Large and looming, the tree casts a shadow so broad it envelops Ellie from head to toe. The tips of its limbs reach up, up, up to the clouds cast overhead, as if they had once been friends torn apart by tragedy. She understands. Ellie wishes she could reach up, up, up to find her friend reaching back.
There was nothing, nothing like this back home, not with the near-barren soil tracking from border to border. The trees Ellie once knew, in what now feels like another life, never found the will to reach beyond the city walls. With weak-willed trunks and wispy branches, those city trees were never good for climbing. There was nowhere they could bring her anyways, no treasures hidden within their branches that could ease the sense of imprisonment she’d felt.
A crack as thick as her palm snakes its way up through the trunk, splintering out like a foreign yet familiar fungus. Tracing her fingers along the edges of the scarred bark, she wonders how this happened, how it survived. As her fingers move to find her own scarred flesh, the crescent-shaped reminder buried in her arm, she finds herself asking the same questions.
She had always dreamed of leaving the city, of finally seeing the outside, of rediscovering the world beyond those graffiti-riddled walls that had been taken from her before she’d ever received it. But not like this. It was never supposed to be like this. They were supposed to make this adventure together. Riley was supposed to be alive. Now Ellie’s here, beneath an overbearing giant, wondering if Riley felt pain as her mind slipped away into the grasp of a disease not willing to show her the same mercy.
With every step she’d taken since leaving the city she’d grown weary, feet aching and heart heavy. It was easier, when they’d found others. Now they’re gone too, just like Riley. Ellie wished she could lie beneath this tree and just rest, rest until nothing hurt anymore, until her stomach wasn’t desperate for something, anything to fill it, until everyone stopped dying and leaving her behind. But she knows she can’t. She can’t just stop here. Too much has happened, too many people lost for her to just… stop. This can’t be for nothing.
She looks up through the branches, admiring the way the dark green leaves layer thickly together, just barely allowing the sunshine to peek through. Crisp and cold, a gust of wind rattles the branches. The old trunk creaks and groans as the chorus of leaves comes to a crescendo.
She hears Joel call for her to follow, the edges of his words defined with worry. He’ll try to leave too, she knows.
She reaches for the scarred bark once more, pressing her fingers against the rough skin, and wonders if any good might come from something so broken. She turns and starts walking down the beaten and overgrown path, determined to find the answer.