I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger
I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was born and raised
For six long years I've been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I find
For in this world I'm bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now
- from A Man of Constant Sorrow, traditional American folk song
Joel’s horse died at noon.
He was leading it up a narrow path up a series of endless rocky ridges, somewhere south of Balmorhea, when it simply stopped and refused to move any more. Joel cursed and hauled on the reins, but the poor creature was used up. It groaned once, a deep, rattling groan, and collapsed on the ground, its sweaty flanks utterly still.
Joel sat down on the trail and rested his elbows on his knees, licking his dry, chapped lips with a tongue that felt two sizes too big. He was dizzy from the heat and dehydration, but he’d drunk the last swallow of warm, flat water from his canteen the previous night, and he knew what he needed to do next. Kneeling next to the horse’s head, he drew the Bowie knife he wore at his hip out of its sheath and sliced down through skin and muscle into the jugular vein, cupping his hand under the horse’s neck to catch the sluggish flow of blood. He drank as much as he could, gagging at the iron salty taste and the thick texture, knowing that if he didn’t, he would probably be dead before this time tomorrow. When he could stomach no more, he sat down on the rocky ground and leaned back against the horse’s carcass, taking deep breaths and fighting the urge to vomit.
It didn’t do any good; Joel’s stomach heaved once, twice, and then he was on his hands and knees and throwing up everything he’d just drunk, spattering the dusty rocks with blood that joined the slowly growing pool spreading out from the horse’s body.
He collapsed back against the horse, too weak for the moment to even try to find shelter from the relentless sun.
“God damn it.” His voice was so hoarse he barely recognized it as his own, and he realized with a start that he hadn’t spoken out loud since Odessa, not since he’d buried Tommy near that little farmhouse and moved on alone. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really, he was spectacularly shitty company these days.
He closed his eyes. He could stay right here, he realized. Just not get up again. The temptation washed over him like a cool breeze. He was so goddamned tired. By his map he was still miles away from any water, and that was if he was even headed in the right direction, which he doubted. These ridges were like a fucking maze, and he’d lost sight of the Guadalupe mountains as a means to orient himself hours ago.
They’d headed west, after leaving that bad scene with their hunter crew in Philadelphia, how many months ago? Joel couldn’t remember; time had started to shift and blend unpredictably after Tommy--
They should have skirted around Odessa. He’d known it, but their supplies were getting low and they were about to head out into the sparsely populated wide-open spaces of west Texas. They needed to stock up.
Heading west had been Tommy’s idea, but Odessa...that was all Joel. They’d been sniping at each other for days over the wisdom of continuing west. Tommy insisted they keep going, so Joel had been concentrating too much at being pissed off at Tommy, and he’d walked them right into the ambush. They’d used up most of their ammo getting away. Joel hadn’t even known Tommy was hit until they made it to that farmhouse on the outskirts of town and Tommy just suddenly collapsed. By then, it was too late to do anything about it, except hold his brother’s hand while he bled out from the bullet that had ripped into his gut.
Joel hadn’t cried, not then, not while he dug Tommy a shallow grave under a gnarled oak tree, not once in the confusion of days since, but he felt like crying now, and now that there was so little moisture in his body the tears wouldn’t come.
Tommy’s last words to him had been, “Not your fault, Joel.”
Joel leaned back against the warm body of the dead horse, making himself as comfortable as possible. “Told you it was a stupid idea to come west,” he whispered. “Guess I’ll see you again soon, little brother.” You and Sarah both, he thought, as he started to drift off.
“You have to keep going.”
Joel’s eyes flew open again. He sat up and craned his neck, but saw no one. That voice had been as clear as day, and it sounded so familiar...but no. He was alone, wandering through the west Texas desert with no water, no food, and no horse. He’d come to the end of the line. That voice was just some dream.
He settled back against the horse again and rested his cheek against its smooth hide. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Get up, Dad!”
The voice was as loud as the crack of a bullet, and Joel was halfway to his feet before he even realized what he was doing. “Sarah?” he croaked. He rubbed the watch on his left wrist and cleared his throat. A tiny voice in the corner of his mind reminded him that Sarah was dead, had been dead for over six years now, since the night she'd given him that watch. But the painful hope that flared in his chest at the sound of her voice overwhelmed all of his senses. “Sarah? Is that you?”
“You have to keep going,” she said again. “It’s not far now.”
Joel’s eyes felt like someone had rubbed sand in them, and his body was whittled down to sinew and bone, but somehow he found the strength to stagger a few steps toward the voice. Toward Sarah. He couldn’t see her, maybe she was around that next bend in the trail, or behind the ridge.
“Come on, Dad. You have to keep fighting,” she said.
“Okay. Okay. I’m comin’.” Joel fought with his exhausted body, forcing his limbs into motion. He took small steps, because that was the only way he could maintain his balance; he was still dizzy with fatigue and dehydration. “I’m comin’, baby girl. Just…just don’t leave me.” His voice cracked.
Her voice whispered in his ear, “I never left you, Daddy.”
Joel put one foot in front of the other, climbing up the rocky path to the top of the ridge.
When he made it to the top and looked down the other side, he saw the sweetest sight he’d ever seen in his life: a tiny stream, carving its way through a deep ravine, and Sarah, kneeling next to it to fill a waterbag, her horse browsing on the gray-green shrubs nearby.
Joel’s heart hammered in his chest as he waved to her. It had been so long since he’d seen her. “Sarah!” His voice came out as nothing more than a croak.
She turned, and Joel could see he’d surprised her. Pride swelled in his chest when she trained the barrel of a pistol on him. His baby girl could take care of herself. She’d recognize him soon enough, after all, she’d been leading him here. “Sarah,” he called again, and started down the ridge.
In his haste he didn’t pay enough attention to his footing, and when his left ankle turned on a loose rock, he went down hard, sliding and rolling the rest of the way down the steep slope. A sharp rock grazed his temple on the way down, and in the burst of pain that followed, even the bright sunshine started to dim and Joel realized he was starting to lose consciousness.
“No…” he moaned as he rolled to a stop at the bottom of the ravine, his fingers just touching the cool water. He was so close, but he’d exhausted his body’s every reserve, and the knock on the head made it impossible for him to force himself to move, even through sheer willpower. His arms and legs were heavy, made of rubber. “Sarah…”
She leaned over him, her face blocking out the sun, and as Joel’s vision faded into blackness, his last thought was to wonder why Sarah’s eyes were green now instead of blue.
Cool water trickled over his dry lips and filled his mouth. He choked at first, and then sucked greedily at the mouth of the bottle that was being held to his lips.
“Easy,” a voice said. “You’ll make yourself sick if you drink too much.”
Joel’s head was spinning, he had a splitting headache, and he couldn’t seem to move, but he caught a glimpse of the voice’s owner before the blackness swallowed him again: a young woman with short red hair and green eyes, her pale face sprinkled with freckles.
The next time he woke up it was dark, but a tiny campfire crackled a few feet away. Joel could smell meat cooking and his stomach cramped with hunger pains so strong it ripped an involuntary moan from his throat.
“I guess you decided to live, after all.” a shadowy form moved on the other side of the fire, and as she came into the light, Joel saw it was the red-haired woman from before. “You want some water?”
Joel tried to say yes, but his throat was too dry. Instead, he nodded. That was when he realized he was lying on his side, trussed up like a turkey with his hands behind his back. The arm he was lying on was numb; he guessed he’d been in this position for a while.
She frowned for a second as if she was considering the logistics of getting the water into his mouth, and then she sighed and hauled him up into a kneeling position. She wasn’t careful about it. Joel grunted in pain as she moved him; every inch of his body ached, his left ankle was swollen, and it felt like he’d cracked a couple ribs in his descent down the hill. His head felt like it was being split with a hammer. She held the bottle of water to his lips and tilted it into his mouth. It was warm and tasted like plastic. Joel thought it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.
After he’d drunk his fill, he said, in a voice that was still hoarse, “Thank you.”
She moved away from him again, but stayed in the circle of light from the fire, where she could watch him. “Are you crazy?” she finally said.
It wasn’t the question he expected. “What?”
“I’ve seen it happen, a guy’s all alone out here for too long, kind of goes around the bend. That happen to you?”
“No, I…” Joel remembered how confused he’d been, hearing Sarah’s voice, and amended his answer. “I don’t think so.”
“You want to explain why you’re covered in blood and staggering through my territory like an idiot, with no food or water, mumbling to yourself, then?” Her green eyes gleamed in the firelight.
“Didn't know I was in anyone's territory. I was headed for the mountains, lookin’ for water, but I lost my bearings,” he said. “The blood...it’s my horse’s. When she died, I tried…” Joel trailed off. He didn’t know how this strange woman would react to the news that he’d tried to drink the horse’s blood.
But she had a look of reluctant approval on her face. “You drank her blood to rehydrate. That’s smart, if you can keep it down.”
Joel grimaced. “Yeah, well…”
A flash of sympathy crossed her face, replaced quickly by a stony glare. “You said you were headed to the mountains. Where from?”
Joel kept his mouth shut, mostly through force of habit. He felt he’d already said too much. He didn’t know how dangerous this woman could be, and he was completely at her mercy, tied up like he was.
Her lips compressed into a grim line. “Fine. Be like that. It’s too bad; I was gonna share my dinner with you, but I don’t feed people I might have to kill later.”
At that, Joel’s stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in three days, and whatever she was cooking on the little fire smelled so good his mouth would have been watering if he wasn’t still so dehydrated.
“We came through Odessa,” he blurted. “My brother and me. We walked right into an ambush, had to fight our way through to the other side. They...he…” Joel swallowed, his throat tightening at the memory of a shallow grave under an oak tree. “He didn’t make it.”
Her eyes were blank, totally unreadable, when she said, “You ran into that crew in Odessa? The ones with the red bandanas?
“Yeah.” Come to think of it, the bandits that had ambushed him and Tommy had all worn red bandanas tied around their throats.
“How many of them did you kill?” Again, her face was blank, as hard as a marble statue.
Joel hesitated. The wrong answer here might be the end of him, and he was just starting to get used to the idea of living through the night. He decided to be honest. “Ten. Maybe fifteen.”
Her face cracked into a fierce smile. “Good. I hate those assholes.” She moved around behind him and he felt cool metal on his hands; she cut his hands free using his own Bowie knife, and said, “Don’t make any sudden moves. And I’ll hold on to this for now.” She held up Joel’s knife, examining the edge in the firelight. “You got a name?”
“Joel,” he said, rubbing his wrists.
She settled in on the other side of the fire to tend to the meat that was sizzling on the spit, laying his knife across her knee. “Ellie.”
When Joel woke up the next morning, he was alone in the little cave that Ellie called home, the ashes of last night’s fire cold and dead beside him. His head and ankle and ribs still throbbed, but he felt more alert and clearheaded than he had in days, thanks to the food and water and a night of uninterrupted sleep.
They hadn’t spoken much more the night before; after Joel got some food in his stomach he’d barely been able to keep his eyes open, and he’d yawned so hugely that when Ellie had told him to just lie down and she’d keep watch, it was a measure of his exhaustion that he took her at her word.
There was a battered PowerBar and a plastic bottle of water next to his head; he guessed Ellie had left it for him to eat when he woke up. He choked the thing down, doing his best to ignore its gummy texture and sickly-sweet taste, washing it down with big swigs of clean water. He’d certainly eaten worse in the past six years.
He tossed the wrapper into the fire ring and stiffly got to his feet, wincing as he put his weight on his left foot. His ankle was swollen, but it felt like a sprain, not a break, and would probably be all right in a few days. A quick search through the cave turned up not much of use; his gun was gone, as was his knife.
When he stepped outside, he found a mare grazing on brush in a makeshift paddock near the cave entrance. She whickered when she saw him and came over to nose his pockets. He stroked her nose and murmured, “Sorry, I don’t have anything for you.”
He could hear the murmur of water not far away and figured the cave must be close to the stream where he’d first encountered Ellie. Leaving the horse, he followed his ears and found Ellie there, squatting on the bank in a pair of shorts and a tank top, washing some clothes in the stream. She had a dirty white bandage wound around her right forearm.
She looked up when she heard him approaching and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Morning, sunshine. You’re looking a little more awake today.” Despite her jocular tone she wasn’t smiling, but eyed him warily.
The last thing Joel wanted to do was come across as a threat, so he stayed back out of reach and squatted down so he was at her eye level. “Morning. I, uh…I don’t really know how to thank you,” he said awkwardly, “but thank you. I think you saved my life.”
The tension in her shoulders relaxed visibly, and she gave him a little half-smile. “Probably.”
He pointed to the water. “You mind if I…”
“Please. I’d appreciate it. You smell like a fucking slaughterhouse.”
Joel laughed at that, the first free, unguarded laugh he’d experienced in he didn’t remember how long. He’d always appreciated women who spoke their minds, and Ellie was all barbs and no sugarcoating. Still, he thought he detected a hint of amusement in her eyes and it felt good to be sharing humor with someone else. Laughing felt good; it made him feel halfway human again.
He stood and walked to the edge of the stream, where a bend in the creekbed had formed a deep pool, but when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glassy surface of the water he stopped cold and knelt on the bank to get a better look. “Jesus Christ.” His smile vanished, eaten up by shock.
His hair was long, down past his ears, and it stuck out at crazy angles above his red-rimmed eyes. His chin and beard were caked and matted with blood, which had dripped down and stained the chest of his shirt a deep red. He was skinnier than he ever remembered seeing himself, his cheeks hollow and his cheekbones jutting sharply out from his face. He looked crazy, no wonder she’d asked him that last night. No, worse. He looked--
He glanced over to where Ellie still knelt upstream from him, where the water was shallower. She was watching him closely.
“I’m really goddamned glad you didn’t shoot me last night. I look like a fucking infected.”
She smirked. “Yeah, well, that’s what I thought you were at first. But I’ve never heard an infected say anybody’s name before. Who’s Sarah?”
Joel looked away from her, unable to speak past the sudden lump in his throat, even if he’d been willing to do so. He sat back and started to take his boots off, the silence stretching on uncomfortably until he said, “Thanks for the food this morning."
He could feel her staring holes in him but he didn’t look at her, he just unbuttoned his blood-crusted shirt and shrugged out of it, and then waded into the pool, still wearing his jeans and underwear. The water was surprisingly cold, must have been spring-fed, but it felt good on his aching hide. He sluiced water over his head and scrubbed at his matted beard, wishing he had a pair of scissors to trim it, too.
“Here,” Ellie said. Joel turned around to see her holding out a pink plastic bottle of shampoo.
He took it and looked down, touched by her kindness despite himself. It had been a long time since anyone had been kind to him. “Appreciate it.”
She shrugged. “I’ll give you some privacy. Believe me, you’re doing me a favor.” And with that, she trudged back up the trail to the cave, her wet laundry scrunched into a ball at her hip.
He watched her as she went, her long white legs strong and sure as she picked her way up the stony path, and he realized that a million years ago, some man he used to be might have thought she was pretty.
She’d left a bar of soap on the bank too, and Joel used it to scrub as much of the blood and dirt out of his shirt as he could, and then he stripped his jeans off and gave them the same treatment. He was still weak, even this little effort left him breathless. He washed his body twice, scrubbing himself until the lather was white instead of gray. God, it felt good to divest himself of the persistent layer of grime for once, to strip the grease and dirt out of his hair. The shampoo in the pink bottle smelled like strawberries, a scent Joel would have avoided before the outbreak, but when he opened the bottle...it wasn’t that the scent triggered any specific memory, but it reminded him so strongly of how things like this used to be normal, that before he could stop it, the carefully constructed dam holding back his memories had burst.
Drinking coffee and eating breakfast tacos at Strange Brew before he went to work in the morning. That perfume Annabelle wore while they were dating, the one that drove him so crazy. Sarah’s smooth skin when she was still a baby. The roar of the crowd when Austin High School made a touchdown. The smell of Tommy’s apartment, a combination of week-old dishes, cigarette smoke, and stale beer.
The flood of memories came faster and faster, everything that he had lost and tried to forget. Tommy. Sarah.
The shampoo bottle slipped from his fingers and drifted downstream as he convulsed in an honest-to-god sob. It had been years since Joel had cried, and he couldn’t stop it now that it had started. He sat down on the bank of the stream and buried his head in his knobby knees, gulping for air as his body heaved with sobs and tears ran down his face into his beard. He cried so hard that each sob wracked his wasted body and left him shuddering and gasping for breath. It didn’t feel cathartic, it felt ugly, and Joel hated himself for not being able to stop. It wasn’t until he heard the rattle of pebbles from the path behind him and thought Ellie was coming back that he was able to rein himself into some semblance of calm, and he was able to maintain it even when he turned around and saw no one coming down the path. Must have been some small animal that disturbed the stones, but Joel was grateful for the distraction.
Wading downstream, he rescued the shampoo bottle from where it had gotten caught against some rocks, and then he finished his bath, rubbing hard at his red eyes, as if that would dry them up.
When Joel painstakingly limped his way back up to the cave, he found Ellie slipping her arms through the straps of a backpack.
“I was starting to wonder if you’d drowned,” she said. “I was going to come check on you before I left.”
“You’re leaving? Where are you going?”
“Relax. I just need to do a little hunting, or we’re not going to eat tonight. I’ll be back before dark.”
“I can help,” he said.
Ellie eyed him skeptically. “No offense, but I don’t know you. That means I’m not gonna have you at my back with a weapon. Besides, you don’t look like you’re gonna keel over anymore but you’re barely in good enough shape to make it to the stream and back. You just stay here and rest that ankle up, so you can be on your way.”
Joel clenched his jaw and nodded. He couldn’t blame her, but he didn’t like feeling so useless. “You gonna leave me here without anything to defend myself?”
She gave him a hard stare, then said, “You seem like a resourceful guy. There are plenty of rocks around.”
“This is bullshit!” he said. “What if some infected wanders up here? You ain’t exactly got a door on this thing.”
She laughed. “No infected come up here. The infected stay where the people are.” She slipped a bow over her shoulder, gave him a considering look, and then pulled his sheathed Bowie knife out of her pocket and threw it to him. “Don’t make me regret that. I don’t have enough ammo to waste putting a bullet in your brain.”
“Thanks,” Joel said, a wry smile pulling the corners of his mouth. “Isn’t there anything I can do while you’re gone, to help out?”
She tossed him a bottle of water and said, “If you know how to make snares, I could use more. The wire is in that box.” She pointed to a small wooden chest.
Joel nodded. “I can do that. Be careful out there.”
She gave him a strange look, then shook her head. “Okay. Bye.”
After she left, Joel settled himself on his bedroll and twisted wire into loops for snares for a while. When the wire was all used up, another rummage through the box turned up a pair of scissors, which Joel used to trim his hair and beard to a finger's length, by feel.
And then he waited. Once, in the late afternoon, he thought he heard a set of gunshots, but the way sound echoed crazily through these ridges it could have come from the next ridge over or from miles away.
When night fell, he made a small fire, just so he wasn’t sitting in a dark cave by himself, but the flickering shadows tricked his eyes and made him start so many times it was almost worse than the dark. Almost.
Joel sat near the cave entrance, his back propped up against the rock wall, and his knife within easy reach of his hand. The silence was absolute. How the hell did she stand it here, all alone?
He thought he heard her coming back once after night had fully fallen, but the sound turned out to be just a couple of javelinas nosing through the brush near the cave entrance, and Joel spooked them off when he dragged himself to his feet. After that he stood on the wide, flat ledge outside the cave, leaning on the low wall of rock she’d built for the horse paddock and straining his ears and eyes for any sign of her. He tipped his head back to look at the sky. It was a moonless night, and the space between the stars was a deep, inky black. And the stars...you never saw stars like that before the outbreak. There were billions of them, all scattered across the sky in bright diamond clusters, the long arm of the Milky Way galaxy smeared across the lower quarter of the sky like a river of light.
A satellite winged its way across his field of vision, a relic of life before, no longer sending or receiving anything, just endlessly circling the planet until its orbit decayed and it crashed back down home in a blaze of glory. He wondered if the astronauts up on the space station had made it back to Earth, after everything started going to shit, or if they’d been stuck up there, captive witnesses to the death of humanity until their air and supplies ran out.
The thought of a space station full of corpses, just going around and around forever, was so oppressive that Joel stopped looking up and limped his way back into the cave to take up his vigil again.
Joel started to wonder what he would do if Ellie didn’t come back. He was well set for water, but another search of the cave this afternoon had turned up no food at all; either she didn’t have any food stored, or it was so well hidden that he was missing it somehow. His stomach growled at him. “Easy,” he said aloud. “We’ll figure something out.”
“You always talk to yourself, or is this a special occasion?”
Joel leapt to his feet, and winced in pain as the movement jarred his swollen ankle. “Jesus!” She had come up on him completely silently. When she came into the circle of the firelight, he swore again. “Jesus.” She was pale, more pale than she should be, and blood was dripping down her right arm and spattering on the rocky ground. “What happened?”
“Ran into one of those red-bandana-wearing motherfuckers. I’ve never seen them out this far from Odessa. He managed to wing me before I took him down.” She said it matter-of-factly, like she was talking about taking an evening stroll instead of facing a life-or-death situation. “I’ll need your help getting the medical supplies ready and putting the horse up.”
“Yeah. Of course.” Medical supplies? He’d been over every damn inch of this cave, and aside from the little wooden chest, which held not much more than the snare wire and a few tools, and a rickety little bookshelf stacked with trashy paperbacks, there wasn’t much else. There certainly wasn’t a goddamn thing he could use to treat a bullet wound.
She nodded. “Louise is down at the stream, watering herself. She’ll come up here when she’s done.” She took a deep breath, and Joel could tell by the way she clenched her jaw that she was in pain, even though she was trying like hell not to show it to him. “But let’s get me patched up first.”
“With what, exactly? You don’t even have anything to disinfect it!” Joel’s voice sounded angrier than he meant it to, but he couldn’t help himself. The woman’s irresponsibility would get her killed.
Ellie’s smile was hard. “You been going through my stuff, Joel?”
He looked away from her glare, but said, “I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking. No one should be living like this, alone, with no supplies, on the knife’s edge between life and death every single fucking day.”
Ellie’s smile fell away. “Who the hell do you think you are? Let me tell you something: we all live on that knife’s edge. It’s just more honest out here.” She eyed him contemptuously. “You know what? Fuck you. I don’t need your help.” She swayed on her feet, giving lie to her words, but maintained her glare, as if daring Joel to call her on it.
He shook his head and said, “Fine.” And with that, he turned on his heel and left the cave to wait for the horse, whose name was apparently Louise.
He was back inside a few seconds later when he heard her slump to the floor, kneeling beside her. She hadn’t passed out, but the blood loss had made her woozy enough that she’d finally lost her balance.
“Come on, Ellie, I’m sorry. Let me help.” He reached out for her left shoulder, meaning to help her over to her bedroll, but she flinched away from him.
“No! Don’t touch me!” The panic in her voice made him freeze.
“Okay,” he said, in his most soothing tone. “I’m not...I just want to help you over to your bed…”
“No, you can’t...oh, fucking hell, I’m gonna pass out…” Her eyes were becoming more and more unfocused as the shock and blood loss finally started to catch up with her. She gripped Joel’s shirt with her good hand and said, with an urgency that surprised him, “Don’t touch my blood. You understand? Don’t touch it. Look behind the bookshelf. Don’t…” Her eyes rolled up into her head and she went limp.
God damn it. Joel limped his way over to the bookshelf and shoved it aside to reveal a dark opening in the cave wall. As he crawled through it, he thought, What the hell was that all about? Was she sick with something? She seems perfectly healthy, I mean, aside from the bullet wound, but she was so insistent…
It was darker than the inside of a coffin on the other side of the hole, but Joel could tell by the way his movements echoed that this new chamber was big, much bigger than Ellie’s tiny living space. He groped in his pocket for the little LED keychain flashlight that he carried as a backup to the tactical light he normally wore clipped to his backpack.
When the light finally clicked on, he gave a low whistle. Canned food, sundries, medical supplies...everything was stacked and organized, enough to keep one person going for at least a year. How the fuck had she gotten all this up here by herself?
Joel picked up a medical kit and looked inside. Good. It had gauze, sutures, a surgical needle, everything he might need to sew her up. He hoped the bullet wasn’t still in her arm, but he grabbed a pair of needle-nosed pliers too, just in case, and a bottle of vodka for disinfectant. Remembering her strange insistence that he not touch her blood, he picked up a box of latex surgical gloves, and then crawled back through to the front cave with his haul.
Ellie was still unconscious, but she moaned softly when he straightened out her body and pulled her closer to the fire so he could see what he was doing a little better. He pulled on a pair of latex gloves and gently tugged at the shirtsleeve on her wounded shoulder. He grimaced. Despite the current sluggish flow of blood from her wound, her shirt was stuck to it. It looked like she’d managed to stop the bleeding once already, but it had reopened. He was going to have to soak it off. Grimly, he unscrewed the cap on the vodka bottle and tipped it over her shoulder.
She woke up again when the alcohol hit her open wound. “Fuck! That…” Her eyes focused on him and filled with a fear that Joel didn’t even begin to understand how interpret. “What are you doing?” She looked down at her bloody shoulder, and his hands in the bloody gloves, poised above it. “I told you not to touch my blood!” Her voice climbed in volume and pitch as she looked around in panic. “Oh, god. Oh, my god. I’m...I TOLD you not to…”
“Ellie,” he interrupted. “It’s all right. You had gloves back there, remember? I’m wearing gloves. I haven’t touched your blood. It’s okay.”
Her frightened eyes went back to his hands and finally registered the gloves. She let out a shuddering sigh and relaxed. "Okay. Okay. Good. Shit, you scared me. Just...please be careful."
Joel got the impression she wasn't talking about her wound, but about himself. "What the hell is going on here?" he asked.
Ellie held his eyes for a long moment, and then nodded, her mouth still pinched with pain. “You should know, just in case I pass out again.” She struggled to sit up and started to pick at the dirty bandage wrapped around her right forearm, now saturated with blood from her shoulder wound. Her fingers were clumsy and Joel moved to help her, but she glared him down and said, “I can do it.”
She finally pushed the bandage down her arm, where it bunched around her wrist, and what Joel saw made him scramble back from her.
A bite. Where her forearm should have been smooth and unblemished was unmistakably a human bite. And just as unmistakable were the lumps of fungal growth under her skin.
Infected. Cordyceps brain infection was a parasitic fungus that devoured its host from the inside out, taking over the minds of its victims to propagate itself among the human population. It could be spread through spores or through any kind of contact with infected body fluids, but the most common contagion vector was a bite from someone who was already infected.
“Fuck!” Joel looked down at the bloody gloves in horror, then stripped them as fast as he could and threw them into the fire. “Fuck, fuck, oh, fuck.” Her blood was everywhere. The tiny spatters on the cave floor, on the wall, on his fucking clothes, all took on new and deadly meaning.
CBI moved fast, he'd seen it happen. Once you were infected, you had a day, two tops, and he’d been with her almost that long already. “How long? How long until you turn?”
She laughed, but there was no amusement in it. “Well, I don’t know, Joel. Considering I got bitten when I was seventeen, and that was five years ago, you tell me.”
“Bullshit,” he said.
“Look at it,” she said. “It’s not recent, you can tell.”
Joel’s pounding heart calmed down as he took a second look at the bite wound. She wasn’t lying, it was old, scarred over and white, not red. He looked at her again, his eyes wide. “What the fuck is going on here?”
She grimaced. “I’m immune. At least that’s what they told me.” She grabbed the hem of her shirt with her left hand and clumsily lifted it over her head, hissing in pain as the sticky fabric pulled away from her right shoulder. “But my blood can still infect someone who’s not immune. Which is basically everyone, or near enough that it doesn’t matter.” She balled the shirt up and tossed it into the fire.
“But...how?” Joel felt like he’d been punched in the gut. In the six years since the original outbreak, he’d never heard of anyone who was immune.
“Christ, you’re slow. My blood gets into your bloodstream...it’s lights out, and welcome to your new fungus overlord.” She picked up the bottle of vodka and grunted as she poured a good slug over the deep gash in her bicep. She gave the bottle a considering look, and then poured another slug down her own throat. “Or if you meant how am I immune, well, that’s easy. I’m a mutant superhero. Hand me that suture kit, will you?”
Joel did. He was still trying to process what she’d told him. “You mean, you’ve got a genetic mutation that makes you immune?”
She made a face. “It’s not as fun when you say it that way.” She tore open the suture kit with her teeth.
“Can you be serious for just a fucking second? I’m trying to understand…”
Ellie sighed. “Look, Joel, you seem like a decent enough guy, but there’s a reason I live up here all alone. I got sick of having to hide every time I scratched myself, and I got sick of worrying that I was going to infect someone. So just do both of us a favor and get out of here. Take care of Louise.”
“If you're immune, then maybe your blood isn’t infectious,” he said stubbornly.
“It is.” There was a quiet finality in her voice, a sadness that Joel didn’t want to know anything else about. It was clear she spoke from experience.
Deciding that there was no good way to respond, Joel didn’t say anything else. He limped outside and found Louise nosing at the makeshift paddock gate. “Hi, girl.” He moved the gate aside and Louise walked in, eagerly headed for the sparse patch of dry grass in the back corner. While she browsed, Joel untied the small javelina carcass tied on behind the saddle and set it next to the cave entrance, and then returned to unbuckle the saddlebags. One held a couple bottles of water and a bag of leathery jerky. The other...the other was his, he realized. In it was the battered map of west Texas, his toothbrush, a half-empty bottle of sunscreen, and down at the very bottom, the Harley-Davidson keychain that he’d given Tommy for his eighteenth birthday. He hadn’t even known Tommy still had it until he’d patted his brother’s pockets down for ammo, right before burying him.
Ellie had gone and found his horse, and brought back what she could salvage.
“Shit,” he said.
Moving as quickly as he could, Joel removed Louise’s saddle and rubbed her down. And then he headed back into the cave.
Ellie was halfway through stitching her shoulder. She’d done as much as she could comfortably reach, but the rest of the gash was placed so awkwardly that she’d have a hell of a time finishing it herself. She was resting, just staring into the fire, her eyes glassy from the pain and the vodka she’d drunk. She didn’t look up when he came back in.
Without saying anything, Joel shook two new gloves out of the box and put them on. When he knelt down at her right side, she finally seemed to notice him, and said, “What’re you doing?” Her words were slightly slurred.
“Finishing the job,” he said, taking the needle in his hand.
“No…” she said.
“Ellie,” he interrupted her. “You need help. Let me help you.” She looked like she was going to protest again, so he said, “I promise I’ll be careful.”
Her green eyes held his for a long moment, then she nodded. She turned her face back to the fire and took another long pull on the bottle of vodka.
Taking a deep breath, Joel held the edges of her wound together with one hand and pierced the needle through her skin with the other. She drew in her breath sharply, but other than that she didn’t move, and she remained impressively still while Joel finished stitching her up. The vodka bottle made more trips to her mouth, and her shaking hand was the only indication she gave of the pain he was causing her.
When he finally said, “Okay, all done,” and patted her gently on the shoulder, she slumped over in relief.
“Damn. That sucked.” She handed him the bottle. “You better slosh some of that on it, just to be safe. Remind me not to get shot again.”
Joel took the bottle and poured some onto the haphazard row of stitches in her bicep. “Don’t get shot again.”
She snorted, a tiny laugh that turned into a giggle.
It was the giggle that made Joel’s heart stop beating for a second. That she could laugh like that after what she’d just been through...Well. He’d never met anyone else like Ellie, that was for certain.
He handed the bottle back to her and wound a bandage around her upper arm. “Hey,” he said. “Why’d you have that bandage on over your bite, anyway?”
She made a sour face and took another sip of vodka. “Saves me having unfortunate misunderstandings with people.” She shook the stained bandage off her wrist and threw it toward the fire, but she missed by several feet. “Fuck.” She pulled from the bottle again.
“Hey, you might oughta go easy on that. You lost a lot of blood.” He soaked a washcloth with water, and then held out the rest of the bottle to her.
“Oh, might I oughta?” Her teeth gleamed in the firelight. He glared severely at her when she raised the bottle to her lips again, and she pouted and said. “You ruin all my fun.” But she handed the vodka over to him and took the water bottle he was offering her in exchange.
“Sorry,” he said. He ran the washcloth down the length of her arm, wiping the blood off her skin.
Although the day’s heat still lingered, and the water was warm, Ellie shivered. She turned and caught Joel’s wrist in both her hands and stared at his gloved hand unsteadily for a few seconds before her eyes traveled to his face. “You clean up all right,” she said. “I like the trim.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, then she took the washcloth from him. “I think I can probably finish that,” she said. “Will you find me a new shirt? My clothes are in the back.”
I like what you’re wearing right now. The thought flashed through his mind before he could stop it. He looked down at her lithe torso, clad only in a black sports bra, and swallowed hard. “Yeah. Of course. Be right back.”
Joel crawled back through the little opening in the back wall and rummaged through the pile of clothes until he found a tank top for her, something that wouldn’t irritate her stitches.
When she took the shirt from him with a grateful sigh and raised her arms over her head to pull it on, Joel saw something he hadn’t noticed before: her belly, instead of being taut, was soft and latticed with stretch marks. They were dark pink, too new yet to have faded to a less noticeable silver.
Ellie was a mother.
Or had been.
“Damn, this is good.” Ellie took another bite of the meat. “Are you sure you’ve never cooked javelina before?”
Joel swallowed the bite that he’d been chewing before answering, “Never even seen one before today, except on nature programs, but I reckon they’re a lot like pigs.”
“And you’ve cooked a lot of pigs, have you?” She smiled. With her half-drunk and mostly out of commission, Joel had taken over kitchen duty, skinning and roasting the little javelina she’d brought back from her hunting trip. She seemed to be sobering up, now that she had some food in her stomach.
“No,” he said with a grin. “But I’ve eaten a lot of pigs.”
“Bacon. And ham. And pork chops. And carnitas.”
“What the hell is carnitas?” she asked.
“What the...where did you even grow up, woman?” Joel put on his best affronted look.
“Massachusetts,” she said. “Just outside of Boston. I didn’t end up here in Texas until after the outbreak.”
“A Yankee! I shoulda known. I’m sorry for you, I really am.” She rolled her eyes at him, so he said, “You make carnitas by braising a big hunk of pork until you can pull it apart and then you fry it just until the outsides turn crispy. We used to go to this taco place in east Austin that made corn tortillas from scratch and served carnitas so good it would bring tears to your eyes.”
Joel, still lost in his rhapsodic memory of carnitas tacos, wasn’t prepared for her question. “What?”
“You said we used to go to the taco place. I was just wondering who we was.”
Joel’s smile died. “Ah…” Unconsciously, he rubbed the scratched face of the watch on his wrist. Normally, he wouldn’t talk about Sarah, but Ellie had lost a child too, from the looks of things. “My daughter. Her name was Sarah.”
Ellie had gone unnaturally still, like every muscle in her body was tensed.
“She was shot by the military, the night the outbreak hit Austin,” he continued, surprised by the calm in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Joel.” She hugged her knees to her chest, her face a blank mask.
“You wanna know what the weird thing is? I don’t believe in angels, or heaven, or even God much anymore. But that day you found me? I thought I heard Sarah’s voice. She led me right to you. It was almost like…I know this is gonna sound crazy...almost like she wanted me to find you.”
She didn’t answer him at first, but then she stood up, leaving the rest of her dinner on the plate beside her. “You’re right. It does sound crazy.” She turned away from him. “I’m going to sleep. Please take care of the fire.”
Joel sat there, staring into the fire and feeling like a total fool. It was stupid to have opened up like that. And it was doubly stupid for him to have expected her to show him some sympathy or open up in return.
Moving as quietly as he could, Joel cleaned up the plates and smothered the fire, then he lay down on his bedroll and stared up at the dark ceiling of the cave, rubbing his watch and thinking of Sarah.
He was still awake, an hour or two later, when he heard Ellie start to cry softly. It was only a small sound, but it was pitiful, the cry of an animal in pain. He held himself still and listened to her, knowing that anything he said or did at this point would only make it worse. He closed his eyes only after her crying had wound down and she seemed to have fallen into an exhausted sleep.
The next day, Joel’s ankle was almost as good as new, but Ellie didn’t make any mention of him leaving again. Nor did she the day after that. On the third day, she asked him to help her build a smoker, so she could preserve more meat, and Joel happily obliged. They went fishing the day after that, sitting in companionable silence while they caught a brace of trout, most of which went right into her new smoker. By the time Joel had been there a week, they’d fallen into an easy rhythm together, and Ellie stopped covering up her bite mark (it was a waste of bandages anyway). And by the time he’d been there a month, Joel rarely even thought about leaving. He didn’t know where he’d go even if he did; he had no one left to go to.
Autumn came, and the temperatures at night started getting cooler. Joel came back to the cave one day after hunting alone to find Ellie had decorated the little living area with juniper boughs and was waiting for him with a red plastic cup of good bourbon.
“What’s all this?” he asked with a smile.
“Today is my anniversary. Tonight, we celebrate.” She took a deep drink from her own cup, and Joel could tell she’d already had a few.
“Anniversary? Of what?” The bourbon was sweet and smooth, probably the best he’d ever had. Of course, considering that he’d been more of a Jack Daniels kind of guy before, he didn’t have much experience with good booze. Nevertheless, this tasted pretty good to him.
She grinned fiercely. “Of my freedom.” She drew him by the hand into the cave’s interior. “But first, what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
“Y’know, you shouldn’t be drinking on an empty stomach. And you shouldn’t drink alone.”
“Which is why I’m really glad you’re back with dinner. What is it?”
Joel held up the leather saddlebag. “Ground squirrel stew.”
She made a face. “Ugh. Again?”
“Sorry. If I’d’a known it was a special occasion, I woulda bagged us a mountain lion or something. Go grab me an onion and some sage while I clean these suckers.”
She pouted. “I’ll pretend it’s mountain lion.” She headed down toward the stream, where she had a tiny garden patch with greens and onions.
It was a good thing their snares had done well the night before, because Joel hadn’t seen anything bigger than a lizard while he was out today. He’d seen signs of big groups of javelina, but hadn’t come across any. The winter was going to be pretty lean, if today was any indication. They might actually have to dip into their store of canned goods…
Huh, Joel thought, pausing in his preparation and sitting back on his heels. When the hell did I start thinking of this place as ours instead of hers?
Ellie came back with the onion and herbs, and watched him toss the stew together in a dutch oven over the little fire while she sipped on her bourbon. When the pot was covered and all they had left to do was wait, she said, “Well? Aren’t you going to ask me?”
Joel finished the bourbon in his cup and looked for the bottle for a refill. “Ask you what?” He was pretty sure he knew what she was talking about, but neither of them had said a word about their respective pasts since the night he told her about Sarah.
“The anniversary of my freedom.” Her eyes narrowed at him, like she was trying to figure out if he was really slow or just being dense on purpose to rile her up.
Joel found the bourbon bottle on top of the little wooden supply chest. He poured himself another generous shot. “I reckoned you’d tell me when you were good and ready.” He looked at the bottle. Angel’s Envy bourbon. Now ain’t that a thing.
She glared at him. “Sometimes you are so goddamn irritating.”
Joel frowned in frustration. “What, now you want me to pry?”
“No!” She almost yelled it at him. “I want you to be fucking curious! You’ve been here, what, almost two months? And we don’t know a goddamn thing about each other! And now, here I am, about to spill my guts, and you act like you don’t fucking care!”
Joel put his cup down and took hers away too, so he could take both of her hands in his. “Ellie. I know you hate ground squirrel stew. And I know you’re a hell of a good shot, and that bad jokes make you laugh. And I know you helped a dying man because you thought it was the right thing to do. I know you were lonely up here by yourself, because if you weren’t you woulda asked me to leave a long time ago, and I know you cry at night when you think I’m asleep. And I know I’ve never met anyone like you.” He looked away to give her time to blink back the tears brimming in her eyes. “I care, okay? But it also doesn’t matter, because whatever you say won’t change the fact that I know I like being here with you, right now.”
He looked back at her, but now tears were streaming down her face. Gently, she extricated her hands from his and said, in a voice so low he wasn’t even sure he heard her at first, “I think you should go.”
It felt like a fist had clenched around his heart. “What?”
“You should go. Tomorrow. You can’t stay here any more.” She drew in a shuddering breath.
“Ellie, can’t we talk about…” He reached out for her, but she slipped away from his fingers, nimble as a deer.
“No,” she gasped. “You need to go. I don’t want you here. I can’t…” A sob was ripped from her throat. Too late, Joel realized that she was making her way to the cave entrance. “I’m sorry. Tomorrow. You have to go.” She turned and ran out into the night, crying like her heart was broken.
“Ellie!” Joel ran after her, but it was black as pitch out already, and he could barely see his hand in front of his face. “Ellie! Come back! Please, can we talk about this?”
He called for her until his voice was hoarse, but she didn’t answer, and she didn’t come back.
The next morning when Joel woke up from the little fitful sleep he’d managed to get, he found a pile of supplies neatly stacked next to the cave entrance. On top of it was a note that read,
There’s a group of good people in Big Bend National Park, up in the Chisos basin. They’ve got plenty of food and water to share, and they could use a man like you if you decide to stay there. I marked the trail on your map. Just head south and avoid Fort Davis. These supplies should get you to Alpine, and then some, but don’t get lost again, just to be on the safe side. You should be able to resupply there. I’m sorry I can’t let you take Louise. Once you get to the park, you can’t miss the signs to the basin.
The next paragraph was scratched out so vehemently that the pen had made holes in the paper. The note ended simply,
Joel stared at the note until it felt like the words were burned into his mind. Then he nodded, folded the note and slipped it into his pocket, and packed all the supplies into the backpack she’d considerately left for him.
He looked around the cave before he walked out into the autumn sunshine and said, “Bye, Ellie.” And then he was on his way.