Joel briskly walked through the streets of Jackson. He felt sweat gather at the nape of his neck despite the October breeze. He finally arrived at his house, glancing over his shoulder as he slipped inside. He scurried over to the dining room table and overturned his bag to dump out various wires.
“Any of these work?”
The other person sitting before him picked through the cluttered assortment. She muttered to herself as she inspected each wire closely before tossing it aside, many of them frayed or incompatible. Joel’s heart thundered furiously in his ears with each one she discarded.
C’mon, c’mon, there has to be one.
“Aha!” she exclaimed, holding up a short white wire.
Joel let out a sigh of relief. “Dina, you are a lifesaver.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I still need to put it back together,” she said and immediately went to work on the circuit boards and plastic components in front of her. She asked, “How much time do we have?”
Joel glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’d say twenty minutes. Thirty if we’re lucky.”
Dina picked up the pace. “It’ll be a close one.”
“I have faith in ya,” he said. “Need anythin’ else?”
“Maybe some tea? Baby’s antsy today.” She rested a hand on her prominent baby bump.
Thirty two weeks pregnant, she had to sit a good foot away from the table, which made electronic repair a little trickier, but Joel was thankful she was still trying.
“Yeah, ‘course. Chamomile?”
Dina shot him a thumbs up, and Joel left to put the water on. He would’ve given her his entire coffee stash at this point. Ellie and Joel’s latest bonding activity involved video games. Of course, Joel sucked, so Ellie let him borrow her PlayStation 3 to practice on his own. It had been his idea. He wanted to prove he was a worthy second player. And, it was during one of his many attempts at a particularly hard level that he threw the controller at the stupid console – “rage quit,” as Dina put it – and promptly broke it. Hey, it’s not his fault the character died so easily. Joel took a goddamn rebar through the gut and survived. This guy couldn’t even stand five feet from a grenade.
The kettle whistled.
“Want milk or honey with that?” Joel shouted.
“Honey, please!” from the other room.
Thus, he found himself in his current predicament: guiltily asking Dina to fix the PS3 before Ellie returned from the dam. She and a couple others had left two hours ago following a power outage in the town. Luckily, upon examination, Dina had said it was a simple wire replacement job, which led to Joel ransacking the electronics bin in the town square where patrols left non-essential items for the public. Was it a little immature of him? One could say that. Dina certainly got a good laugh out of it. Joel preferred to see it as erring on the side of caution.
He placed the steaming mug on the table. “Refreshment, ma’am.”
“Thanks, Joel,” Dina replied and took a sip. She had replaced the power connector with the new wire at this point.
“Least I could do since you’re, uh, helpin’ me out here.”
“We can call it even.”
“For what?” he asked, taking a seat across from her.
“I saw Seth earlier today.”
He found a spot on the wall particularly interesting. “Mhmm.”
Dina continued to screw the circuit board onto its base. “He had a black eye.”
“Is that right?”
“Rumor has it he was making snide comments about me and Ellie.”
“Not surprised he was runnin’ his mouth again.”
“Hey, weren’t you at the Tipsy Bison last night?”
“Ellie probably won’t be happy about it.”
“There are plen’y of people in this town who’d want to punch Seth. Could’a been anyone.”
“Well,” Dina said without looking up from her work. “Whoever decked that bigot has my thanks. Just disappointed I didn’t do it myself.”
Joel hummed noncommittally, “Dunno why he runs the only bar in Jackson. Last thing folks want is to get wasted around his ugly mug.”
Dina laughed, “It’s because people get drunk that he can work there. No one can stand being around him sober.”
“You may be onto somethin’. With enough booze, folks can pretend he’s someone else.”
“Oh, oh, you could even say… they get their wires crossed.” She brought a closed fist to her mouth to stifle her snickers.
“...You and Ellie were made for each other.”
She snorted, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Joel watched her hands fly over the pieces of hardware he could never begin to comprehend. “You should.”
“Take it as a compliment. I ain’t said it too much, but you an’ Ellie are good for each other.”
Dina blushed at the sudden praise, hiding her face as she took another drink from her tea. “Yeah, it only took five years.”
His eyebrows raised at that. “Really? That long?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I felt drawn to her the moment I met her, but I didn’t realize it was more than friendly until she and Cat became official. And, by then, I was on and off with Jesse for the sake of everyone’s expectations.” She chuckled at a memory. “Man, you should’ve seen me around Cat. I was such a jealous little shit.”
“Ah, the infamous Summer of Silence. Ellie wondered why you stopped hanging out.”
“Oh, fuck. You know about that?” The redness returned to her face but this time from embarrassment.
“Hey, I take notice ev’ry now and then.”
“Says the man who had no clue about Cat and thought Jesse had a crush on Ellie.”
Joel rubbed the back of his neck. “Ellie was barely talkin’ to me then,” he defended.
“Joel, everyone with eyes knew.”
He didn’t have a comeback for that one.
“But, hey, Ellie didn’t realize I was flirting with her for the past year, so she’s just as bad. You guys are more alike than either of you would like to admit,” Dina said affectionately.
“Should I take that as a compliment?”
She tilted her head in thought. “For the majority? Yes.”
“You flatter me,” he said wryly.
A bark of laughter. “Don’t worry. This baby will still need Grandpa Joel in their life.”
It never got old. Whenever he heard the term, he couldn’t help but break out into a beaming smile, a soothing warmth flooding this entire being. The title of Grandpa held so much anticipation for what was to come, and Joel, for one, couldn’t wait.
Joel was startled out of his thoughts. Dina proudly looked upon the now reassembled PS3 and wiped the imaginary dust off her hands. His shoulders released a tension he hadn’t even realized was there.
“Oh, thank Jesus,” he exhaled, carrying the console over to hook it back up to his TV. Like nothing ever happened.
When Joel returned, Dina was rubbing circles into her growing belly. He nodded toward her. “Little fella still kickin’?”
“I swear this baby wants out as soon as possible. How did you do it?”
That piqued Joel’s interest. “Me? I had no idea how to handle it. Teared up a lot. My girlfriend at the time had to be the rational one. Raising a baby so young ain’t the easiest thing, but y’all have a lot of folks here to lean on.”
A bittersweet smile appeared on Dina’s face. “Sure, I’m young in age, but we all had to grow up quickly.”
Joel thought back to his first impressions of Ellie – barely a teenager with the naivete of someone who hadn’t set foot outside of a QZ but with the wherewithal to hold her own in this harsh world. It had been a shame to watch her become so jaded in the single year they traveled together. He didn’t want her to fall into the bitter state he had found himself for decades after the Outbreak. Lately, however, he was starting to see that bright-eyed girl again. He’d like to think it was partly because they’ve been on better terms nowadays, but he had to give credit where credit’s due. Just the mention of Dina’s name always ignited a spark within his daughter. He could only imagine how much light this baby would bring to her life. His, too.
“Well then, let’s make sure this kid has a real childhood.”
She smirked. “Oh, I’m sure between your, my, and Jesse’s family, this will be the most spoiled baby to ever exist.”
It wasn’t an understatement. Newborns were rare, even in such a secure settlement as Jackson. When an infant was born, it became the center of attention. Townsfolk would often drop by to check if the new parents needed anything. Maria has already been visiting Ellie more frequently to offer input, and Tommy wanted to meet up with Joel for drinks several times a week. (Tommy would've given Seth a matching bruise if Joel hadn't already knocked him clean out.) People wanted to protect the bundle of innocence for as long as possible. Joel thought that was both a good and bad thing. Kids should be kids. But, too much dependence on others could get you killed. He didn’t doubt for a moment neither Ellie nor Dina would let that happen.
“Yeah, I can see it now: baby’s first hunting rifle.”
Dina laughed, “Just please, no molotov cocktails until at least twelve years old.”
“If you say so, but they’re highly effective.”
The two of them were still chuckling when the front door opened to reveal Ellie. She let her backpack drop in the atrium. Grease stained her jeans, and her feet dragged on the carpet, but a look of pure delight appeared when her eyes landed on Dina.
“And, what are you two talking about?” she asked, walking over to kiss the top of her girlfriend’s head.
“Oh, y’know,” Dina started casually. “Convincing Joel molotov cocktails are not a good first birthday present.”
“Aww, what? But, they’re so effective!” Ellie pouted and looked seriously disappointed, her brow crinkling.
A new bout of laughter overtook Dina. Ellie’s confusion only spurred her on further. Joel just shrugged. She was finally halted by a hiss of pain and grabbed at her stomach.
“Dina?” Ellie asked, panicked.
“I’m good,” she let out a controlled breath. “I’m good. Just restless today.”
Ellie knelt down and placed a hand to Dina’s stomach. She whispered almost reverently, “Hey, there. You messing with your mom again? Let’s cut her some slack, okay? You'll have plenty of chances to bug her when you learn to talk.”
The other woman suddenly gasped, “They stopped.”
"See? Works every time." Ellie grinned up at her.
"How do you do that?"
“They’re probably just taking revenge for you shitty puns– ow!” she exclaimed when Dina lightly punched her shoulder.
“Like yours are any better.”
“I’ll have you know those pun books are peak literature.”
“You are not reading those to our baby.”
Joel coughed to remind them of his presence. The last thing he wanted was to be caught in the middle of one of their (oddly sexual) banters. Once had been more than enough.
Dina snapped out of it first. “Well, thank you for the tea, Joel, but I should get going. Walk me home, babe?”
“Yeah, just let me put my PS3 back. You’re done for today, right, Joel?”
He tried to keep his expression neutral. “All yours, kiddo.”
Ellie went to the living room to collect it. He met Dina’s eyes, and they waited with bated breath.
“Joel?” Her voice carried down the hall, calm but inquisitive.
A bolt of alarm shot through him. “Yeah?”
“Why is my controller missing a joystick?”
Joel opted to revert to his default silence, as he ignored Dina’s look of pity.