The grizzled man sighed, as he dog-eared the corner of his book just in time for the chaotic flurry that was Ellie to burst into the house. He winced at the slam of the door against the wall. She spotted him immediately and rushed over to where he was relaxing on his couch. At least, he had been.
“Careful, kiddo,” he started. “If you break the hinges off my door, you’ll be the one fixin' it.”
Ellie barely registered his words, fully lost in her own thoughts as she paced frantically before him. Joel was mildly concerned her old canvas sneakers would wear a hole in the floor if not leave scuff marks.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck, fucking shit,” she muttered, as she went back and forth.
Joel couldn’t quite sparse out all the emotions flashing across her face. She was definitely in a lot of distress, nervously fidgeting, and he saw a flicker of fear in there. But, there were also hints of… was that excitement?
“Hey.” She continued to pace. “Hey, Elllie.” She looked up.
Okay, definitely mostly nervous now. She was absent-mindedly biting at her lip and wringing her hands together.
Joel asked calmly, “Now, what seems to be all the fuss about?”
Ellie looked at him, clearly wanting to answer, but old habits kept her silent. It’s been a month since that fateful night. The night Ellie had told him everything he ever wanted to hear for the past two years.
I would like to try.
Joel’s heart had ached when the girl he saw as a daughter pushed him away, only interacting with him when absolutely necessary, every word curt with pain. He himself was wracked with the guilt of lying to her face for so long. Nevertheless, Joel was also honest that night when he told her that he would do it all over again.
The past month, they’ve been slowly rebuilding their relationship. It started with movie night. Every Wednesday, Joel would educate Ellie on classic ‘80s action pieces that she would roll her eyes at and call cheesy or unrealistic. He just thought she didn’t have taste. The other week, Ellie had showed up unannounced with some sandwiches (because Lord knows she couldn’t cook to save her life), and if neither of them had patrol, they made sure to eat lunch together ever since. Sometimes a guitar or two would make an appearance. There were definitely moments of awkwardness, but they were getting there. Which was why Joel kept his expression open and accepting, ready for whatever Ellie had to share. He owed her that much.
“Were you late for watchtower duty again? Maria’ll have your head.”
That seemed to get her attention. “What? No, fuck you. That was one time!”
“Because you were hungover.”
“Ugh, shut up,” Ellie groaned. He would never let her live it down.
“Well, if not Maria, who did you piss off? Can’t be any worse than her.”
“Why do you assume I pissed anyone off?”
Joel raised an eyebrow.
Ellie sighed, “So, I saw Dina earlier–”
“You pissed off your girlfriend? Scratch what I said. That’s much worse than Maria–”
The words gracelessly tumbled out of her mouth, which immediately clamped shut. The silence in the house was palpable. Joel blinked. He blinked again. A third time. He suddenly saw himself thirty odd years ago, standing in an empty high school classroom as his girlfriend held a pregnancy test in her hand. Wait a minute…
“Now, you know I try not to get involved in your relationships–” They both grimaced at the memory of the other day when crashes originating from Ellie’s makeshift house had Joel come running, only to catch the couple in a less than savory circumstance. “–but, how exactly is she pregnant?”
“Geez, old man, do I need to give you the talk? I thought you had a kid,” Ellie joked, but her voice wavered from the reality of the situation. “It’s Jesse’s.”
Joel scowled, “Did they–”
“No, no,” Ellie dismissed. “This was before their breakup. Y’know that cold Dina had last week? She was throwing up a lot and tired all the time.”
Joel nodded in understanding. “Ah, morning sickness?”
“Yeah.” A small smile grew on her face. “The doc says she’s seven weeks along.”
“And, how do you feel?” he asked carefully.
Ellie made a series of hand motions and confused noises. Joel patted the space on the couch next to him. After a moment’s hesitation, Ellie sat. She began to fiddle with the drawstrings of her hoodie and stared adamantly at her lap. Joel patiently waited for the girl to gather her thoughts.
“Dina says I can be as involved as I want to. She told me, ‘It doesn’t matter Jesse’s the father. I’m with you, idiot,’” Ellie laughed a bit at that. “I love her. I’ve loved her longer than I’d like to admit, and I want to see her through this. For as long as she’ll have me. There was a time I could only imagine being with her, much less having a family. But...”
Joel tilted his head. “But?”
“I’m so fucking scared. Bringing a child into this world? Where there are so many ways to die? I don’t know if that’s fair. Not to mention, I’m not even twenty! And, I’m supposed to be a mother? I know next to nothing about that shit. It’s not like I remember my own. Oh, God, I’m going to fuck this all up. I’m going to fuck this kid up.”
“Nonsense,” Joel cut in. The conviction behind his words took Ellie by surprise, causing her to glance up for the first time. Her green eyes were brimming with doubt. He continued softer this time, “I said it before, and I’ll say it again. That baby would be lucky to have you as its mother.”
Ellie blinked away the moisture gathering in her eyes. She looked back at her lap. Joel subconsciously ran a thumb over the cracked face of his watch. A dull throb echoed in his heart, soothed over by time but still there.
“Look, I was younger than you when I had Sarah. God knows I was terrified. Sarah’s mother too. Neither of our parents were too happy about it, but we had plen’y of friends and family in our lives who supported us. Tommy was a great help with Sarah, ‘specially after her mother left the picture. I’m sure he and Maria would go nuts over a kid. And, I’m not too shabby if I do say so myself. You’re not alone in this, Ellie. Whatever you choose, I’ll be here.”
Ellie swallowed a sob and took a shaky breath. “I never– I never thought a future like this would be possible for me. I didn’t think I deserved it.”
“Oh, baby girl, of course, you deserve it. You deserve it all.”
She placed her head in her hands to hide her whimpers. This wasn’t the raw sobbing Joel had witnessed outside St. Mary’s Hospital, but it didn’t hurt any less to see his daughter in tears. He tentatively placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Hope bloomed in his chest when she leaned into it. After a few moments, her breathing evened out. The redhead scrubbed at her puffy eyes.
“Fuck, I told myself I wouldn’t cry.”
“Hmph, should’a seen me. I prob’ly cried more than Sarah’s mom during her pregnancy.”
“Then, prepare for a repeat performance, grandpa.”
Joel stilled. Just as Ellie never imagined a future with a family of her own, he gave up on ever becoming a grandfather. That dream had died with Sarah. Until now.
“Shit. See? It’s starting already,” Ellie wetly laughed and pointed at his face. He hadn’t even noticed his own tears rolling down his cheeks. “Uh,” she suddenly looked shy. “Would it be all right if I…?” She vaguely gestured at him.
Joel’s confusion must have shown, so in a very Ellie fashion, she went ahead and acted. Next thing he knew, arms were wrapped around his neck, and her head rested on his shoulder. The angle was a little awkward, sitting side-by-side, but the effect was the same. The last time Joel had hugged Ellie was seconds before disaster, before the little haven he had carved out for them in bullets and blood came crumbling down. Now, here, in his daughter’s embrace, Joel never felt warmer. He gently returned the gesture of trust, and they took in the silence. Eventually, Ellie released him, wiping at her eyes again.
“When did we turn into such saps?”
“Jus’ wait 'til the kid’s actually here,” Joel grunted.
That small smile returned. Joel could practically see Ellie picturing a little infant in her arms. He himself was trying to recall all the tips and tricks when it came to taking care of a baby. Maybe, he would offer Dina to build a crib. It couldn’t be any more difficult than making a guitar. Joel was running through a mental list of needed materials when a distant knock sounded from his backyard. He stood and looked out the back window to spot a familiar figure standing outside Ellie’s door.
He directed back to the living room, “Dina’s lookin’ for you.”
He heard a muffled “Oh, shit” before Ellie rounded the corner to peer outside. “Oh, shit,” she repeated. Across the yard, Dina knocked again and called the girl’s name.
“Mind tellin’ me why you’re hiding?” Joel asked.
She rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly. “I… I may or may not have run off when Dina told me.”
“Ellie,” his voice laced with exasperation.
“Hey, I freaked, okay? She dropped the bomb over dinner, I floundered around like a fucking idiot for a solid minute, and then I excused myself to come straight here.”
Joel pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, stop it, asshole,” Ellie grumbled. “...you think she’s mad?”
He released a bark of laughter, “You can be impulsive. I’m sure Dina is well aware of the fact. Look, you jus’ go on out there and tell her everythin’ you told me. She’ll understand.”
“Right, right,” Ellie nodded, gathering the courage to step out that door.
“Hey,” Joel gently prodded, placing a hand on her shoulder for the second time that day. “Your girlfriend kinda scares me, but I like her. She can handle your shit. Go get ‘er, kiddo.”
Ellie held eye contact, the space between them thick with understanding. She grasped the doorknob but paused. She looked back at him.
“Uh, thanks, Joel.” And, she was out the door before he had the chance to reply. She would’ve made fun of the dopey grin on his face anyway.
Joel watched as Dina turned at the sound of footsteps descending the wooden steps, breaking into a relieved smile. The two embraced, and Ellie said something Joel couldn’t make out. Dina nodded and said something back. Ellie motioned to her door, and they went inside where he lost sight of them. Joel wondered whether they would move into a full-sized house once the baby arrived. Dina’s was already crowded with her, her mother, and her grandparents. And, he couldn’t quite see them raising a child in Ellie’s one-room garage home. He shook his head. That was a question for another day.
He returned to the living room where his book rested on the coffee table. Kicking his feet up, he tried to resume where he left off, but his eyes glazed over the words, instead envisioning a near future of little feet running through the halls and hearing a symphony of a baby’s squeals and his daughter’s laughter.
He thought Grandpa Joel had a nice ring to it.