"I struggled for a long time with surviving. And no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.”
“Don’t shoot! It’s Ellie.”
The man on horseback lowers the barrel of his rifle just enough to get a better look. He squints at the smallish form in front of him.
The girl nods. The man gestures for the two riders flanking him to lower their weapons. He notices the two missing digits on the girl’s left hand.
“Jesus Ellie. What happened to you?”
The full recognition in his voice lets her sigh. She lowers her arms as he dismounts from the horse.
“I’m fine. I need you to give this to Maria.”
Ellie pulls a piece of paper from her backpack and hands it to him. Mitch—Ellie recognizes him as a friend of Jesse’s—slowly takes the paper from her.
“Why not give it to her yourself?” he asks. “Everyone’s gonna be so happy to see you—”
Ellie shakes her head.
“I’m not…I’m not coming back. Not just yet.”
Mitch blinks at her, confused.
“I’m not ready, Mitch.”
There’s no room for questions in her voice. Mitch seems to understand. He nods and tucks the letter inside his jeans pocket.
“All right,” he says quietly.
Ellie gives him a faint smile and nods.
“You, uh, you’ve been watching the patrols, I take it?” he asks.
Ellie swings her pack back over her shoulder. “I needed to wait for someone I knew.”
Mitch returns her faint smile to her. Ellie cinches up her pack.
The late summer heat hangs between them, until Ellie meets his gaze again, almost reluctantly.
“She’s good. Well she’s…doing okay,” Mitch adds cautiously. “She’s quieter. She misses Jesse, but I’m pretty sure she missed you more.”
Ellie swallows and looks down.
“And…JJ? How’s he?”
The mention of Dina’s son brings a smile to Mitch’s face.
“Oh man, growing like a weed. He’s starting to talk a little. Nothing spectacular, but definite words.”
Ellie’s face pinches together for a moment before smoothing over.
“That’s…good. Okay then. I’ll see you…sometime.”
Mitch nods, eyeing her with concern.
“Hey, here. Take part of this.”
He reaches into the saddlebag on his horse and offeres her half a wrapped-up sandwich.
“Nah, I’m fine,” Ellie says automatically.
“Come on. It’s way too much for me. And you’ve probably not had a ham and cheese sandwich in a while, I’m guessing.”
Ellie takes the sandwich from him.
She watches as they continue on their patrol route, riding past her towards the east. The quiet left in their wake is as strange as their voices had been only minutes earlier.
Ellie lets out a breath and closes her eyes. Maria would get the letter, letting her know she was alive. She’d tell the others, tell Dina. That was what mattered. She’d done enough damage to Dina as it was. There was no sense in adding to that list by being so close and letting her wonder.
What am I supposed to do? Wait around and wonder if you’re fucking dead or not?
Ellie squeezes her eyes shut, trying not to see the tears in Dina’s eyes from that night. When she opens them she looks down at her hand, breathing in and out slowly until the shaking stops.
6 weeks later
Going back to Jackson tomorrow. Unless I chicken out again. I still don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I can’t keep on like this. Fall is coming. It’s getting too cool at night. Maybe familiar faces will at least distract me from seeing their faces.
I’m not ready. For any of it, for seeing her. But I feel like I’m going fucking crazy out here. Who knows, might end up right back out here anyway.
She shuts the journal and clicks off the flashlight. She pulls the blanket tight around her and stares up and the rock ceiling of the small cave she is in. It’s a big crevice carved into the rocky hill, perhaps ten feet deep. Enough for shelter and to hide her from random wondering eyes. Or other things.
This far from the city is relatively safe from infected but Ellie keeps her pistol and rifle next to her, and a shiv tucked into the holster strap on her leg. She tries briefly to sleep but it’s best to keep her eyes open. When they close, her mind takes her to all the terrible what-ifs, lost possibilities and the nightmares of her own making.
And always to Joel.
She is able to picture him as he was alive more often now. But the happier memories come with their own brand of anguish, making her heart ache for him. She wants him to look at her again with those tender eyes, to watch his fingers strum in that steady rhythm over his guitar strings. She wishes desperately to hear his voice: Good night, kiddo.
Ellie blinks, startled.
Her obsession with Abby has kept her from more than she had realized, because now the ache of missing him hits her full force. She truly, gut-wrenchingly misses him.
Yet even when she stops thinking about Joel she thinks about Dina instead.
Exhausted at last, she lets her tears fall, wiping at them and swallowing hard. Then she waits for morning.
Ellie chews the piece of chicken and forces it down. She can feel Maria’s eyes on her, especially on her hand. It’s awkward trying to hold a fork with three digits.
“Feels like my skull is burning, you know,” she says under the other woman’s stare.
Maria blinks and shifts in the kitchen chair, smiling apologetically.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to stare. It’s just…we all feared the worst for you. I feared the worst, until I got that letter. It’s so good to see you, Ellie.”
Ellie chews on the carrots from the full plate in front of her. The meal looks and smells delicious but her nerves won’t quite let her enjoy it.
She’d made it back, making a beeline for Maria’s house among all the stares and greetings she received when she’d entered the gate. It felt too strange, too surreal, being around the townsfolk again. Her people. They felt like strangers to her. Now, sitting in Maria’s kitchen and eating a cooked meal for the first time in months she tries to act natural. Maria is the same old Maria, embracing her and almost crying (but didn’t, thank God). She was always good at sensing people’s moods, knowing when to say things and how much to say, and what not to say. Ellie is silently grateful the older woman wasn’t asking too many questions.
A sharp pang shoots through the side of her gut, making her wince. Maria catches it. She gets up from the chair.
“Are you hurt?”
Ellie quits rubbing at her side.
“It’s nothing much.”
“Let me see.”
“Really, it’s fine.”
Ignoring her words, Maria stands beside her and gestures for Ellie to do the same.
“Come on. Up.”
Gritting her teeth, Ellie slowly complies. She lifts her hoodie and her shirt, looking down.
“I keep stitching it up but it keeps opening.”
Maria’s face crinkles with worry as she gingerly touches the wound Ellie had gotten from the jagged tree in Santa Barbara. Looking at it now, even Ellie has to cringe slightly. She hadn’t realized the blood had soaked through her shirt yet again.
“Ellie this is serious. You need a doctor. It’s a wonder it hasn’t gotten infected yet. Finish eating and then we’ll go to see Luke…”
“Could he come here instead?” Ellie blurts out.
Maria looks up at her. Ellie shies away.
“It’s just…I’d rather not deal right now. With people, I mean.”
The local doctor, Larry, cleans and stitches her up proper and gives her antibiotics. Ellie listens to his instructions, only half-heartedly paying attention.
“This was deep,” he was saying now, washing his hands. “Can I ask how you got impaled on a tree branch?”
She remembers the man’s face, his shattered legs as he pleaded for his life. She sees it now as if it were a dream, not recognizing herself.
You let me go, I’ll tell you where she is…I swear…
Ellie huffs out a breath and swallows.
“Got caught in a snare trap strung up in a tree. I swung into the branch. It was just another group of assholes.”
Larry smiles at Maria, surprised.
“Wow. You definitely gotta be one of those people with nine lives, Ms. Ellie. Good for you.”
His voice and demeanor are sweet but his words strike her hollow. He lifts her hand to address her missing fingers.
“And as for this, they also don’t look infected, but I don’t like this angry shade of red. I’ll give you something for this too.”
She mumbles out a ‘thank you.’ She stays long enough to answer a few more questions from Maria, namely what her plans were now that she was back. She doesn’t know exactly, except to say she wants to go home and sleep for now. But she knows what Maria was really wanting to ask. Finally she does.
“And what about Tommy? And…Dina? They both know you’re back.”
Ellie’s chest tightens up. She flexes her fingers, idly brushing over her wound.
“What did she…what did they say?”
“Tommy was beyond happy, of course. Feels like shit over everything though. I told both of them to give you time, that you’ll come around when you’re ready. Dina was relieved, to say the least. Didn’t say much but I saw it all in her face,” Maria adds softly.
Ellie tries not to think of Dina’s face.
“Tommy will have too many questions,” she says. “And Dina…”
She cuts off, looking up at Maria before saying miserably, “I don’t know. How is she?”
Maria sighs and pours herself some tea. She sits it down gingerly on the table, cupping her hands around it before answering.
“Well, she eats and sleeps and plays with Jesse Junior so I suppose you could say she’s fine, but…”
Maria gives a wan smile and shakes her head, looking out the window.
Guilt washes over Ellie like a dam breaking. Being here, hearing the confirmation of all she had worried about for weeks felt worse than she’d imagined. Ellie bites her bottom lip and stares at the floor, wiping her hands on the lap of her jeans.
“I’m sorry,” says Maria.
Her voice makes tears sting Ellie’s eyes. She clears her voice and raises her gaze.
“Do you think I was wrong?” she asks. “To go after Abby again?”
Maria simply gazes back at her for long seconds.
“Do I think it was wrong for you to go after Abby again, or to leave Dina? Is that what you’re really asking?”
Ellie drops her gaze. Guilt presses down on her again.
“I don’t know.”