"She's beautiful, hon," he told Maria as he kissed her.
"She is," Maria said with a happy tear in her eye. "I really wish Joel could be here to see this." She wasn't as happy when she said that.
Tommy paused, and looked at his daughter with less of a smile. "Yeah… your late uncle… he'd be real happy if he were with us right now." While Tommy was joyed to see his firstborn child, he was also upset that Joel couldn't be around to share his joy of that moment.
Just then, the door opened and someone entered. "Hey, sorry I'm late, you two."
Tommy looked up and smiled as Joel finally arrived. "Well, look who decided to show up!"
Joel walked towards them with a large smile on his face. He had not smiled at all since before he lost Ellie, and he thought he needed to savor it. "Congratulations, baby brother," he said as he hugged Tommy tightly. "And congrats to you too, ma'am," he stood beside Maria, put an arm around her shoulders, and kissed her on the cheek.
"You wanna see your uncle Joel?" she asked her daughter.
Joel took his new niece from Maria's arms, and looked into her sweet innocent eyes. "Hey there, baby girl." The last eight months had been a grueling endeavor for Joel. Every passing second was filled with grief, and surviving to see the next day proved tougher than it did the year he and Ellie wandered the country together. But in that one moment where he held his niece in his arms, he could set the grief aside, and even feel a trace of happiness. There would be plenty more time to mourn the death of Ellie, but now was not that time. Now was the time to cherish the life that had begun not even ten minutes ago. As he looked at Hailey, he started to realize that she looked like Sarah. She had the same blonde hair, the same gray eyes, and almost the same face. "You look just like my daughter," he said softly. Maria and Tommy did not hear him.
His mind went to Sarah, and then inevitably to Ellie. Ever since she died eight months ago, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her. After all the time that had passed, he still had not begun to heal. He couldn't let her go, and he would sometimes spend hours at a time alone by her grave in the cemetery. He had occasionally even been found sleeping next to Ellie's grave, having sleepwalked there in the middle of the night. Ellie's death had not only created fresh wounds for Joel, it had also reopened the wounds Sarah's death had made. Wounds he once thought had healed were now open and bleeding again. He had never fully moved on from losing Sarah, and now that Ellie was also gone, all the pain from that event resurfaced. I miss you girls more than you could ever know.
Although Ellie was no longer physically with him, she had never completely left his side. She acted as his guardian angel. She would come to him whenever he was at his weakest, and she came in different forms. Sometimes it was just a comforting feeling on the breeze, sometimes she would actually reach out and touch him. On some occasions she would even speak to him, although nobody else could hear.
As he was thinking about how Ellie had loved him enough to stay by his side after she passed, he felt a hand on his shoulder. There was the same comfort he felt whenever Ellie was around, and he knew immediately that it was her… coming to him again in another moment of weakness. Then, he heard her speak. Her voice still had the same affection it did when she was alive, and it always lifted him up whenever he heard it. "You're strong, Joel, and I know you'll get through this. I'll always be watching over you, so you'll never have to do it alone." Nobody else knew she was there, but there was no doubt in Joel's mind that it was her he was feeling. Just Ellie's presence was enough to soothe away the pain that had stuck with him since the day she died. No matter how much grief he felt, whenever her spirit was present, it would immediately pick him up. "Everything's gonna be just fine."
Joel doubted if Ellie's death was something he could ever let go. But as long as he knew his guardian angel was right there, he got the comfort he needed to keep going. I know, baby girl. I know.
5 Years Later
Joel lay in his bed one morning in the early days of fall. He was noticeably grayer, as one would expect in five years' time. He was sound asleep, and did not hear the sound of small footsteps running into his room up to him in the bed.
A young blonde girl of about five years old came up next to his bed and shook him awake. "Uncle Joel! Uncle Joel! Get up, quick! Quick!"
Joel panicked as a result of his sudden awakening, and saw his niece next to the bed. "Hailey, what is it?" He stood up out of the bed quickly.
"Your birthday!" she said cheerfully.
Joel looked at her with an expression somewhere between blank and angry. He did not particularly like birthdays anymore, since the last two times he acknowledged a birthday, someone he loved died. Hailey grew sad when she saw Joel's lack of enthusiasm, but his scowl slowly turned into a smile. He started chuckling, causing Hailey to laugh as well. "Come on, let's go!" she yelled as she turned and ran out of his room.
Joel stayed put as his niece ran ahead. He looked up to the heavens, knowing that somewhere up there were Sarah and Ellie, smiling down on him. He smiled back, and thanked them for everything they had done for him. It had been twenty-seven years to the day since he lost Sarah, and he had been plagued by that memory every moment of every day for those twenty-seven years. Then just five years ago, he was devastated by another tragedy when Ellie, the girl who filled the emptiness in his heart, also passed away. Those two deaths had left him broken and lost, and he was a slave to the grief he felt.
For the first time ever, he could say that those losses no longer tormented him. He had broken free from the grief that the deaths of his two daughters had caused him. He wouldn't have been able to say that if it weren't for Ellie. After she moved on, her guidance allowed him to let go of all the demons of his past. She helped him overcome Sarah's death as well as her own. She was never far from him, and whenever he needed her, she would always show up. Every time she came to him, the large black cloud that hung over him gave way to a comforting beam of light shining directly on him. Her presence was always accompanied by a loving endearment, and every time she showed up, Joel could feel all the grief be purged from him. Ellie's loving and lingering presence after her death was the only thing that kept Joel going. She gave him comfort when he needed it, she gave him support when he needed it, and she helped him let go of everything that haunted him. He had finally found solace for all that he had lost, and it was only with the help of Ellie that he was able to do so. He was grateful for every moment they shared when she was alive, and even more grateful for everything she did for him after she passed. He knew that without his guardian angel, he would have never come to terms with the losses of her and Sarah.
It was then that Joel realized what the true meaning of Ellie's life was. It was not to save all of mankind, as he and Ellie believed at first; her purpose was to save one man and one man alone. That's why she was immune to the Cordyceps; that's why she was not sacrificed for the cure; and that's why she came back from being dead twice. She still had a job to do, so she could not have died at any of those moments. When the end did finally come for her, it was all part of that plan that was made for her before she was born: and that plan was to help a broken man put himself back together. Though she did not accomplish it in her own lifetime, she eventually fulfilled her purpose five years after her death. Joel had often described Ellie as a Godsend, and after everything she had done both in life and death, he realized that description couldn't have been more accurate. He wouldn't have believed five years ago that he would ever recover from losing the two girls he loved more than anything in the world, but there he was; all grief lifted forever. He could only thank his beloved Ellie, who in his eyes really must have been an angel sent to him from Heaven. Now that she had accomplished what she was always destined to do, she could join all the other angels and truly have peace. She had led Joel out of his darkest corner, and guided him to the exit of the prison that had been built by all the grief from those fateful days 27 and then 5 years ago. She had done her part, and now it was time for Joel to take that one last step, and finally set himself free.
"Everythin's gonna be just fine," he said with a smile.
In Memoriam (order in which death occurred):
Barry MacCallan - Aged 28
Adrian MacCallan - Aged 6
Connie MacCallan - Aged 24
Ellie ? - Aged 16
That concludes Brand New Start. Thank you for reading! Keep reading for spin-off announcement.
Author's Notes cont: Before you flood my inbox: Yes, I know I'm heartless, I know that was evil, I know you hate me, and I know you probably won't ever forgive me. I can't imagine there are a lot of TLOU fanfics where Ellie dies, but I was one of surely very few authors who had the balls to write that in. Look, I'm not gonna act like I enjoyed killing her off, because honestly I HATED writing this chapter. When I was writing this, I had to keep stopping and walking away after only writing a little bit because it just got too emotionally overwhelming for me. I shed quite a few tears writing and even just thinking about this chapter. I was also really questioning myself morally when I was writing this, like "Can I really allow this to happen?" and I felt very guilty about it. I really do feel awful, believe me. I feel like I just killed my own daughter, but it's important to remember that it is just a story. This chapter put me through a whole lot of emotions and depression that was similar to what I felt when playing the game. As I was reading this a little bit before I put it up, I actually had a complete breakdown right when Joel said "Goodbye baby girl." So I'm not totally heartless, this chapter honestly was very difficult for me because of how attached I was to Ellie. With everything I went through when writing this, you guys sure as hell better like it. I am prepared though to get a lot of angry and hateful reviews and/or messages about this chapter.
Now, if any of you are still in denial, like "I bet Ellie's not actually dead; I bet you're setting up a Sherlock-like sequel where we find out she's still alive..." I hate to break it to you, but it was five years since she died. Ellie is dead, and she will stay that way. I intentionally skipped over her actual funeral in the story for two reasons. 1) It would have made this chapter drag out for too long, and 2) It would have made it ridiculously over-the-top sad. One parallel I really wanted to make was ending on a simple, but powerful and symbolic phrase. There was also a direct parallel to the previous chapter. In both chapters: As Joel was grieving over a loss, Ellie told him "Everything's gonna be just fine," and he responded with "I know, baby girl. I know." That's meant to show that, whether in the flesh or as spirit, Ellie really is the only one who can comfort him after his losses. And then when Joel says "Everythin's gonna be just fine," that's the exact moment he comes to terms with not only Ellie's death, but Sarah's as well.
For the ending, I really wanted to put an emphasis on emotion. I really couldn't think of a more emotionally compelling ending than this. For me, the issue of Joel dealing with Sarah's death was never truly resolved in the game, as you saw in the previous chapter. Even though it seemed like he finally accepted it, I wasn't completely convinced, so I really wanted to put that definitively to bed. It couldn't be all happy though; there needed to be some kind of cost to it. It may not be fair, but nothing is in the world they live in. David (shudders) did say that "Everything happens for a reason." And the reason Ellie died was so that her spirit could guide Joel and help him overcome all of his losses.
Now, in the first A/N I said that I felt like what happened was "for the best." I know it'll be hard for you guys to accept, but in the context of this chapter, Ellie's death was actually a good thing. It was only because she died and her spirit guided Joel that he was able to come to terms with Sarah's and then Ellie's deaths. So yes, it is heartbreaking, but it actually was for the best. Think about it like this: Since Sarah's death 27 years before the ending of this story, Joel had gone through all the five stages of grief except the last one, acceptance. His guardian angel, Ellie, was the one who helped him reach that stage and finally have solace. And you're probably saying "But since Ellie died too, he would have had to go through that whole thing again." Again, it was only because Ellie stayed with Joel after she died that he was able to overcome her death too. And yes, I do personally believe that guardian angels like Ellie in this chapter exist. I believe that if someone in your life loves you very much, they might stick around and watch over you after they pass. It may sound like I'm talking crazy, but that's what I believe and it gives me a lot of comfort.
The song I used is called "Broken" by the rock band Seether. It's actually about a break-up, but changing a few of the words makes it easily applicable to someone mourning a death.
I would like the reviews to be more detailed for this chapter since it's the big conclusion of the story, and give Brand New Start an overall score out of 10. And don't forget to pay your respects to Ellie. She was loved, loving, and will be missed. :'( RIP Ellie, she will Endure and Survive in our hearts forever.
***OFFICIAL SPIN-OFF ANNOUNCEMENT***
A WORLD SCORNED: The spin-off to Brand New Start will tell the story of Jeffrey Lawson, an awkward and frightened young rocker from Tennessee, and his adventures in a world devastated by pandemic. In his introspective travels he will challenge his once steadfast faith, find and lose love, learn that miracles might actually be curses, and question everything he ever believed about life, moral values, society, and himself as a person. He will meet lots of different people, some friendly, some hostile; travel to lots of different places, some welcoming, some not; searching for a place where he can find shelter from the unforgiving world he lives in. Just when he feels like there is no hope left to be able to live in safety, he finds the last safe haven remaining on Earth: a town by the name of Jackson, Wyoming.
*Coming this Spring!*