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Some Strange Country

Chapter Text

“No, no, no,” JJ says, attempting to shoulder Ellie away from the eggs in the pan at the stove, “You’re gonna burn them-- again.”

“I think I can handle cooking eggs,” Ellie returns, refusing to give up any space, “You’re twelve, what do you know about cooking?”

“Apparently more than you ,” JJ says, making a grab for the spatula, “You have to stir them--”

“I’m trying , will you get out of the way--”

“Oh, great, now they’re burnt--”

“They’re not burnt , look--”

Ellie uses the spatula to push at the yellow-ish lump in the pan but it doesn’t budge.

“They’re not burnt,” She repeats stubbornly, “Just...stuck. To the bottom of the pan.”

JJ folds his arms, stares at her.

“You’re not allowed to cook anymore,” He says flatly.


“You’re bad at it. You’re bad at cooking.”

“Yeah?’re short.”

“At least I’m not old,” JJ says, backing away from the stove, heading for his bag by the back door, “I’ve got time to grow but you’re always gonna be old. Old and burning eggs.”

“That’s it--” Ellie says, pushing at the eggs a little more aggressively, “You’re grounded.”

“Or you can just cook dinner tonight--that’s punishment enough for any crime,” JJ shoulders on his backpack, pauses, “Oh, have we thought about that--instead of a jail, we could just have you cook for people who do bad stuff--that’ll make them think twice--”

“Double grounded,” Ellie says, pulling the smoking pan off the stove altogether, “Wait--where are you going, you haven’t even had breakfast--”

“It’s fine, Mom,” He says dismissively, “I’m meeting Walker at the Bison, we’ll grab something to eat there--”

“Walker?” Ellie repeats, leaving the smoking pan in the sink, “Claire Walker?”

“Yeah,” JJ says hurriedly--he has to get out the door before she asks too many more questions, “Yeah, we’re on stable duty today.”

“And you need your backpack for stable duty?” Ellie says suspiciously, eyes narrowed, “Every time you go out the door with that backpack, someone ends up yelling at me. Every time I see Dolly she has to remind me how shell shocked her chickens still are after last summer--”

“No chickens,” He promises, hand held up, palms out, “Honest.”

Ellie sighs with resignation. 

“Fine,” She says, and she holds out a hand, “Just don’t break anything. Like...bones or property or spirits. Please.”

JJ reaches out, completes a high-five that rounds into a swift series of gestures, a combination only the two of them really know. They’re own secret handshake. Their version of a hug.

“Thanks, Mom,” He says in a rush, “I’ll see you guys tonight.”

Ellie watches him slip out the door. She leans back against the counter. Looks into the sink at the blackened lump of in the pan.

“Fuck off, eggs…” She mutters darkly.


Chapter Text

JJ had been sure that Jaime was full of shit. They all thought Jaime was full of shit. Jaime was notorious for exaggerating and just full on making stories up. That kid likes talking about himself too much, Ellie had said about him once. Dina had reminded her that Jaime was just a child and not to be so critical but Ellie had looked unmoved, and she leaned over to JJ, said in a low voice— people who like talking about themselves that much—they’re the ones to keep an eye on, JJ.

He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and now—well, now it looked like maybe Jaime had been telling the truth this time.

Walker shoulders in next to JJ for a better look, and Cal wriggles his way in, too. They lean in as one, looking down over the edge of the rock, into the dark crevasse below.

“I told you so,” Jaime says, clearly feeling deeply validated, “Right there. There it is. What do y’all have to say about it now?”

There’s a man down there. Well. Not a man. He’s shaped like a man, he’s dressed like a man, but—he’s not. JJ knows it instantly, a feeling down in his gut. It’s the way you never need to be told this is the sky or this is the dirt or this is how you breathe. You just know.

He’s never seen an infected person before, but he knows that’s exactly what he’s looking at now.

“I thought they had horns,” Cal says, “He ain’t got any horns.”

“They don’t all have horns, stupid,” Jaime snaps, “Not if they just got infected.”

“Don’t call him stupid,” Walker looks up, snaps a menacing glare onto Jaime.

Jaime huffs, all his tough-guy swagger deflating under Walker’s gaze. They all know that if there’s one real tough guy here—it’s probably her. And Walker is generally fun and easy to get along with and she’s undoubtedly JJ’s best friend in the world—which is why he knows the golden rule when it comes to Walker: don’t fuck with her little brother.

“Sorry,” Jaime says grudgingly, mouth barely moving.

“What do you know about the infected anyway?” Walker says, “You haven’t seen any more of them that we have.”

“Have to,” Jaime declares defensively, “Me and my dad, we saw a whole herd of ‘em in Teton County last year. I shot a couple myself—“

“Bullshit,” JJ interjects with a wry laugh, “There haven’t been infected in Teton County in years.”

“You don’t know that—“

“I do know it,” JJ says more heatedly, “Because my moms helped rid them out.”

And even Jaime doesn’t have an argument for that. Just folds his arms over his chest and looks away from JJ.

The man-but-not-a-man down in the rocky hole has begun to twitch and whimper, a rolling, agonized kind of moaning—he must be able to hear them up here arguing. The thought makes JJ’s stomach seize up.

He glances at Walker to try to see what she’s thinking. Her frizzy, rust-colored hair is pulled back to the nape of her neck and she’s watching the thing below with a kind of dread that JJ’s never seen before. She’s got a little scar there on her chin from last year, when she and JJ spent the summer trying to get an old gas-powered moped running again. They succeeded but the results had been two downed fences, a destroyed chicken coop, and half a dozen stitches for each of them. It had been worth it, even if the rest of the summer was spent rebuilding Dolly’s chicken coop. They’d laughed and secretly carved really dumb things into hidden spaces. The kind of things he might get in trouble for if he said them at home. Trouble, or a high-five. It wasn’t always easy to tell with moms like his.

But that was the Walker he was used to seeing—ready for anything, laughing through the worst of it, easy and unafraid. But she wasn’t unafraid now.

“We need to tell someone,” Walker says to JJ finally, “It musta wandered through and fallen in, but it came from somewhere. And we can’t just leave it here. We gotta go back and get someone.”

“No way!” Jaime declares stubbornly, “I found him, I get to decide what happens to him—kids’ll trade good stuff to come up here and see him, y’know—“

“Are you dumb ?” JJ scoffs, “You can’t bring more kids up here. It’s not a game, it’s—“

“Y’all ain’t the boss of me,” Jaime tells them decisively, “And if you go tell anybody else about this, I’ll—I’ll—“

JJ relaxes, reaches into his pocket. Wraps his fingers around the cool handle of a pocket knife. Not with the intent to use it—he’s never had to use it before. But he just needs to know it’s there.

But Walker steps forward. She’s taller than all of them, and she and Jaime have already come to blows once before—which didn’t end well for him.

“You’ll do what ?” Walker asks.

“I shouldn’t have brought you or your dumb brother up here,” Jaime says in a voice quivering with embarrassment and anger and maybe a little fear, “You, neither, with your dumb moms—“ He says, rounding on JJ, “You think they’re so great, but my mom told me the truth—your mom, Ellie, she left once before. Bet you didn’t know that, huh? Left when when you were just a baby, and went all the way to California—probably just to get away from you and your other stupid mom—“

“That’s not true,” JJ says, heart beginning to race in his chest, “My mom would never leave us—what a liar—“

“It’s not a lie,” Jaime insists with increasing irritation, “My mom doesn’t lie , especially not to me , and she said your mom left and was gone and none of them thought she was ever coming back. She just left, cause you didn’t care about you, and she didn’t care about your momma, and she probably still doesn’t—“

“Shut up!” JJ shoves him, and he hates it because he can feel the hot, angry tears welling behind his eyes and he can’t stop them, “You’re a fucking liar!”

Don’t call me a liar —“ Jaime shoves back, hard, “—my daddy even says she left ‘cause it ain’t natural, two women raising a baby, it ain’t what the world needs right now—he says there ain’t no way a boy raised by two women’ll ever make it out there—you’re too soft—“

There’s a moment when JJ’s vision tunnels, gets fuzzy, and he knows he’s going to hit him. He knows it and he can’t stop it, even if he wanted to stop. Which he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to stop. He wants to hit Jaime in the mouth until he can’t tell any more lies.

But to his surprise, Walker beats him to it.

Jaime reels back in shock and pain, having been struck hard in the jaw with a closed fist.

“That’s for you and your dumb dad,” Walker tells him, and her own eyes look too red, and JJ can’t entirely tell why.

“What—just cause you’re like them, cause you like girls, too?” Jaime sneers, wiping at a bloody lip, “What a bunch of qu—“

He doesn’t even get the full word out before JJ and Walker are both on him, and a full out melee ensues, a tangle of flailing limbs and hair-pulling and gut-punches and it’s not even clear who’s winning or losing.

It’s also not clear who did it. Not clear, in the storm of shoving and falling and twisting and swearing, which one of them pushed Cal.

He was probably trying to help them, trying to help Walker, maybe just trying to break up the fight altogether—but he was only ten, so the almost-thirteen-year olds had a size advantage on him.

But someone did shove him. Maybe Jaime did it on purpose. Maybe Walker or JJ pushed him off, trying to get at Jaime. Maybe he just got bumped aside in the fray. 

And by the time they realize he’s falling, it’s already too late.

JJ looks up just in time to see his face, his dark eyes wide with panic and fear, arms splayed out behind him—reaching for something to catch himself, but finding only air. It’s a fraction of a second, too much to process, and then—

Then he was just gone.

There’s a sickening thud, like the sound the bags of feed make when JJ throws them down on the stable floor. But it’s not a bag of feed. It’s a boy. It’s a boy. It’s Cal. It’s Cal, and he’s down there now.

With that thing.

Walker is screaming Cal’s name, but JJ can hardly hear her. She’s racing to the edge of the jagged crevasse and the only thing that brings JJ back is that she’s jumping down into the hole after Cal

And JJ doesn’t think. He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t weigh any other choices because there don’t seem to be any other choices at all. 

He shoves Jaime off of him, even as the other boy with his bloodied lip and a swelling eye, tries to hold JJ hard by the sleeve, tries to hold him back.

But JJ shakes him off. 

Because he can’t leave his friends down there.

He has to go in after them.

Chapter Text



“Okay,” JJ says, chewing thoughtfully on his sandwich, “What about Mr. Fantasmus versus Primo Man?”

“Easy,” Ellie says, lifting another shovel full of dirt, “Fantasmus would just mind melt Primo. Fight over.”

“Fantasmus only did that, like, one time—I don’t know if he can do that all the time—“ JJ says with suspicion.

“Well, then he would just do his metal bending thing. Primo’s only power is metal that super suit, right?”

“Oh,” JJ says, pulling a face of deep horror, “I hadn’t thought about that—he’d just like—squish him all up in the armor, you think?”

“Yeah, just—“ Ellie makes a wet, squelching sound.

“Gross!” JJ says with a laugh, “But also kind of awesome and I wish there was an issue like that.”

“It would be pretty cool, right?” Ellie agrees, sinking the shovel into the ground again.

“Do you think they’re still making comic books somewhere?” He asks, leaning against the fence post.

“Well, you’re making comics,” Ellie points out.

“I mean real comic books, Mom,” JJ says, “Not the dumb ones I make in my room—“

“Hey,” Ellie says, sticking the shovel into the ground to lean up against the handle and look right at JJ for emphasis, “Your comics aren’t dumb . I love them. They’re my favorite.”

“You’re my mom , you have to say that,” JJ grumbles, unconvinced. 

“I don’t have to say shit,” She tells him, “I mean—stuff. Anything. I don’t have to say anything.”

JJ rolls his eyes, as if he’s much too old for this kind of censorship. And maybe he is.

“Claire likes them, too,” Ellie reminds him, “And you guys are a good writing team. I’m already your biggest fan.”

“...really?” JJ asks with some skepticism, “You really think they’re good?” 

“I think they’re great. Captain Jay is my favorite character. Way better than Primo or Fantasmus.”

“Fantasmus...Primo…” Dina repeats, lugging a large fence post over, “Are you guys even using real words over here?”

She lowers the post to the ground and dusts her hands off.

“You gonna finish digging the hole for this sometime today, dear?” She asks Ellie. 

“We were just talking about Captain Jay,” Ellie informs her, “JJ thinks he’s dumb.”

“What?” Dina says with outrage, “I’m a huge fan of Captain Jay.”

“Me, too,” Ellie says with emphatic agreement.

“So that means we have to fight him, right?” Dina says, hands on her hips, “Like, to protect Captain Jay’s honor. That’s what...that’s what, y’know...that’s what nerds do, right? Like...street fight over comic book stuff?”

“We’re not nerds, Mom,” JJ says with exasperation.

“Oh, sweetie, I would die for either of you, but you’re definitely nerds.”

JJ looks to Ellie for help, but Ellie gives a shrug, does a thing with her mouth that says, she might have a point, bud.

“JJ!” A voice calls out, interrupting the exchange.

JJ looks up, finds Walker on her bike in the road. She waves, and Calvin pulls to a stop just beside her.

“We’re goin’ to the pond!” She calls out to him, “Wanna come?”

“Can I?” JJ asks, looking back at his moms expectantly. 

They exchange a look.

“Yeah,” Ellie says, “Just be careful, Jay. Watch out for your friends, too.”

“I know, Mom,” He says impatiently, “We’ll be fine—“

JJ makes a break for the garage, where his bike is kept.

“JJ—“ Dina calls at his back, “You leave those ducks alone, too!” 

But JJ just waves her off.

“Hey, Miss Ellie!” Walker calls from the road with a wave, “Hey, Miss Dina!”

“Hey, Walker!” Dina calls back, “Keep an eye on him, okay?”

“Sure thing, ma’am!”

JJ brings his bike around and the three kids take off up the road, laughing.

“She’s too polite,” Ellie says, watching them go.

“Is this a thing now, where you’re just gonna be suspicious of all the kids in the neighborhood?” Dina says with a roll of her eyes.

“Hey, kids can be worse than adults,” Ellie says, lifting another shovelful of dirt from the hole she’s been working on, “Kids can be monsters. The kids in the QZ were a bunch of little psychos…”

“We’re not in a QZ though,” Dina reminds her with a certain amount of gentleness, “It’s not the same here.”

Ellie doesn’t look up, just slides the shovel back into the earth with maybe a little more force than necessary.

“It’s the same everywhere ,” She says, “If you wait long enough.”

Dina watches her for a moment, like maybe she wants to argue the point more—but also recognizes the tone in Ellie’s voice. It’s been a long time now since Ellie came back from California. She came back broken and half-dead—but different. Softer. Ready to embrace a little bit of peace and quiet, finally. So that’s exactly what they did—but sometimes Dina sees it, these bits and pieces left behind. There are moments when Dina can see that the brutally efficacious fighter is still there, somewhere.  

And, truthfully, Dina’s grateful for it. Because it’s different now—it’s not channeled at herself anymore, the way it was before. Now that dark sort precision is generally reserved for protecting her and JJ and it helps Dina rest a little easier, knowing there’s nothing Ellie wouldn’t do for them—even if that nothing is a black abyss that Dina doesn’t fully want to look into or investigate. Particularly because there’s nothing she wouldn’t do for Ellie and JJ—so if Ellie’s abyss is dark and frightening, then so is her own.

And maybe that’s just the way it still has to be in this world. Maybe everyone has to carry an abyss just to survive. But as Dina looks up to watch the three kids round the turn at the end of the road, she quietly hopes that maybe it won’t be that way forever. 

Maybe, if they’re lucky, if they work hard, if they do everything right—

Maybe the kids won’t need an abyss at all.

“Besides,” Ellie says, throwing out more dirt, “I thought that kid’s name was Claire.”

“Claire Walker ,” Dina explains, reaching out for the shovel to take a turn at the digging, “But she prefers just Walker.

“Why?” Ellie asks, confused, as she hands over the shovel.

“I don’t know,” Dina says, “Doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“No,” Ellie concedes, “But—“

“No buts, ” Dina says with some exasperation, “Whatever the reason is, I’m sure it’s nothing that’s gonna hurt JJ, so maybe we can put away the paranoia and just call the kid what she wants to be called.”

Ellie seems to consider this as she watches Dina take scoop out more earth. 

“You’re right,” She says finally, “I just...I worry, that’s all.”

“I know,” Dina assures her gently, “Me, too. Maybe we should worry less and dig more.”

Ellie gives a little laugh.

“Yeah,” She says, “Yeah, you’re probably right about that, too.”

“I’m right about most things,” Dina says with a taunting grin, “Kinda thought you would’ve figured that out by now, Williams.”

Chapter Text

If you asked JJ what his first real, solid memory is—he’d probably tell you about that day at the lake. It’s a little fuzzy, a little loose around the edges, the way most childhood memories are—but he remembers certain things with ringing clarity. 

He remembers the hot, heavy sun dripping down through the leaves, glowing through the green skins in bright, glinting patches that made everything feel a little like magic. He can remember reaching up, letting his hand drift through the low hanging branches and how the leaves felt like they might be feathers, or wisps of clouds. Something like that.

He remembers that he could reach the leaves because Ellie carried him up on her shoulders for most of the hike. He remembers that she said oof, you’re gonna be too big for this soon, bud. She laughed, but he remembers feeling a little sad about it, in a way he didn’t quite understand at the time. It was the first moment he was aware that things could be finite, that time was passing, that there were a limited number of shoulder rides—and he may have already used most of them up. Or all of them. Maybe this was the last time his mom would carry him on her shoulders—the last time he’d be tall enough to touch the leaves.

It wasn’t the last time, thankfully, but that’s not why the memory sticks. Why it persists. No, if you asked him to tell you about it, he would say that he remembers the leaves, and he remembers how exciting it was—everyone there was happy and unrestrained, like they never were at home. The families, all the friends, all the people of Jackson trying to shake the heat of that heavy summer—they were loud, and joyous, and alive. Jackson wasn’t a bad place to live, but sometimes the grown ups treat smiling like maybe it’s bad for your health. Sometimes it’s just something in the air that he can’t put a finger on, something he hasn’t found a name for yet. A palpable sense of dread or general somberness. Some days Jackson is a little like living in a funeral home, where everyone is mourning something. Some of those things you can see, but others you can’t. 

So all that noise and joy at the lake that day, it’s a little otherworldly in his memory. He can remember the excitement, remembers wanting to be a part of it—the happiness. The fun. 

But after that—everything gets a little looser. The memory stretches like elastic, bends at the edges, happens too fast and too slow. 

Because he remembers the water, and the edge of the rock. He remembers the moment he decided to do it, to jump in, even though he’d been told to wait. He remembers, more than anything else, the moment when he knew, with paralyzing certainty, that he was in over his head, in every sense.

He remembers the water rushing into his face and knowing that it was too much, that he had bitten off more than he could chew. And all in an instant, one long, stretching, pulling instant—he knew, even then, that he could fight or he could die.

One or the other.

He was too little then to have a working grasp on what death meant, so his body chose for him. Screaming around huge mouthfuls of water and kicking wildly against agonizing amounts of nothing. Spitting and flailing for all he was worth, beyond his conscious control.

Of course, he got lucky then. He only sees it in fractured shards in his memory, but his moms have told the story often enough—how they both jumped in after him, pulled him up to the bank, coughing and sputtering. How they were so surprised that he hadn’t cried, hadn’t seemed scared. How he’d laughed.

But he was scared. He does remember that part. Dina holding his face, Ellie leaning over her shoulder, dripping cool lake water onto the ground—both of their faces lit with fear, studying him with frantic terror and guilt.

So he’d laughed.

Shivering and still coughing, he’d nodded, told them he was okay.

Because he didn’t want them to be scared.

He didn’t want to scare them. 

But if that was one of his general life goals—then today he has really, really fucked it up.

He can hear Jaime behind him, screaming for him to stop, but it feels far away and unimportant—just ambient background noise. Like that day at the lake, his body takes over, urges him forward before he can even consider what he’s doing—

And just like that day at the lake, he knows it, feels it—he drops down to a rocky ledge below and loses his footing, starts to slide and scrape his way down the steep embankment and he knows instantly, without a doubt, that he is in over his head.

He’s not afraid of what’s down here—he’s only afraid that he’s not prepared for it. Afraid of the gaps in his own knowledge and ability and stature, his own smallness and weakness and fragility.

He’s tumbling and the ground is coming up at him fast but he can hear Walker screaming, the kind of sound that scrapes a throat raw, a sound more animal than human, more rage than fear. His elbows are skinned and his knee is bleeding but he can hardly feel it—he can only see that thing, that mangled palimpsest of flesh that might have been a human once—he can only see the flashing of jagged yellow teeth snapping inches from Walker’s face, the blackened hands, webbed in purple veins, clawing at her head. Her arms are braced hard against the things chest but those braces are bending against the weight, the force, the sheer mania of this monster.

JJ’s in over his head but he can’t stop now. Can’t let this thing get her. His stomach feels so tight that he might vomit—the smell alone is enough to induce retching. Something like mildewed carpet and soured flesh and the sweet stench of rot. But his moms—they’ve fought these things all their lives. They’ve saved friends, each other, countless times. JJ can do it, too. He can.

He leans down, scoops up a heavy chunk of rock and his legs carry him forward. He uses every ounce of his strength to smash the thing in its fetid face. There’s a spray of something black and vile and it startles JJ, the sound of it splattering against his chest, his face. 

The thing is thrown off of Walker and goes still, laying there on the floor of the crevasse with an inky pool forming under its head.

Did he kill it? Had he killed something? A pit forms in his stomach. He knows it wasn’t a man, but it had been once. Someone with a life, someone with friends and maybe with moms of their own. Someone who definitely didn’t want or choose to be here. To be this .

He might really throw up now.

Walker hardly registers him, just scrambles past the beastly thing toward the little heap that looks like it might be Cal. 

“Cal—Cal, wake up—“ Walker says, knees scraping against the rocky slate under them. She gathers him up and JJ looks on with a frozen kind of dread, still holding the rock in one hand, letting it drop old, dead blood into the ground. 

JJ is sure Cal will wake up. He’s sure of it. It’s Cal. It’s a boy he’s played with his whole life. Walker’s brother. The world needs a Cal. Doesn’t it? He will, he’ll open his eyes, he has to—the alternative is a gaping abyss too frighteningly deep to even look at—

Cal coughs and JJ takes a breath, feels his grip on the rock loosen with relief. Cal groans and Walker pulls him in, hugs him close.

JJ knows now that they just have to get out of here—but the walls are so steep, the few ledges so brittle, that he’s not sure what to do. He turns, studying the edges overhead for any kind of way up.

“Jaime!” He cups his hands around his mouth, calls out for the other boy. Maybe they could send him for a rope, or even just a big tree branch or anything really—

The air is forced out of his lungs as something slams into his back, sends him tumbling and reeling. He can feel cool, wet hands pulling at him, fists banging against every inch of him, and a wild wailing assaults his ears.

The runner has him pinned against the jagged, stony wall and the only thing keeping it from taking out a chunk of his face is a forearm pressed firmly to its neck but it could bite him—holy shit it could bite him at any second, it could sink those rotten teeth into his arm and turn him into one of them—

The wound on its head splashes thick strands of blood down on him and the day at the lake comes back to him. 

Because he can fight, or he can die.

And this time he knows what it means. He knows what it means when someone dies. He knows about oblivion. So this time the choice is real. This time there’s an instant, a microsecond that might have also been a million years, where both choices have validity.

He can choose to die. He really can. He has that freedom. No one can stop him. No one can stop this.

For the first time, living isn’t the default state of things—for the first time, he has a choice to make about it.

And he chooses to live.

He pushes off against the thing, screaming back into its wretched, maimed face but it doesn’t seem to move. It doesn’t matter—he can’t be beaten now. He can’t lose, because he’s made his choice. He chose life—and now he’s gonna live.

Walker’s face appears over the thing’s shoulder—she’s jumped onto its back and now it’s flailing, trying to dislodge her, screaming in agony and frustration as she pummels it with a sharp, broken edge of rock. JJ starts to run for his own slab of rock when something rushes past him.

“Cal—“ JJ calls his name but Cal never turns around. “Cal— don’t !”

Walker shouts something at him, too, but JJ can’t really hear it. He’s rushing to throw himself between the bony fingers of the infected and Cal. Cal throws a rock and pegs the thing in the cheek but it grabs a handful of his shirt and Cal can’t back away. Walker screams and hammers harder at its head but it moves like a machine. If choosing life made JJ unstoppable—then choosing death had given this thing equal force of will. 

JJ throws himself across the things arms, tries to pry the fingers free but it just keeps dragging Cal in—its ragged mouth slacks open and the sounds that come out are unearthly, wet and rasping and hungry—not hungry for food, hungry for pain. For chaos. For sheer insanity.

Walker is screaming incoherently. 

“LET HIM GO,” JJ says, even though he knows this thing can’t be reasoned with, can’t be bartered or bought. “FUCKING LET HIM GO—“

His voice is raw and shattered and he realizes that he’s crying, that tears are leaking down his face and he’s begging, begging the thing to stop.

But it doesn’t. 

The thing pulls Cal in, drags him right over top of JJ—JJ tries to grab him around the waist but it doesn’t help and JJ doesn’t know why—doesn’t know how all his will, all his strength, all his cleverness—none of it is enough. It’s not enough. Why isn’t it enough?

Cal screams. He screams words that JJ won’t remember—he’ll only remember the sound. A sound that shouldn’t exist. Children—children should never have to make a sound like that.

Something wet splashes JJ’s face and the screaming stops. Or maybe JJ’s hearing stops. Maybe he’s deaf now. Staggering away, numb and unthinking. Cal is limp in its hands and his neck is an open wound and Walker’s mouth is moving, face contorted in fury and rage and grief but JJ can’t hear anything at all but a high-pitched buzzing. It drops Cal, turns its attention back to Walker. 

JJ reaches into his pocket. Pulls out the knife. Not a toy, his mom had said. It feels warm in his hand. He doesn’t feel scared anymore. Just angry. Just mad. Mad because it isn’t fair. It’s not fair. None of it is fair and there’s nothing he can do about it but end it. Make it done .

He pushes in and takes the knife and uses both hands to drive the point straight into one of the sunken eyes. Straight into its goddamn brain, he hopes. He isn’t sure if they can feel pain, these monsters—but he finds himself hoping that they can. 

It makes a sound that might almost be surprise —and then it drops, a puppet with its strings snapped. Walker lands in a heap and crawls to Cal and reaches out tentatively—but they know. They both know. They know and they know and they know.

JJ drops the knife. 

Chapter Text

It’s quiet now, here inside the sanctuary of their bedroom. It’s quiet and still and calm and Ellie’s hands—they won’t stop shaking.

“We couldn’t have known.” Dina’s voice is so soft and unsteady that Ellie can hardly hear her—maybe she’s trying to convince herself more than Ellie. “There was nothing we could do.”

Ellie, sitting at the edge of the bed, lifts her eyes to Dina’s. She looks tired and shaken, collapsed there on the floor with her back against the wall. 

“Right?” she asks Ellie, and her voice is too thin.

Ellie drops her head, looks down at her hands. 

“There was so much blood,” she says, low and almost confused. “I—he was—he wasn’t even moving, Dina. Just sitting there in all that blood.”

“He was in shock,” Dina says with forced confidence. “He’s gonna be okay. We couldn’t have known. We couldn’t have done anything to stop this.”

Ellie meets her gaze again and it feels clear that no matter how many times they say it—they don’t believe it. Don’t feel absolved.

And why should they? Ellie should have known, should have been more aware, more paranoid—more scared. That was the real problem, wasn’t it? They’d worked so hard to make themselves safe—but now they’d been safe so long that they weren’t afraid. Which meant they weren’t careful. And that meant something bad was bound to happen.

And Ellie knew it, as soon as that little blonde kid had come running up the street—she knew something was catastrophically wrong. Just the sight of his face, with his eyes wide and wild, the straw colored fringe plastered to his damp forehead--he was fucking scared and it punched Ellie in the gut, drenched her in cold dread.

He’d tripped in the driveway, tumbled and scraped the entire length of his arm—but he didn’t even slow down, just scrambled up with his untied laces whipping behind him. He sprinted so hard at Ellie that he nearly knocked her over into the garage floor.

It took Dina and Ellie both to get the story out of him, with all the panting and panic in him. Dina had tried to be gentle but Ellie wasn’t gentle at all when she finally said, “Jaime, where the hell is JJ?”

It probably only took Jaime a few minutes to lead them to the spot--fifteen or twenty, maybe. But it felt like hours. Like days. The minutes felt like wedges being hammered under her fingernails, like someone slowly peeling away her skin. It felt like her chest was collapsing and her heart was gonna beat straight out of its cage. She could see it in Dina, too—in the set of her mouth, the intent furrow of her brow--they both knew something horrifying was waiting for them at the end of that trek through the woods.

All Ellie could think, with each step, was the idea of JJ—split open, spread out across the ground--slack jaw, open skin—the way Joel had been. 

And when they found them, finally, it had been—


So fucking quiet. 

No screaming or crying or the shapeless howls of the infected.

Down there, in the bottom of that cleft in the rock, Ellie found nothing but blood and blood and blood—and JJ, sitting there on his knees, watching silently as Walker cradled the younger boy. The younger boy, who was pale and terrifyingly limp in her arms.

Ellie tried saying JJ’s name but nothing seemed to get through to him and he wouldn’t move, wouldn’t look away from the nightmare of what had happened.

Finally, she’d grabbed his blood-streaked face and said his name again. Desperate and pleading, no longer a parent with authority or command or control—just someone terrified of losing a cornerstone of her world. 

His big, dark eyes, so much like Dina’s—so much like the best friend they’d lost in a Seattle theater—they welled up with tears, tears that spilled over the curves of his cheeks and carved pale paths through the gore splashed across his face.

I tried, Mom,” he’d said in a small voice. “I really tried. I did.”

Thinking about it again, here in the safety of their room, it’s suddenly hard for Ellie to breathe. She knows he’s just down the hall now. She knows that all the blood’s been washed away from his hair, his face, his hands. She knows he’s tucked into his bed, having finally surrendered to the exhaustion brought on by the day—this terrible, fucked up day. She knows he’s asleep now, and unharmed. But is he really? What’s going on in his head?  What did it do to him, watching Dina trying to help Walker, trying to gently coax her into letting go of Calvin’s body? What kind of effect was it going to have on him, climbing out of that pit of fear and blood and death? 

“He’s gonna be okay,” Dina says, but Ellie can see the tracks trailing down her face, tears of helplessness and guilt and fear. “We went through so much—when we were younger than him, even. We made it through so much. He’ll be okay, Ellie.”

She’s saying it like a statement but Ellie can see in her face that it’s a question. She needs something from Ellie, something Ellie can’t give. She needs Ellie to tell her it isn’t their fault—that they don’t bear the blame for the little boy, for his absolutely shattered sister—who can’t possibly be the same again. Dina needs Ellie to say she’s right, that JJ won’t be just as changed—that he won’t be wounded by this, too.

But Ellie can’t say any of that. Can’t force any words out. Can’t put any syllables like that together. Not right now.

So she reaches out for Dina instead.

“C’mon,” she says gently. “Let’s get some sleep.”

But they won’t sleep and Ellie knows it. They might never sleep again. Might never feel that same sense of total safety they’d had just the night before.

Dina curls in against her, and she’s quiet, so quiet—but she’s not sleeping. The tears are slow and silent but steady, there against Ellie’s shoulder.

And Dina’s pain makes Ellie break. Makes her bring Dina closer still, makes her lift a hand to push away all that damp grief and fear. She holds Dina’s face, there in the dark, and whispers that everything’s gonna be fine. She spends the whole night whispering it. Over and over. All the things she can think to say. Until the sounds blend together, until it’s just a reassuring cadence, a rhythm of comfort and relief.

It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything’s gonna be fine.

Because there isn’t a place she wouldn’t go, a thing she wouldn’t do, a lie she wouldn’t tell—to spare either one of them a single ounce of hurt. 

It’s gonna be okay, Dina. We’re gonna be okay.

She keeps saying it. 

But the truth is that Ellie just doesn’t know.


His shirt is too tight. Scratchy around the collar. He doesn’t know why he has to wear these clothes anyway. He doesn’t know why it matters. He doesn’t know why anything matters.

Especially the way everybody had gotten all lined up in their best clothes—which really just meant the clothes with the least holes, closest to the right size, anything without a hood or a zipper. Nice of everyone to try, he figures, but what does it really do? Why would Cal care that he wore his scratchiest shirt today? Why would Cal care what shirt he wore at all?

Why would Cal care about anything?

Cal was dead. 

The thought knocks the air out of him every time. It’s like he keeps forgetting and finding out about it all over again, like it’s brand new, every time it recycles back into his thoughts. He just can’t get his head around it. He’d just been playing a round of Patrol with Cal and Walker and Jaime and the other kids, just earlier in the week. 

Any time Cal was on the Patrol team, he always wanted JJ to be one of the clickers—because he knew JJ would always let him win. He knew JJ wouldn’t scare him too badly. He knew JJ would give a hilariously dramatic death performance every time.

How did that happen? How could someone be here—and then just not? Where was Cal now? Sure, his body was back there, inside the little wooden church in a little wooden casket but JJ couldn’t think about that. Cal had been more than that, hadn’t he? More than arms and legs and bones and whatever solid stuff was inside everyone. Where was it now, the thing that made Cal who he was? That made him love drawing boats and birds and oceans he’d never seen? That made him carry around a tattered old book about famous aviators? 

Where was the thing that made him more than an inanimate object? Because that body in there—that wasn’t Cal, that was just a thing now. Like a chair or a lamp or a tree or anything else. Just there. What was it, the thing that made Cal smile, made him dance, made him laugh—made him alive?

And where is it now?

Maybe it’s just the special way a person’s brain fires. That would make sense. He read some books about that, how brains work with chemicals and, like—electricity or—something like that. Maybe that’s where the magic happened. Maybe it was all science. Maybe it was a thing that could be measured and touched—like, theoretically.

So what did that mean? Did it mean now that all that had stopped, all those chemicals and pulses and whatever else happened there inside a head—did it mean now Cal was just—nothing

That was unfair. And frightening. And it made him hurt for Cal because Cal wasn’t nothing. He didn’t have time to get to be what he wanted, to see planes or oceans or go on a real patrol, if he wanted. But he wasn’t nothing.

JJ wanted to believe that, because Cal deserved for someone to believe it—but JJ was also terrified of what the alternative meant for himself.

When he died—would he be nothing, too?

How close had he come, down there in that place—how close had he come to nothing?

And he’s ashamed that it makes him so afraid, ashamed that some part of him feels relieved—relieved that it wasn’t him. Relieved that he’s still here. That he gets more time to see planes and oceans. To be with his moms and his friends and his games and his home. He feels relieved that it was Cal and not him and he hates every inch of himself for it.

Hates himself because he feels relief—when it’s partially his own fault, what happened to Cal. Because he couldn’t stop it. He’d tried so hard. He’d tried so hard and Cal was still dead. 

“Hey.” Jaime says it glumly from behind him, and JJ rubs his sleeve quickly over his face as Jaime sits down beside him on the church steps.

JJ doesn’t say anything back, just looks down at his shoes, shoes that are a size too small but they’re the nicest ones he has and that felt important this morning. A hundred years ago. Or maybe five minutes. Time feels weird now.

Jaime doesn’t say anything either for a long time. They just sit and listen to the low murmur of somber voices drifting out of the small gap in the church doors. Everybody milling around and comforting the family and talking about Cal. JJ knows he should probably be in there. That Walker is probably crawling out of her skin, having to shake so many hands and be so nice and polite for so long—she’d hate that any day, but especially right now, when JJ knows she’s sad. And angry. Maybe mostly angry.

But JJ doesn’t want to be in there any more than Walker does. JJ just wants to sit here and try really hard to pretend he isn’t here at all. Try to pretend he’s nowhere. 

“I’m sorry for what I said about your moms,” Jaime says suddenly, hands stuffed into the pockets of a stiff jacket, a size too big. “I didn’t mean it. I like your moms.”

JJ lifts his face to look at the other boy, but doesn’t say anything. Jaime’s just looking down at the rough-hewn steps under their feet, but he seems almost sincere. It’s hard for JJ to tell.

“I think my dad might be kind of an idiot,” he adds with some mixture of reluctance and surprise, like maybe it’s the first time he’s said it out loud. “I don’t know why I just started saying the stuff he says. It’s dumb.”

“I’m not the one you need to apologize to,” JJ says shortly, but not unkindly.

“Walker won’t talk to me,” Jaime responds. “Her mom said I oughta stop coming around.”

“You kept a runner in the woods,” JJ reminds him flatly. 

“I know.”  Jaime’s hands tighten on his knees. “I shouldn’t have. I didn’t know—I didn’t know everything would go so wrong. It was an accident—it really was—“

There’s a hitch in his voice and JJ thinks he might be about to cry.

“You believe me, right?” Jaime asks, turning just enough to glance at JJ.

JJ takes a deep breath. Holds it. Thinks about how that day already feels like a million years ago. Like it happened to someone else. Like they were all a little smaller back then. Before all the blood.

He lets the air go in a heavy sigh.

“I believe you, Jaime,” he tells the other boy. “But I don’t know if it matters. Accident or not. It happened. No going back now.”

Jaime nods heavily. “No going back now.”

There’s a long moment of silence between them.

“You’re her best friend,” Jaime says as he stands up at last. “If you see Walker, can you—just tell her I’m sorry? About everything? Maybe she’ll actually listen to you.”

JJ nods and the stairs creak as Jaime starts to walk down toward the path.

”Jaime—“ JJ stops him, hesitates, forces out the question. “—you said you didn’t mean that stuff. About my moms. Right?”

”Yeah,” Jaime affirms earnestly, “I’m sorry, JJ—“

”What about the other thing?” JJ asks. “The thing about—about my mom leaving? Was that true?”

Jaime blanches, looks uncertain. 

“I...I don’t know,” Jaime says with a reluctant shrug. “My mom—she did say it. But that don’t mean it’s true, really. It doesn’t sound like something your mom would do. Right?”

JJ looks away, with a weight sinking further into his chest.

”Right,” he murmurs, unconvinced.

Jaime seems to sense that’s as much as JJ wants to talk about it—because he turns away hesitantly before wandering off down the path.

JJ watches him go and he can’t help but think it was a good idea, what Walker’s mom said. How she told Jaime to stop coming around their house.

Because JJ’s got a lot on his plate right now, a lot to think about—but it seems like nothing compared to what Walker’s been dealing with since—well, since what happened to Calvin. Walker hasn’t said much at all since that day, since they came out of that pit, not even to JJ. Not to anyone. JJ went to see her yesterday, found her rolled up in her bed. He tried to talk to her while his mom made polite, soft conversation with her mom in the living room. His parents weren’t letting him go anywhere alone now, it seemed.

He complained about it to Walker but—the truth is that he appreciates it. Makes him feel safe.

JJ’s sure he and Walker talked about something, but the conversation was hard and disjointed and and not like it used to be. Walker was so angry that it was hard to talk about anything, hard to get through to anything else. JJ didn’t blame her. He felt pretty angry, too, and Calvin wasn’t even his brother. 

But it’s good that Jaime won’t be going back around the Walker house, because JJ heard Claire Walker say it, and he’s not entirely sure what to do about it now. 

“JJ?” she’d said, sitting there on the edge of her bed. “JJ—I’m gonna make this right.”

Her voice had been edged in a kind of sadness JJ wasn’t sure he could totally understand. A sadness that was deep and fractured and—sharp, in its way. Her voice—it’s a fistful of broken glass. 

I’m gonna kill him, JJ.” She’d said in that broken glass voice. “I’m gonna kill Jaime.”

Chapter Text

They’ve been walking for a long time, here along the cool, shaded path carved through the wooded, rolling hills between Jackson and the outpost they’re trying to reach with a small supply replenishment. JJ’s lingered just a few paces behind her, behind her the whole time—and they’ve still only exchanged a handful of words.

Ellie can feel it, this thing weighing him down. she can almost hear the thoughts churning in his head. He hasn’t been the same since he came out of the woods that day—there’s just no denying it. He would have normally asked her a thousand questions by now, then questioned those questions. He would have been obsessively trying to find the biggest stick he could, increasingly delighted every time he inevitably found one a little bigger than the last—until she finally would’ve had to say, “ No, JJ, you’re not dragging that tree branch home.”

She knows, because they’ve walked together a lot. She likes walking with him. When he was little, he would gather every rock along the way when they went for walks. It took ages to get anywhere, because each one was a treasure with a wild story that he wanted to tell. But that was okay. Ellie didn’t mind. Wherever she was going—they could fucking wait. She had stories to hear.

It had been easier back then, when all it took was a pocketful of rocks to make him happy. When he was full of constant wonder and everything was blazingly new. 

Sometimes she misses that. But it’s a different kind of missing . Because she loves JJ just the way he is now, too—so it’s like missing a whole different person. A different time. It’s a little bit of nostalgic ache and a little bit of fear and guilt—because she’s done her best, she and Dina both, and she knows that. But maybe it’s just the nature of being a parent to constantly worry that you could’ve done better. That you’ve already messed up in some way you can’t see yet. Maybe it’s not all parents. Maybe it’s just Ellie. Maybe this is just her nature—being always half-convinced that she’s terrible at this, even after all these years. 

And it’s because of times like right now, when she knows something is wrong but she can’t figure out how to even start fixing it. Her brain says just talk to him but the words never come. Never coalesce into anything that sounds right. She knows herself, knows how words come out of her in ways she doesn’t always mean—especially in situations like this, things so delicate and important. This is Dina’s thing. Because Dina has such a way of being able to really see it, the way someone’s feeling, and how to bring those feelings all together, make them make sense, tie them up in neat bundles that seem infinitely easier to manage. But Ellie?

Dina’s a smooth, cohesive, gentle ballet—and Ellie’s not even a dancer at all. At the very best, she’s the guy in the lobby who trips on his shoes and knocks over a lamp and probably causes some kind of devastating fire. Dina knows how to make things better—Ellie only knows how to accidentally burn things down.

But it was Dina’s idea for Ellie to take him with her today, because even she can’t get anything out of him. Can’t get him to talk about what happened to Calvin. 

He’s not old enough for a proper patrol route—but this is just a cache replenishment, on a fairly safe, tamed stretch of territory. The only thing vaguely threatening is the shopping mall—she can see it already, down at the bottom of the steep slope of hillside to their right. But they cleared it out ages ago. 

Maybe he’ll talk to you, Dina had said worriedly. Take him. Maybe it’ll help.

So they’ve been walking in silence because she told Dina she would try, but she can’t seem to find the words to bridge the gap. And she wonders if this is how Joel felt. All those times when she needed him to say something, anything, and he just kept walking. Had he wanted to say something then, as badly as she does now—and just didn’t know how?

Either way—she knows she doesn’t want to do that to JJ. That it’s hard and it sucks and she might fuck it up—but she has to try .

“You, okay back there?” she asks him, glancing over her shoulder.

He’s looking at the ground, with his brow furrowed and his dark, untidy hair all pushed to one side. He doesn’t look up.

“I’m fine,” he mumbles, distracted, uninterested.

She takes a few more steps. God—she has to try again, doesn’t she? She has to do something .

She just can’t shake the feeling that he’s not only upset—but actually mad at her. He’s been mad at her before, of course—mostly over the entire tree limbs she’d forced him to abandon in the woods. But not like this. 

“Awful quiet today,” she observes to him. “Did I tell you about the comic stash Janet and Gary found on their way back from Helena?”

Comic books. There’s the bridge. There’s the thing. She can do this. She can help. 

“No,” he says shortly.

“Yeah, they found a whole mess of stuff. Josh is still sorting them out in the library but we should go check them out soon—“

She stops, having realized she can’t hear his footsteps anymore. She turns back, finds him standing a ways back on the trail, feet planted firmly. And she can feel that something is coming—she just doesn’t know what . But there’s a determined look on him, like he can’t keep whatever it is back for a second more.

“Did you...did you leave us once?” 

She goes a little numb. Then a lot numb. 

“Me and mom—did you leave us?” he repeats, like he’s not sure she understands the question.


“Who told you that?” she asks, and her voice feels like someone else’s voice, someone smaller, weaker. Someone who’s guilty and scared.

“Why does that matter? Either you did or you didn’t.”

She reaches up, tucks her fingers around the straps of her backpack. Looks down at her shoes and tries to ignore the feeling in her chest, like every chamber of her heart is filling up with cement. For a wild second, there’s an impulse to just say no . To tell him it never happened. So his idea of them, and their life, and their family—so it never has to change. So he can keep believing that some things really are perfect, without any fractures or scuffs.

Or maybe just so he won’t think of her differently. Because he will. She’s standing on the edge of a moment—on one side, JJ still thinks she’s strong and infallible and unbreakable. On the other—he realizes she’s something else. He gets to see a dark, ugly side of her. And it doesn’t matter that she hasn’t thought of it in years, that she hasn’t thought of that girl, nineteen and shattered and quietly pushing Dina’s hands away from her face. For JJ—it matters. It matters who she was then, because it factors into who he is now.

The truth—it’s going to hurt him. 

She always said there wasn’t a lie she wouldn’t tell to keep them from this—from the kind of hurt that reaches down and reshapes you, changes you. She just never imagined it like this.

She should lie, and save them all a load of trouble and pain.

“Well?” he says, when she still hasn’t answered.

She takes a deep breath. Lets it out slow. 

She nods. 

His mouth turns into a hard line, and he goes a little pale. 

“It was complicated,” she says, almost pleadingly. “I didn’t—I didn’t just leave—“

“Where’d you go?” he demands, affectless.

She hesitates, aware of how it’s going to sound and unsure of how to explain. She wasn’t prepared for this. How could she be?

“Why?” he adds, “Why would you leave us behind like that?”

“I couldn’t—I couldn’t bring you with me —“ she says, “You were a baby— and you needed you mom—“

“Why would you go somewhere if we couldn’t go, too? Why would you wanna go someplace we couldn’t be?” 

It’s scathing and angry and disappointed, but it’s melting together into deep hurt. It’s coated in betrayal.

“I—I just—“ she stumbles, looking into this face she loves so well and knowing that she doesn’t have a suitable answer, doesn’t have anything that will make sense to him—knowing that, in some way, she’s broken his heart. And she can’t do anything about it. Can’t take it back. Can’t change what she did. Can’t make it sound any better now. 

“Did you just not love us?” 

The question knocks the wind out of her.

“God—JJ, no—no, it wasn’t like that.” She takes a few urgent steps forward, puts her hands on his shoulders. “I have—I have never not loved you guys—I—“

She feels like she can’t breathe. The guilt chokes off her air and if she were alone she would just cry . Like she hasn’t done in a long time. Those sobs that rock you down to the core and leave you too empty to move. 

But she’s not alone. And she needs him to understand. She takes his face in her hands and her voice is hardly more than a quaver.

“You and your mom—you’re my life , JJ. Always. Since before you were born—for most of my life—that didn’t change then, and it won’t change now—“

“You left us,” he says with quiet, cutting acidity—but he seems almost a little surprised, like saying it out loud, from his own mouth, has made it more real. “You left us.”

I made a mistake,” she tells him firmly, desperately. “I made a mistake that I had to make, that I needed to make, so that we could be here, now. So we could have what we have. So I could be who you guys needed me to be.”

“So you did it for us?” he asks and there’s something uncharacteristically caustic, dismissive, contemptuous. “It was for our own good?”

“No—JJ, that’s not what I meant—“

He pulls away from her, backs up several paces. 

“No—what, you left me and mom all alone and I’m supposed to be, like, grateful—?”

“Dammit, JJ— you know that’s not what I mean—“  

“How long were you gone?”


How long were you gone ?” 

His raised voice seems to bounce off the trees. It’s the first time he’s ever raised his voice at her. Other than when he was a toddler demanding one more snack. One more story. One more silly face. 

He’s not a toddler anymore. It was easier then, when a pocketful of rocks was all it took to make him happy. Maybe all her dread has been because she’s known that someday he’d want answers—answers that would hurt him. 

She looks around at the trees, like maybe something out there in the underbrush is gonna help. 

“Almost...almost a year,” she says finally. “It...took a lot longer to get home—for a lot of reasons—“

“A year? ” he repeats, incredulous. “A fucking year ?”

“Not—it was—I don’t know—I got back as fast as I could, JJ—“

“I was a baby —did I even remember you when you got back?”

She closes her eyes, lowers her face. 

“Not—not at first, but that’s—JJ—“

“Just—just leave me alone—“ he says with a wave of his hand, backpedaling away from her. “I don’t—I don’t even wanna talk about this anymore—“ 

He glances down the steep hillside, out beyond the trees, down to where the decrepit little shopping mall is slowly being swallowed up by the shifting landscape and its accompanying flora. 

“JJ—“ she says, following his gaze. “—I know you’re mad but you have to stick with me right now—it’s not safe to go running around—“

“Like you care—“ he mutters darkly, turning his back on her as he starts for the slope of land that empties out into the shopping mall parking lot.

JJ !” She says it with all the authority she can muster and she starts to follow him. She catches his arm.

But he shakes her off.

“I said fucking leave me alone ,” he snaps—and then he takes off in earnest, slipping down the hillside and through the trees, down toward the collapsing pile of concrete below. 

Fuck —JJ, wait—“

She follows him—and almost immediately makes a misstep. The world shifts and she starts to slide down the muddy, leaf-strewn hillside, out of control and unable to get any purchase, to stop herself.

JJ !” She calls out at him even though she can’t see him, can’t get her bearings.

She’s finally able to grab a rough outcropping of rock jutting from the soil. She finds her feet, slicked in mud andaching from the fall—but she’s not concerned about that. 

She’s concerned because she doesn’t see JJ anywhere . She tries to listen for him, but she can’t breathe, can’t hear anything other than the blood pounding in her ears. She cups her hands around her mouth.

J J !”

There’s no answer, just the sound of the leaves in the trees shifting in the wind.

She looks further down the hill at the shopping mall.

Fuck .