He Saw Me Sinking in Distress
It's fare you well to a native country
The places I have loved so well
For I have seen all kinds of trouble
In this cruel world no tongue can tell
- from A Man of Constant Sorrow, traditional American folk song
Joel was trying to read by candlelight in his room, but his eyes kept scanning the same paragraph over and over, unable to take it in. He was still stewing about his fight with Ellie. Damn her anyway, he thought. Middle of the fucking zombie apocalypse and all I can think about is some woman I barely know. He was just about to extinguish the candle and try to get some sleep when there was a soft knock on the door. His heart lurched, and he sat up on the sagging mattress. It was Ellie, he knew it, come back to apologize for running off again. He didn’t answer. She’d made it clear that she didn’t want to talk to him about anything important, so he was damned if he’d--
Olivia’s voice called, “Joel? Can we talk?”
Joel’s disappointment settled into the pit of his stomach. It wasn’t Ellie. Of course it wasn’t. Ellie was too fucking scared of her own shadow to come talk to him. He grunted sourly and lay back on the mattress. “Not tonight, Liv. I ain’t up to it.”
“You’d better get up to it, then. You need to hear this.” The hard edge in Olivia’s voice was one he’d never heard from her before, and it was that more than anything that propelled him to the door.
She pushed past him, and her body language told him she was hopping mad.
He stared out the open door for a moment, then sighed. “Come in.”
Olivia wheeled on him and said, “I just came from talking with Ellie…”
“She using you as a go-between? You tell her if she wants to apologize then she can damn well come herself.”
Olivia’s brown eyes snapped dangerously. “Apologize? God, if anyone needs to apologize it’s you. I knew you could be kind of an asshole, Joel, but I never had you pegged for cruel.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Joel’s jaw jutted truculently, and he folded his arms across his chest.
“No, you don’t. And that’s the whole problem, really.” Olivia sighed, the anger draining out of her face. “I...look. Ellie doesn’t like to talk about her past, but I’d like to set a few things straight before you two idiots rip each other apart. If she knew I was here, if she knew what I was about to tell you...she’d murder me in my sleep.”
Joel wasn’t quite ready to let go of his anger, but he closed the door and settled back down on his bed with a grunt. “You gonna give me some answers? You gonna tell me why she’s so determined to be alone? Fine. I’m all ears.”
Olivia’s lips compressed into a hard line. “You keep saying that. You need to know you’re under a misapprehension. Ellie doesn’t want to be alone. It’s the last thing she wants.”
Joel’s fists uncurled. He hadn’t even realized his hands were clenched. Joel looked down at his blue nailbeds. If Ellie didn’t want to be alone, then that meant...“Then it’s just me she doesn’t want around,” he said, with difficulty. Of course. He’d been right in the beginning. He’d just misread Ellie back on the trail, and embarrassed himself in the process.
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Joel, believe it or not, the world doesn’t revolve around you.” She pulled up the only chair in the room and sat. For the first time, he noticed that she was carrying a half-empty bottle of Irish whiskey and a digital video camera, one of the handheld ones with a flip screen. She held out the camera. “This has some answers. And this,” she offered the bottle, “is to soften the blow. My secret stash. Which one do you want first?”
Without saying anything, Joel took the bottle from her and unscrewed the cap, tipping it to his lips and taking a big swig. The strong liquor made his eyes water. “Jesus. Been a while since I had somethin’ like that.” He looked at Olivia, but her deep brown eyes were inscrutable. “So, you gonna tell me what this is all about?”
“You need to watch this,” she handed him the video camera, “but I should give you a little background first.” Olivia took the whiskey bottle back from him and took a healthy pull, looking like she was steeling herself.
Joel leaned back against the wall. “All right. I’ll bite.”
“I met Ellie during the early stages of the outbreak, in Atlanta. Her parents brought her to the CDC after she was bitten but didn’t turn. I was a pathologist, and we were desperately trying to understand CBI and figure out a vaccine or a cure, or even some kind of treatment to slow it down. Ellie was the first of the immune survivors to come to us, but there were more as the outbreak spread. At the peak of the program, we had almost three hundred immune. One of the reasons CBI is so effective is that the fungus secretes a compound that suppresses the host’s immune system, which makes it almost impossible to fight off. The immune survivors all carry a mutated gene that makes them resistant to the immunosuppression compound, but the mutation is extremely rare; we estimated that only 2 hundredths of a percent of the population carried the gene. That’s two hundred people in a million, Joel. And only a fraction of those people ever made it to us. When Atlanta fell, FEDRA took over the CDC and moved our whole operation to Roswell.”
“Bullshit,” Joel said, his voice angrier than he meant it to be. “You’re telling me there are hundreds of people, maybe more, immune to CBI? If that’s true, why didn’t FEDRA tell anyone about it?”
“Think about it, Joel. Two hundred people in a million are immune. If you’re FEDRA, your mission is to contain the infection. Given that a not-insignificant percentage of people who are infected choose to end their own lives before they turn, do you really want to be giving people hope that they’re one of those two hundred in a million?” She shook her head. “By the time they moved us to Roswell, everything was so bad that they just stopped looking for more immune survivors. They had to concentrate on containment, and protecting the survivors we did have.”
Joel felt sick. There were people out there who were immune and they didn’t even know it? “But that’s…”
“...monstrous?” Olivia finished. She sighed. “Yes. I’m not defending what they...what we did. We were ten steps behind this disease the whole way. No one understood in the beginning how fast everything was happening, and by the time we did, it was far too late.”
“So you studied the immune.”
Olivia passed a hand over her face. “We did more than that, Joel. I did a lot of things back then that I’m not very proud of. We experimented on them, and we made them do things that…” she trailed off, shame clear on her face.
Joel wasn’t going to let her off that easily. “Like what?” He glowered at her.
Olivia’s voice lowered to almost a whisper. “We...we had a group of...volunteers at the compound. Non-immune survivors, who were willing to risk their lives for scientific experiment. We experimented with bite wounds, blood transfer, sexual contact; we were still trying to understand how contagious the infection was in the immune.”
Joel was horrified. “You made Ellie bite healthy people? Just to see if they’d get infected? And what the hell do you mean by sexual contact?”
“Ellie never had to bite anyone. But others did, yes. We encouraged promiscuity among the immune and between them and the non-immune volunteers.”
“That’s sick,” Joel said.
“You have no idea, Joel.” Olivia’s eyes were hollow and haunted. “It took a toll on everyone, and the volunteer program dried up as soon as it became clear that even minimal contact with body fluids from an immune survivor caused infection in the non-immune. An open-mouthed kiss, a tiny prick with a dirty needle, contact with sexual fluids. That’s when Dr. Singleton, the man in charge of the contagion study, shut it down and changed it into a breeding program.”
“A breeding program,” Joel said flatly.
Olivia wouldn’t meet his eyes. “We had a hundred female immune of childbearing age. We convinced them it was their duty to try and make more.”
“Jesus.” Joel felt sick to his stomach. He thought of the stretch marks he’d glimpsed on Ellie’s stomach. “So Ellie…”
Olivia gestured to the video camera. “Go ahead, it’s cued up to the right spot.”
Joel opened the flip screen for the camera and pressed the play button.
Ellie sat in white room on a plastic chair that was the only piece of furniture. She was wearing some kind of gray uniform, and her stomach bulged under the shapeless shirt. She was unmistakably pregnant.
Olivia’s voice came from behind the camera. “Subject IS-1, Ellie Williams, age seventeen. Thirty weeks along, no complications. Psychological profile number four, conducted by Dr. Olivia Brenham.”
Ellie smiled and gave a little wave. “Hi, Dr. B.”
Jesus. She looked so fucking young. Too young to be that pregnant. Joel smiled wryly. He’d been only seventeen when Sarah was born; apparently he and Ellie had more in common than he realized.
Olivia chuckled. “Hi, Ellie. How are you feeling today?”
Ellie grimaced. “Well, the cankles are the worst, you know? And I’m the size of a fucking whale, but that kinda goes with the territory.”
“So do cankles, I hate to tell you,” Olivia said.
Ellie looked at the camera. “Did you ever have kids, Doc?”
There was a heavy pause, and then Olivia said, “We’re not here to talk about that. Nurse Randall says you’ve been having nightmares again. You need to get the proper rest. What have you been dreaming about?”
Ellie looked down at her belly, running a hand over the round top of it. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she mumbled.
“Come on, Ellie,” Olivia’s voice was gently chiding. “It’s better to get it off your chest. What are you afraid of?”
Ellie looked up at the camera again, but her eyes were veiled, and she wore a hard smirk on her face. “Well, scorpions are pretty creepy.”
There was another long moment of silence, and then she dropped her eyes to her pregnant belly again, both hands pressed protectively over it. “Being by myself.” It came out as barely a whisper. She raised her eyes to the camera again, and this time they were naked with an intense emotion that was halfway between fear and anger. “I’m scared of ending up alone.”
“Is that what your dreams are about? Being alone?”
Ellie nodded. She swallowed, hard, and said, “I wake up in my room, and the baby’s gone. And then when I go to the door, the guards aren’t there. So I go down the hallway to the cafeteria, and I start to get more and more scared, and that’s when I hear the moans from the yard. And when I look out the window, I can see that the whole facility is surrounded by infected, and then I realize that they’re the people I know...Armin, Felicia, Candace...you. Everyone here, except me. And that’s…” Ellie’s voice cracked. “That’s when I usually wake up.”
“Ellie.” Olivia’s voice was gentle. “Armin, Felicia, and Candace are all immune, like you. That dream can never come true.”
Ellie nodded. “I know. I don’t think it’s really about them. I think it’s about…” She rubbed her belly again, then looked directly into the camera. “Liv...what happened to Maya? Really? Was her baby infected?”
Olivia didn’t answer at first, but then her voice came from behind the camera again. “Yes.”
Ellie’s eyes filled with tears and she dropped her head, squeezing her stomach. “I’m afraid that’s going to happen to me,” she whispered. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to her die. I don’t know how to protect her from myself.”
Olivia came out from behind the camera and pulled Ellie up into a tight hug. “All the tests say she’s perfectly normal.”
Ellie sniffed. “I know but...ugh.” She pushed herself away from Olivia and wiped her eyes. “Crap. Sorry. Fucking hormones. At least tears aren’t infectious, right?”
“What happened to Nurse Jessup wasn’t your fault, Ellie.”
Ellie’s eyes went flat again, and she said, bleakly, “It was my blood.”
Olivia leaned over and pressed the stop button. “There’s more, but that’s the part I wanted you to see.”
Joel stared at the dark flip screen, feeling like a chasm was opening up in his chest. Ellie didn’t want to be alone. It was the last thing she wanted, what she was most afraid of. So why had she chosen it? “What happened with Nurse Jessup?”
“Sophia was one of the FEDRA nurses. She was doing a routine blood draw on Ellie when she accidentally pricked herself with a dirty needle. We weren’t sure at first if that would be enough to transfer the disease, but it was.” Olivia’s lips were compressed into a bitter frown. “Ellie never forgave herself.”
Joel thought of the night he’d stitched Ellie’s arm for her, and what had seemed like her unreasonable panic when she saw his gloved hands covered in her blood. He squeezed his eyes shut. “It wasn’t her fault.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was a simple accident. Sophia had done fifty other blood draws that day, all on immune patients. But Ellie doesn’t see it that way.”
Joel slumped over and held his head in his hands. He didn’t know if he wanted the answer to his next question, but he asked it anyway. “What happened to Ellie’s baby?”
Olivia’s face was blank, but her eyes were deep wells of pain. “Ellie had three pregnancies in the breeding program. The first, she miscarried at sixteen weeks. The third she carried almost to term, but it was infected in the womb. The complications almost killed her. We managed to save her life, but it left her sterile.”
“And the second?”
Olivia drank another swallow of whiskey. “The second was a beautiful, full-term, healthy, immune, non-infected baby girl.”
“Ellie had a daughter?” The news made his chest ache. A memory of holding Sarah as a baby flashed through his mind.
Olivia didn’t answer him. Her voice turned bitter. “After her third pregnancy, she was no longer useful for the breeding program, so Dr. Singleton turned her over to the surgery department to remove the Cordyceps in her body for further study.”
“But...it grows all over the brain.” Joel frowned.
Olivia’s voice was remote. “It does.”
Wordlessly, Joel took the whiskey bottle back from Olivia and took a big slug.
“I couldn’t let them…” Olivia passed a shaking hand over her face. “She’d been through too much already. So the three of us escaped together.”
“The three of you…” With an almost audible click, the clues he’d been given snapped into clear focus. “Lucy,” he breathed. “Lucy is Ellie’s daughter.” He should have known. They had the exact same eyes.
Olivia nodded. “Nobody here knows, Joel. The community thinks that Lucy is mine. Her father was African-American, so she looks enough like me that nobody asks questions. Ellie thought it would be safer for her that way.”
“The anniversary of her freedom. That’s what she said she was celebrating, the night she…she must’ve meant...” Joel ran his hand through his hair. “That’s why she left here. She didn’t want to infect Lucy.”
Olivia nodded. “Or anybody else. But obviously Lucy was her main concern. She went and found herself a cave a hundred and fifty miles away, just so she wouldn’t be tempted to come back too often. Now, I know you lost your daughter, Joel, but can you imagine what it’s like to know your daughter is alive and well, but you can’t see her? You can’t even touch her?”
Joel eyes burned, and he pinched the bridge of his nose to keep any tears from forming. Shit. If Sarah was alive, and he couldn’t touch her, or hold her when she was scared…
He looked up at Olivia. “Where’s Ellie now?”
Olivia screwed the cap back onto the bottle of whiskey and set it down on the bed next to Joel. “She stays in room 205 when she visits.” She stood up, pushing the chair back and picking up the video camera. “She likes whiskey.”
Joel didn’t look up again, but when he heard the door shut softly behind Olivia, he stood up and walked over to the mirror that hung above the small dresser.
There was gray in his hair and beard. He didn’t know when it had started creeping in, but it was there now, silver threads among the black. He still kept his hair trimmed short—less for someone to grab in a fight—but it was choppily cut and sticking out above his ears. He had a smudge of dirt on his cheekbone from god knows where. He combed his fingers through his hair to smooth it a bit, then poured a little water onto a washcloth, rubbing it over his face to remove some of the accumulated grime.
When he was finished, he was somewhat cleaner and more presentable. He sighed at his face in the mirror. “C’mon, Joel. It ain’t like it’s a date.”
He grabbed the bottle of whiskey and headed out the door.
Room 205 was up the stairs and on the opposite side of the building from his room, but the walk still felt too short to Joel. He hesitated for almost a full minute outside her door before he rapped lightly on the wood with his knuckles. “Ellie?”
Her voice was muffled, be he distinctly heard her say, “Go away.”
“I got something for you.” He hoped the whiskey would be enough of a peace offering to get him through the door. He had one hell of an apology to make.
Ellie wrenched the door open. He could tell by her red eyes and puffy face that she’d been crying, but the glare she raked him with was pure fury. Her eyes fell on the whiskey bottle in his outstretched hand. Without saying a word, she jerked the bottle out of his hand, backed up a step, and slammed the door right in his face.
“Ellie!” He knocked harder this time. “C’mon!” The only answer was silence.
Joel leaned his forehead against the peeling paint on the door and sighed. “Ellie,” he said, “I know I been…” He stopped again. Joel wasn’t good at apologies. More than anything else, they made him feel vulnerable, and if there was one thing he’d learned growing up with his abusive tyrant of a father, it was never to show vulnerability. Ironically, the personality trait that had led to the ruinous breakup of more relationships than he could count was something that had helped keep him alive during the past six years. But it was certainly not helping him now.
He tried again. “I know I had no right to speak to you the way I did.” He paused, searching for the words that would make her open the door. I’m sorry. How the fuck hard is that to say, Joel? “I’m s—, I’m sure you don’t want to talk to me right now...god damn it. I wanted to say…”
He caught his balance as the door swung violently open again.
Ellie stood in the doorway, still glaring at him, but it looked more like exasperation than fury this time. “That has got to be the worst fucking attempt at an apology I’ve ever heard.”
Joel grimaced. “Yeah, I know. Sorry.”
Ellie’s eyes widened and the corner of her mouth quirked up. “See? How hard was that?”
Joel looked down, a wry smile on his face. “Yeah. Sorry.” He looked back up at her. Christ, her eyes were beautiful, a deep green he could just fall into. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t know about...everything. I made some assumptions and I was wrong, and I was an asshole to you. I’m really sorry, Ellie. I didn’t know about...” He looked around him, but no one else was in sight. He still lowered his voice to say, “I didn’t know about Lucy.”
Panic flashed in Ellie’s eyes, and she grabbed Joel’s arm and pulled him forcibly into the room, slamming the door behind him. “What the hell do you think you’re talking about?”
Joel kept his voice low. “Lucy. I know she’s your daughter. Olivia…”
“I am going to fucking kill her.” Ellie’s eyes were hard as agate.
"Don’t take it out on her,” Joel said. “She was just tryin’ to get me to understand exactly what a monumental a fuckup I am.”
“She had no fucking right…”
“It’s her story too, Ellie,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I don’t know how you do it.”
That caught her attention. She started pacing the room, her every movement full of agitation. “I come down here every few months, and every time she remembers me a little less. She’s a little bigger and I’m a little more of a stranger. I missed her first steps, Joel. I’m missing everything.” Her distress was naked on her face.
“But Olivia said that Lucy was immune too. I don’t understand why you can’t just…”
“Yes, she’s immune. But not infected, and I want to keep it that way. Haven’t you ever noticed there aren’t any infected little kids running around? Just adults.”
Joel frowned. He’d never thought about it, but Ellie was right. He’d never seen a little kid who was infected. “No, no kids. Why?”
“That’s because the younger you are, the more likely the fungus will just kill you outright. Death rate for kids under ten who contract the disease is almost 100%. I don’t know if Lucy’s immune system would be able to fight it off, and even those fuckers back in Roswell weren’t big enough assholes to try infecting a baby, just to check. So I can’t be around her. I can’t even touch her.” Ellie’s voice was edged with fury, but Joel could hear despair there too.
“That kid adores you,” Joel said.
“Yeah, because I’m her fun Auntie Ellie.” She picked up a book off her nightstand and hurled it at the wall. “Weird Auntie Ellie who lives in a cave.” A glass followed the book and shattered against the wall. “Crazy Auntie Ellie who lives all alone and talks to her fucking horse.” She looked around desperately for something else to throw.
When she grabbed the half-full bottle of whiskey, Joel said, “No! You’re gonna regret it if you throw that.”
She looked down at the bottle in her hand, and then slumped down to the bed, all the anger drained out of her. “That was my only glass,” she said, rolling the bottle between her hands.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I had some earlier.”
Ellie sighed. She unscrewed the cap and took a long pull from the bottle. “I miss her every day, Joel. Every fucking day. Coming down here just makes it worse.” She took another long drink.
“I know what it’s like to miss your daughter every day,” Joel said quietly.
She looked up at him, horrified. “Oh, god, Joel, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I forgot. If I lost Lucy, I don’t know what I’d do.”
He leaned against the wall, the familiar ache in his chest settling in at the thought of Sarah. “You just...you just keep findin’ something to fight for. I guess. I don’t know.” He pressed his knuckles into his eyes, hard enough to see stars. “Some days are easier than others. But bein’ around other people helps, Ellie.”
She took another drink, and then looked down at the bottle in her hands, saying nothing. The silence between them stretched longer and longer, until Joel said, “You don’t have to live all alone up there.”
Her eyebrows drew together like she was in pain. “Joel…”
“Ellie, let me come back. We...we understand each other. And you can’t tell me there’s nothing between us.” There. He’d said it.
She stood up, leaving the bottle on the bed. “Us? What the fuck are you talking about? There’s no us, Joel. I can’t do us. It’s impossible. I don’t get to have that anymore!” She was quivering with emotion, her eyes bitter and hard again.
He shook his head stubbornly. “Nobody should be alone like that.”
“I should be! You just don’t get it, Joel! I. Am. A. Danger. To. People.” She was facing him now, her toes only inches from his, and she poked him in the chest to emphasize her point.
He straightened up from the wall. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you really want to be alone up there, and I’ll drop it. I’ll never mention it again.” He searched her face intently.
Her eyes hardened even more. “I really want to be…” She stopped, and then a spasm of agony twisted her face and she looked away from him. “Joel...why are you doing this to me? What do you want?”
He cupped her chin with rough fingers, tipping her face up toward his again. “I want to kiss you.”
Ellie jerked away from him, recoiling in panic. “You can’t! Didn’t Olivia tell you…”
He captured her hand in his before she got completely away from him again, and said, “She did.” He brought her fingers to his lips and kissed them, and then kissed her open palm. When he kissed the inside of her wrist, she shuddered, but she didn't pull away again. Taking that as a good sign, he bent down and placed another kiss on the soft skin inside her elbow. He parted his lips and tasted her skin, warm and slightly salty. She drew her breath in sharply when his tongue touched her.
He straightened up and looked at her face. Tears were streaking down her cheeks, but her eyes were filled with a hunger that made Joel want to forget everything he knew and kiss her sweet, full lips. Instead, he kissed her face everywhere but her lips, tasting her salty tears with light touches of his tongue.
“Careful,” she whispered.
“I am,” he murmured against her temple. Her body was rigid and trembling like a leaf. Which...that wasn’t exactly what he was going for, here. Ignoring the roaring of the disappointed beast in the pit of his stomach, he stepped back from her, his hands lightly resting on her shoulders. “All right?” he said.
She nodded, and then shook her head. “No. I...Joel.” She placed both hands on his chest, a gesture that both heightened the intimacy of their contact and put more distance between them. “Oh...god. I just...do you know how long it’s been...?” She shook her head again, but stroked the hard muscles of his chest with her palms. “I don’t want to infect you.”
He smiled, and said, “That’s good, because I don’t wanna get infected.”
Ellie drew a breath to speak, but he beat her to it. “We lived together for two months. We were careful, and nothing happened.”
“Yeah, but this...we weren’t…” As of their own volition, her hands moved upward and met behind his neck, and her body leaned into his. “We weren’t doing this." She sighed. "Damn it, I want you to kiss me.”
Joel’s hands dropped to her waist as he felt her body finally relax against him. He bent forward and kissed her jaw, just under her ear, and she rewarded him with a sharp gasp. “Jesus!” Her head fell back, exposing the long white column of her neck.
Joel traced a line of kisses from her jaw to her collarbone, feeling the smooth muscles of her throat bunch under his lips as she swallowed. Her hips were pressed up against his, and he knew she could feel his growing need, because for a few brief, delirious seconds she pressed herself harder against him. And then her hands were on his chest again, but this time she was pushing him away.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. No, Joel. This is crazy.” Her face was flushed and her breath was coming faster than normal, but she was still pushing him away.
Even though it took every ounce of willpower he possessed, Joel stepped back from her and took his hands off her waist, swallowing hard. Christ, his jeans felt tight. “Ellie.” His voice was thick in his throat. “I know I can’t have you. Not like that. Not the way I want you. But don’t you think we can find some way to be together?”
She folded her arms around herself and shook her head again. She looked miserable. “It’s too dangerous.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, this whole fuckin’ world is dangerous,” he said, gesturing toward the door with his arm. “I’d rather spend whatever time I get before my luck runs out with someone I—” He broke off.
She looked up at him, a faint smile on her lips. “Someone you what, Joel?”
He ran his fingers over his beard. “I never been one for big declarations, Ellie. I ain’t that kinda man. I’m just tryin’ to say that I don’t mind the danger if it means I get to spend more time with you.”
She sighed and stepped in close again, until she could rest her head against his shoulder. Her arms went around his waist as she embraced him tightly. “The problem is, I mind,” she said into his shoulder. “I sent you away because I realized we were starting to fall for each other, and I couldn’t imagine seeing you every day, wanting you, and not being able to have you. Why would we do that to ourselves?”
He hugged her tightly to him and pressed his lips to the crown of her head. “Because it’s better than nothing.”
“I disagree.” She stood on her tiptoes and planted a dry kiss on his cheek. “We’d always want more. It would be torture.” Reluctantly, she left his embrace and sat on the edge of the bed. “It’s better this way. Most days you won’t even think about me.”
“You really believe that? That been true for you?”
Ellie dropped her head into her hands and bunched her fists in her short red hair. “That’s what I’m telling myself.”
She’d given him his answer, and though it wasn’t the one he wanted, the one he’d desperately hoped for, he had to respect it. “Okay.”
His hand was already on the doorknob when she said, “Wait.” He turned back toward her. Her upturned face held a pleading expression. “Don’t go.”
Fuck. What the hell did she want from him? He was frustrated and confused, and his jeans still felt too tight, and she was looking up at him with an expression that was half hunger and half despair. What did she expect?
“I don’t want to be alone.” She bit her lip and played with a loose thread at the knee of her jeans, not looking him in the eyes. “Stay. Just tonight.” She barely whispered it.
“Jesus, Ellie.” Could she possibly make this harder for him?
She smiled bitterly and laughed. “Yeah, I realized how that sounded after I said it.” She leaned back and gathered her knees to her chest, hugging them tightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow before I leave.” Her eyelids were low over her eyes, so Joel would have missed her tears if he hadn’t seen the dark splotches forming on her jeans.
Joel closed his eyes briefly. For a second he was back in the dark of Ellie’s cave, listening to her try to hold back her sobs while he ached to get up and hold her.
He crossed to the bed and sat down beside her, bumping her with his hip to get a little more room. “Scoot over.”
She moved away to give him room, and when Joel put his arms around her shaking shoulders she uncurled and buried her face in his chest. He leaned back against the wall and stretched his legs out on the bed, stroking her arm and holding her close. “It’s okay. I gotcha,” he murmured into her hair.
Eventually her shoulders stopped shaking. Joel couldn’t pinpoint when she slipped from exhausted crying into sleep, but he hoped that she’d reached for his hand and twined her fingers in his as a conscious act. He lay there like that, with his arms around the woman he loved but could never have, trying to feel grateful and not bitter. He was only only marginally successful.
Joel woke up from the deepest sleep he’d enjoyed in a long time to the sound of pounding on the door.
What the fuck? This isn’t my room…
His disorientation lasted until he saw Ellie jumping up from the bed beside him and then he remembered the events of the previous night.
“Ellie!” The panic in Olivia’s voice brought Joel to full alert, and that’s when he realized he was hearing something else: an airhorn, but not being blown in any preset pattern, just a series of short, jerky bursts. Something was very wrong.
Ellie made it to the door before he did and wrenched it open. Olivia stumbled in, carrying Lucy clutched to her. “Shut the door!” she gasped.
Lucy was wailing. Ellie, her face whiter than a sheet, slammed the door behind them.
“What the hell is happening?” Joel said.
“I don’t know!” Olivia was still trying to catch her breath. “There are infected in the camp! They’re everywhere! We had a close call, but I managed to get up here from the cabins…”
“Liv…” Joel was staring at her in horror. There was blood on her arm. “You’re bit…”
Olivia gasped and set Lucy down. “Oh my god.” She scrubbed at the blood, but when she wiped it away, her skin was firm and intact. “No, I don’t think so. It must have been…” Her eyes widened in horror.
All three adults looked down at the screaming little girl standing in the middle of the room. She was wearing red Sesame Street pajamas and clutching a stuffed giraffe.
Hectic spots of color bloomed on Ellie’s cheeks, but her voice sounded calm when she knelt in front of Lucy and said, “Sweetie? I’m going to look under your shirt, okay?”
The bite wound was the size of Joel’s palm and was almost black against her pale stomach.