Joel burst into the Jackson clinic.
“Where is she?” he demanded of the first person he saw.
The poor doctor – one of the few people in Jackson who had actually received his MD pre-Outbreak – startled. (Joel thought his name was Nick?) Many people tended to be intimidated by his towering frame. Ellie always got a kick out of it. Joel repeated the question, a little harsher this time. He would’ve felt bad if not for more pressing matters. The doctor (Was it Noah?) quickly pointed to a curtained off section on the far side of the room, and Joel was off.
He practically ripped the curtain aside, rushing out an “Are you okay?”
He was met with two pairs of eyes wide with shock. His attention immediately focused on the person on the bed. Ellie was sitting up with a bandage wrapped around her left hand and dried blood on her clothing, but it didn’t seem to be hers. Dina sat in a chair next to her, a nasty scrape visible on her chin but otherwise unharmed.
“I’m fine,” Ellie assured him.
Another quick scan to convince him she was in one piece. Joel nodded his head to the other woman in the room. “And, you, Dina?”
“Eh, nothing time won’t heal. Is that steak?” she joked, looking at the parcel in his hands, but there was an underlying worry in her eyes. It made him nervous.
Joel had been on the main streets, returning from the butcher’s, when he heard the chatter. In a tight-knit community such as Jackson, news spread like wildfire. Ellie and Dina had returned from a five-day patrol and had been rushed to the clinic. Joel had immediately turned and ran straight here with the ribeyes still in his grasp. Ellie and Dina looked relatively okay, but Joel couldn’t shake the anxious energy surrounding them.
“Motherfucking Clickers. The floorboards of one of the houses gave way, and a whole horde of them appeared out of nowhere,” Ellie explained.
“Cracked my chin good on the way down, and this one here–” Dina shot her girlfriend a disapproving look. “–tackled a Clicker head-on.”
“You what?” Joel whipped his head around to the other girl.
“It was going straight for you!” she exclaimed. When she attempted to sit up, she winced, her non-bandaged hand gripping her side. Joel instinctively moved to help, but she waved him off.
“Yeah, and look at you now,” Dina pointed out. “I can take care of myself, Ellie.”
“Ten weeks! I’m not even showing yet!” Dina threw her hands up in frustration. “I promised all of you I’ll stop going on patrols when I reach the second trimester, but for now, stop treating me like glass!”
Ellie huffed but didn’t reply. Joel remembered that conversation very clearly. Ideally, no one wanted Dina on patrols, but Jackson was short on able-bodied scouts ever since a group of Hunters put several of their men on bedrest for the foreseeable future. Ellie and Dina had argued into the night until they had reached a compromise. Both girls were too stubborn for their own good, and even now, they continued to have a stare-down, while Joel felt more than a little uncomfortable. Luckily, he was saved from an awkward intervention when the doctor from before appeared. He (Ned?) studied his clipboard in one hand and held a small, nondescript container in the other.
“All right, Miss Williams, it looks like you’ve got four bruised ribs along your left side. That means plenty of rest and no strenuous activity. No patrols for at least three weeks,” he (Nolan?) diagnosed.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me–”
“Thank you, Nate,” Dina said, interrupting the other girl’s protests. Right, Nate.
“Best not to wear anything too tight. Loose clothing is better, and be sure to ice ‘em when you get home.” Nate passed the container to Ellie. “And, apply a thin layer of ointment every morning to that burn of yours.”
Joel stiffened. “Burn?”
Nate clicked his tongue. “Miss Williams here also has a burn on the side of her palm from– what was it again?”
“Car battery acid,” Ellie coughed and winced when it rattled her ribs.
Dina elaborated, “Her hand slipped into a puddle of it while we ran from the Infected.”
Nate grimaced, “How that happened without any nerve damage is a mystery to me, but you should count yourself lucky.”
Joel crossed his arms. “Yeah, very lucky.”
Ellie refused to meet Joel’s eyes. A flash of guilt crossed Dina’s face. If Nate noticed their sudden discomfort, he didn’t show it.
“I would normally recommend you stay overnight, but I doubt you’d listen.”
“Heh, got me there, Doc.”
He sighed, “Very well, just be sure to get plenty of rest.”
Leaning heavily on Dina, Ellie managed to rise from the bed, and the three of them found themselves slowly making their way back to Joel and Ellie’s. None of them spoke, only listening to the hustle and bustle of other people enjoying the warm spring evening.
While Dina helped settle Ellie into bed, Joel went across the yard to finally store the steaks in his fridge and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer. All the while, he pondered their words from the clinic. Slipped into a puddle of car battery acid. He scoffed.
When Joel returned, Ellie was resting propped up by several pillows, and Dina sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing circles into her girlfriend’s uninjured hand. At some point, Dina had put a record on, as acoustics and soft vocals filled the room. Joel thought the lyrics were rather morbid for the peaceful melody. He passed Ellie the ice pack, which she gingerly placed against her side. Dina took it upon herself to start the small talk, describing random sights on their patrol. Joel and Ellie went along with it, but they all sensed a shallowness to the conversation. The calm before the storm.
Eventually, Joel cleared his throat, “Dina, I was wonderin’ if I could have a moment alone with Ellie.”
“Oh, sure,” she said, looking to the redhead for confirmation.
Ellie nodded, indicating it was all right. Dina leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the forehead, spoke a soft “I’ll see you in the morning,” and said goodnight to Joel. The door creaked loudly on her way out. Then, Joel and Ellie were alone. Joel stared at Ellie. Ellie stared at Joel. Both of them locked in a useless competition of silence. The background music gave way to static, as the vinyl finished its course. Joel walked over to the record player and raised the needle.
“I had to cover it up.”
Apparently, speaking to his back was easier than to his face. He turned to face her. “How?” He didn’t have to specify what.
“I saw the Clicker rush Dina, and I just acted. Next thing I know, I’ve lunged at it with my knife, and it lands on top of me. She helps me up, and we bolt out of there. It wasn’t until later I even noticed.” They both glance down to Ellie’s hand, wrapped in thick layers of gauze. “It wasn’t as bad as the first one. There were only like two teeth marks.”
Joel flinched at her casual tone, like she was commenting on the weather. “And, the burn?”
“Luckily, we passed an old gas station with enough car battery acid. Not as neat as hydrochloric acid, but it got the job done.”
Joel furrowed his brow. “You poured acid on an open wound?!”
“What? No! I’m not stupid… We lied to the doctor when we said the incident happened on our last day. It was the first. Literally, a couple hours in and I get us into trouble. I waited the four days until the end of our patrol to cover it up, and let me tell you it hurts like a bitch to ride a horse with bruised ribs.”
“The bite had partially closed by then! Like I said, not that bad.”
“Because pouring acid on your skin is such a walk in the park.”
“I’ve tolerated worse,” Ellie mumbled.
Joel resisted the urge to flinch again. A week after settling in Jackson, he vividly remembered finding Ellie sobbing on the floor of her bathroom, cradling her right arm. They had discussed with Tommy and Maria ways to hide her bite mark, but Ellie hadn’t been satisfied with temporary solutions. People would have been suspicious if she continued to wear long sleeves in the fast approaching summer. So, of course, Ellie had snuck out to scavenge materials and done it herself. Joel had cleaned and bandaged her burn, made two mugs of hot chocolates, and put on a sitcom for them to watch. The next night, Joel had started working to restore an old Taylor guitar for her.
“Besides,” she continued. “Cysts were already starting to show, and I didn’t have gloves. We couldn’t risk returning to Jackson with it.”
Joel finally registered the pronoun usage. “‘We’? Dina saw it?”
Ellie looked confused. “Yeah? It was sorta hard to miss.”
He was taken aback. “And, she knows it was Infected?”
Her eyes lit up in comprehension. “Oh, Dina knows I’m immune. She’s known for a while. I told her when we first got together. She thought I was messing with her at first.” She lifted her hand with a grin. “She definitely believes me after today.”
“Ellie, this isn’t funny,” Joel snapped.
“Hey, what’s your problem?”
“My problem is that there’s one more person out there who knows about your immunity,” he growled. “The more people who know, the riskier it is.”
“What, do you not trust Dina now? She’s known for over a month, and nothing happened.”
“Oh yeah? And, who’s next? Jesse? Cat?”
“No! But, even if I did, that’s my decision!” Ellie straightened up, before releasing a pained gasp and clutching her side.
That sobered Joel’s anger. He made sure to lower his voice, “Not when it comes to this. Not something this big.”
“It’s because this is so big I needed to tell her. Imagine what would’ve happened if I hadn’t, and she saw me get bit. She was already panicked enough!”
“You shouldn’t have gotten bit in the first place–”
“Pfft, easier said than done.” She rolled her eyes.
“Ellie, this is serious.”
“I’m aware. And, I’m serious when I say Dina won’t tell a soul. She’s been my best friend for years, and we’re about to raise a fucking child together. I wasn’t going to keep this from her. Did you just expect me to lie for the rest of our lives?”
“If you had to, yes!”
“Right, because you know all about that,” she targeted, her voice laced with a bitterness Joel had become accustomed to the past two years.
He retorted with “It’s for your own good.”
Ellie began to shake her head, the most she could move without jostling her ribs. “Nuh uh, no, you don’t get to pull that crap. Not now. Not after everything.”
Logically, he knew he could trust Dina, the woman his daughter felt she could give her whole heart to. Logically, he knew it would take more than a couple movie nights to work past the years of betrayal Ellie experienced. Logically, he knew nothing good would come from starting a fight with both of them strung on emotion. Right now, though, Joel wasn’t thinking about any of this.
“Damnit, Ellie!” He slammed an open palm against the wall, more in desperation than in anger. “You can’t just go around tellin’ people. God knows how many Fireflies are still out there. What if they come lookin’, huh?”
“Then, I guess it’s good you killed the ones who knew about me.”
Joel made a noise of frustration. He decided to take another approach. “You don’t wanna think about yourself, fine. But, think about Dina. It ain’t just riskier for you. What if they find her? Torture her to get information on you?”
Ellie’s eyes flashed something dangerous. In a low voice, “I think it’s time for you go, Joel.” He went to press further, but she stopped him with a definitive “Get. Out.”
Joel left in a huff. His body hummed with pent-up energy, something leftover from his time before Jackson – before Ellie – that demanded constant action. Survivalist instinct, as Tess would call it. Joel needed something to do.
“Damn girl has a death wish, I swear,” Joel muttered to himself. He slammed a pan onto the stove, twisting the dial much too high. “It don’t matter if I get bit. Just pour some acid on that sucker.’” Yanked the fridge door open. “‘She’s known for over a month.’” Threw the ribeye onto the heat. “Shout it through the streets, why don’t ya?” He impatiently tapped his foot, watching the meat brown at a snail’s pace.
Joel stomped over to the decanter in the corner and poured himself two fingers of whiskey. He downed that glass, another, and poured a third. The amber liquid slid down his throat. He chased a burn different from the ones marring Ellie’s skin. His eyes closed, and he took in a deep breath, counting to ten before exhaling. After a few minutes, he felt the alcohol loosen his muscles.
He knew he had gone too far. Tommy always told him Joel tended to operate with blinders on. He had a goal and charged blindly ahead to accomplish it. For the past couple years, that goal was to protect Ellie. And, in doing so, he had lost her. He had lost a second daughter, but in a way, it had been worse to see Ellie day-to-day and to be looked at with such hatred. Then, she had given him a chance to make amends, something for which he would forever be grateful and honestly didn’t think he deserved. He wouldn’t mess this up.
By the time Joel smelled smoke, the steak was overdone and tough as shoe leather. He choked it down anyway. It tasted like the words he hadn’t said. Knowing both of them needed time to cool down, Joel went to bed, slightly drunk and deeply regretful. He would try to salvage their already fragile relationship tomorrow.
Joel awakened to a grey sky, the early sounds of birdsong greeting the morning. He rolled over to check the clock. 8:00am. Ellie was probably awake already, but her injuries would prevent her from moving around too much. Joel dressed and headed downstairs into the kitchen. After a moment’s pause, he withdrew two mugs from his cabinet.
By 8:30, he thumped Ellie’s door with his foot, holding the now full mugs. He heard a muffled “Come in” and maneuvered his way in without any free hands. Ellie was sitting on her couch with her notebook resting in her lap. From here, he could see stanzas of an unfinished song and doodles of Shimmer on the lined pages.
“May I?” He gestured to the other end of the couch.
Ellie half-heartedly shrugged. Literally. She could only move her right shoulder without wincing. Joel let himself sink into the cushions and offered her a mug. An olive branch. She took it warily, raising it under her nose.
“Isn’t it a bit warm for hot chocolate?”
It was Joel’s turn to shrug. “Never stopped you before.” He once saw the girl with a thermos of the stuff in mid-August.
Ellie hummed but took a sip anyway. He spotted the container given by Nate on the table. He gestured at it. “You put some on?”
“Does it hurt?”
They sat there, staring out the window and savoring their drinks. Joel learned a long time ago it was best to let Ellie start the serious conversations. She was more inclined to open up that way. He waited two years for this. A couple more minutes wouldn’t hurt.
“You’re an asshole,” she finally said.
Neither of them spoke with any harshness. They wasted enough of that on last night’s spat. Joel would venture to say Ellie used the term in a fond manner.
“But, so am I.”
She elbowed him.
A deep breath. “I know you’re just looking out for me, but that doesn’t give you the right to make decisions about my life. That’s what started all this shit in the first place.”
Joel nodded. “Yeah… I’m working on that.”
“I know,” she said, looking at him for the first time that morning. She looked tired.
“I’m sorry for losing my temper.”
Ellie picked at the corner of her notebook.
Joel continued, “I shouldn't have said that ‘bout Dina. Not after everythin’ you’ve been through. You, more than most, understand what it’s like to lose people.”
Ellie’s hand moved to the rusted pendant she always wore. “You were making a point.”
“No, I was wrong to do that. I once said you had to find somethin’ to fight for. It’d be a mighty contradiction if I used that against you.” A pause. “If you believe Dina, then I do too. Not that you ever needed my permission.”
Ellie pursed her lips. “That means a lot to me.”
It made Joel smile. This was good. This was progress. Sure, they would still lash out at each other. He doubted that was their last argument, but it was progress nonetheless.
“Hey, uh,” Ellie brought him out of his thoughts. “Dina should be over at any minute, so…”
It seemed Ellie had had enough emotion sharing for today.
“‘Course, ‘course, I’ll get out of your hair.”
“We’re still on for lunch, right?” She swallowed thickly, as though she feared he would say no.
“If that’s what you want, kiddo.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m going anywhere anytime soon.” She pointed to her bruised ribs.
“All righty, I’ll see you then,” Joel confirmed.
Ellie looked relieved. He steadily rose from his seat, taking both of their empty mugs as he left.
Joel was rinsing them in the sink when someone knocked on his front door. He was surprised to come face-to-face with Dina. She had a steely determination in her eyes and set her shoulders back, reaching her full height.
Without any preamble, she began, “Mr. Miller–” She’d never called him that before. “–I know you care about Ellie. I do too. She’s the love of my life. We both want what’s best for her, but you shouldn’t be mad at her for telling me. I have a lot of respect for you. You’re the reason I even met Ellie. So, with all due respect, I know you mean well, but Ellie is her own person and can make her own decisions. She’s trying to trust you again, and in turn, you should trust her too. If it’ll put you at ease, I promise you here and now that I will take her secret to the grave. But, even if you do disapprove, it won’t keep me from her.”
Dina blinked. “Okay? That’s it?”
Joel pretended to take a second to think. “Yeah, sounds about right.”
Clearly, not expecting his concession, she stammered for a response, “It does?”
“You’re right,” he said, scratching at his beard. “I’ve been so adamant on making up for the time we lost that I sometimes forget she ain’t the same person she was two years ago – nor am I really. She’s grown into her own. I owe her my trust. And, seein’ as she chose you, I owe it to you too.”
Dina’s face lit up at his admission. Sure, she didn’t need his approval, but it felt nice to have anyway.
She stood a second longer before announcing, “Okay, good, just so that’s clear. I’ll be going to Ellie’s now.”
“Be seein’ ya.” He waved, as she turned to head around the back. “And, please don’t let ‘er do somethin’ to hurt herself even more.”
“Like I could stop her if I tried,” she shouted over her shoulder.
That girl was a keeper.