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Milestones

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She can still remember the feeling of sinking, of seeing the bright beams from the flashlights and the headlights of the trucks at the surface getting smaller and smaller as she’s descending lower and lower into the water. She can still feel the cold water filling her mouth and nose, and her lungs desperately trying to suck air in to no avail, until she had almost stopped flailing her arms and legs in an attempt to learn how to swim on the fly. Until the current had pushed her all the way back up to the surface, and a pair of strong arms had pulled her close and kept her from crashing into a boulder.

“You okay, Kiddo?”

Ellie snaps out of her memories to see Joel looking at her, waist-deep in the lazy waters of the river circling Jackson. Her feet are in the water, but she can’t quite bring herself to take another step forward, instead staring at the spot in front of her where she can see the muddy riverbed dropping steeply. The feeling of the water around her ankles makes her uneasy, but not nearly as much as the sight of the seemingly bottomless stream ahead. “Just peachy.”

Joel walks back toward where she stands frozen until his thighs are out of the water. “We don’t have to do this today if you don’t want to,” he says. “There’ll be other occasions.”

Ellie shakes her head. “I want to do this. I can do this.” She takes a deep breath, still not moving. “I’ve nearly drowned enough times as it is.”

The hot September sun is burning into Ellie’s back, her black tank top drenched with sweat. It is unusually warm for the time of year, and for the first time since they had moved to Jackson, Joel had some free time at the same time she did. In the distance, a cicada sings steadily, a constant reminder of the suffocating heat.

“How do I do this?” Ellie asks, nervously tugging at the hem of her top. To say she had no idea how to go about this whole thing was the understatement of the year.

“Gimme your hands,” Joel instructs her, his tone letting Ellie know this was not the first time he was teaching – or at least, trying to teach – someone how to swim. “Come on, I don’t want to still be standing here when the sun rises tomorrow morning.”

She reluctantly extends her arms in front of her and Joel takes her small hands into his own, pulling her gently toward him, and she finally takes a step forward, the water reaching the middle of her calves with only one step. She stops when she feels her feet sink and slide into the muddy ground, the water reaching her knees now. “I got you, baby girl.”

She’s taken back to the bus depot, nearly five months ago, when they were still trying to reach the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. Joel had crossed the gap between the overturned bus and the ledge effortlessly, but when it had been Ellie’s turn to make that jump, the deafening sound of the water rushing furiously below had stopped her dead in her tracks.

You’re gonna catch me?

I got you.

And he had kept his promise, even though in the end, she hadn’t needed his help at all. It was still comforting to know he had been there, ready and waiting, his hand steadying her less than graceful landing.

See, you didn’t even need me.

Her grip tightens around Joel’s fingers, but still she takes another step forward, then another, only stopping when the water is reaching her shoulders and she has to stand on her toes to keep her chin from touching it. She feels like the pressure against her chest is becoming too much, too fast, and she struggles to keep her breathing steady. It’s so hard to convince herself that there is no imminent threat of drowning associated with the water this time. “You’re doing great.”   

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“Is it working?” he asks, still holding her hands.

“Nope,” Ellie replies, anxiously eyeing the wild currents she can faintly make out, further down the river. Being submerged in water doesn’t bring back any good memories. Back in the Boston QZ, when she was around 8 years-old, one of her foster parents had tried teaching her how to swim using the old “sink or swim” technique, and she had nearly drowned before they had realised it wasn’t going to work out. Sometimes at night, she still dreams of the water replacing the air in her lungs – still remembers how it burned – and she still recalls the absolute terror she had been consumed with back then when she had been able to see the sun shining above the surface, but unable to reach it. She could still hear the disappointment in her foster dad’s voice as he had finally pulled her out, vomiting water, crying and throwing every insult she had learned up to that point his way.  Ever since, she had felt uneasy even taking a bath, and it wasn’t long before her obvious resentment at the whole ordeal had caused her to be unceremoniously sent back to the orphanage she had come from. No, it wasn’t a good memory at all.

Joel moves to her side, shifting one of his hands from her wrist to her back. “I’m going to let go of your other hand now,” he says, and Ellie immediately tightens her grip on him. “Just for a second,” he adds. “Trust me.”

Ellie feels herself start to shake, but she gradually loosens her death grip on his hand, letting him move it. Joel sinks lower into the water and she feels the hand she just released brush against the back of her thighs. Before she can ask him what he’s doing, he lifts her up and she yelps in surprise, her arms reaching around his neck to keep herself out of the water. “What the hell, Joel!”

Joel winces. “Stop digging your nails into my back, Kiddo.”

“Then stop startling me!”

“Alright, alright,” he grumbles, and his beard is scratching Ellie’s face. “No more surprising you.”

She nods, trying to calm down her racing heart. For a second there, she had thought he had been about to drop her down into the water. “Before you start to swim, you gotta learn how to float. It’ll be much easier after that.”

“I don’t float,” comes her automatic reply, and she has to stop herself from gripping his shoulders tighter at the perspective.

“You’ll learn. You gotta let go of me, though.”

Joel’s eyes are staring into hers, waiting for her to make a move. She can’t. “I’m afraid to.”

His face softens just a little at her words. “I know, but I’m here and I’m not letting you go until you’re ready.”

“Okay,” she breathes out, letting go of him. “Promise you won’t let me go?”

Joel chuckles. “Kid, it’s barely 4 feet deep, you can touch the bottom if you stand straight.”

He lowers her slightly into the water, gradually, so she can get used to the water surrounding her. It’s okay, you’re okay. Joel’s here. Still, she can’t help but instinctively clench her fists over nothing as she fights the urge to scale Joel’s body like a wall to get back to the nearest riverbank. “You’re doing okay, kid.” She nods, her whole body stiff from her nervousness.

He keeps her like this for a while, waiting for her to relax, telling her to place her arms or her legs in a certain way to help her stay afloat, his hands never leaving her back and thighs in doing so. “You’re getting the hang of this quicker than Sarah did,” he says softly, his eyes far away. “It took her a whole goddamn summer to stop clinging to the side of that pool.”

Ellie almost tries to sit up when he mentions his daughter, momentarily forgetting that she has no leverage to do so. “You never talk about her,” she remarks.

Joel shrugs, still keeping her afloat. “Most of the time it still hurts too much to think about her.” He leads them deeper in the water, slowly. “Okay, I’m going to let go of your legs now, and I want you to try to keep floating,” he says, changing the subject.

She nods, but as soon as he takes his hand away, her legs sink down like they’re made of concrete and she accidentally inhales water while trying to pull them back up. Joel lifts her half-way out of the water, sputtering and choking. “You okay?”

“Awesome,” she manages to cough out.

“Then let’s do it again.”

By the end of the afternoon, she has managed to float for a few seconds by herself and she can’t stop beaming. It’s a small step, but it’s still an improvement. She falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow, utterly exhausted.

The unbearably hot weather continues for another two weeks, and so do their swimming sessions. Whenever they can, they go down to the river, whether it’s for an hour or three, morning or evening. On her second lesson, Joel has her sit at the bottom of the river, just deep enough to have water over her head when she sits, but shallow enough to be able to get her head and shoulders out of it when she stands. Ellie knows he does it to get her used to being submerged without panicking, but it doesn’t stop her from being anxious everytime she dives down. It’s hard to differentiate drowning and swimming, but she tries her best.

Before long, Joel has her kicking her legs at the water, holding only her forearms to get her used to the movements, and then he’s holding her by the waist as he teaches her to paddle around like a dog. There is something natural to the way Joel patiently explains things to her. He is a good teacher, despite admitting that he had signed up Sarah for classes instead of teaching her himself, years ago.

He struggles to find the balance between supporting her full weight and letting her sink, and sometime after their third session, he crafts a makeshift harness for her out of some broken belts and ropes. Life-jackets and swimming boards would be better, he had defended himself, but he hadn’t seen one in over 15 years. She’s a little insulted at first when he insists she try it on, but she can’t deny it helps her a lot, allowing Joel to have a better grip on her – she’s not the smallest of students after all, and it’s hard for him to keep her afloat and far enough from him so she can move.

Then one day, he drags her deeper than they have ever been yet, deep enough for Joel to have to stand on his toes to keep his head out of the water. Ellie clings to him still, albeit not as tight as she would have had a week prior. “Alright,” he says, tilting his face up so the water doesn’t get in his mouth when he speaks. “I want you to swim all the way back, and I’ll hold you up as we go. Ready, kid?”

She nods and starts moving her arms and legs like he taught her. Ellie sinks under the surface a few times, but everytime she’s submerged Joel pulls on the back handle of her harness, pulling her up. The water gets in her eyes, and her limbs burn from the exercise – they’re definitely not used to swimming – but she presses forward and collapses in sheer exhaustion when she feels the soft mud on the shore scrape her knees.

“See? You almost didn’t need any help,” Joel’s smile is so wide it’s stretching his cheeks, and Ellie can’t remember the last time she’s seen him act like this. She can’t help but think this is what a proud father would look like, and her heart tightens when she realises how often he must’ve looked like this before the Outbreak, back when he had had a daughter to care for. It’s so easy for her to forget that not everyone grew up in a world with Quarantine Zones and ration cards.

“How did you learn how to swim?” Ellie blurts out, still a little out of breath from the exercise. “Did you take a class, like Sarah?”

Joel keeps quiet for a moment, and Ellie fears she went too far by mentioning his daughter when he doesn’t reply right away. The water is dripping from his hair into his eyes, but he doesn’t seem to notice or be bothered by it. “My old man taught me and Tommy,” he finally answers, and Ellie sighs in relief. “He though kids should learn how to swim as soon as they could walk. I don’t recall much of how he went about teaching us exactly, but I’ve always liked being in the water, as far as I can remember.”

“Did you swim often?”

“All the time. Back then, my folks had a pool in the backyard, and we used to have pool parties all the time during the summer,” a smile tugs at his lips at the memory. Ellie doesn’t remember him ever speaking that fondly of his life before the outbreak.

“Pool parties?”

“Yeah. My folks used to invite people over and we’d spend the afternoon swimming and floating around in the pool, eating hot-dogs and burgers… I always pushed Tommy back in the pool whenever he’d try to get out, until my mama would tell me to stop. He used to complain about it all the time.”

Ellie pondered his words for a moment. “It didn’t freak him out, being pushed in the water like that?” She thinks back to the times where she had been plunged unexpectedly in the water and she shivers at the thought.

Joel just chuckles. “Nah. Back then, almost everyone knew how to swim before they started school. It was part of the fun.”

“Wish I could be that comfortable around water…”

Joel nods in understanding. “Come on, let’s get back to it before it gets dark.”

They do the same thing a few more times, Ellie trying her best to swim forward and Joel holding her up whenever he has to to keep her from panicking. Everytime she makes her way back, it gets a little easier, and she gets a little faster.

By their fifth run, the sun is starting to set behind the tree line in the distance, and Ellie shivers a little. The temperature drops faster now when the sun goes down, as fall is inevitably drawing closer and closer. “One last time,” Joel says. “Then we go home.” Ellie happily let’s herself be towed back to their usual spot, floating the whole way. She found out that she kind of liked just floating about, shifting with the water’s movements. Who would’ve thought…

Joel turns 180 degrees so she faces the shore when they reach their destination, holding her in place. One last time.

She pushes against Joel’s leg with her feet, setting out toward the shore like they’ve done so many times tonight. Her legs are kicking relentlessly, her arms exiting and entering the water unsteadily but forcefully, like he taught her. She goes under a few times, but Joel pulls her upward just enough to keep her head above water. She keeps swimming until, once again her knees scrape hard against the mud, the hidden little pebbles digging in her skin.

“Okay, enough,” she chokes out, coughing. “If we do this again my arms might fall off.”

Ellie reaches an arm out to her left, searching for Joel’s shoulder to hang on to as she gets up, but her hand opens and closes on nothing a few times. Confused, Ellie looks to her side, but there is no one beside her. “Joel?”

She turns around, her eyes searching for the familiar figure for a second before they finally find him… still at their starting point. “Joel!”

He’s holding both of his arms up in victory, a beaming smile plastered on his face, accentuating the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. “Joel, you let go of me!”

She can’t decide if she should be mad or not.

Joel swims to her, his movements effortless compared to hers. “You didn’t need me, you just wanted a safety net to fall back on. You did it all on your own!”

Ellie breaks into a smile as the realization dawns on her. Joel hadn’t pulled her out of the water when her head had gone under on that last run – she had. She had been able to swim back to the surface and keep herself afloat. “I did it? I fucking did it! Joel, I can swim!” Her last word is muffled in Joel’s chest as he crashes into her, knocking the wind out of her lungs. He spins her around a few times before unceremoniously dropping her back into the water with a splash. She’s exhausted, her whole body feels sore, but right now Ellie is too happy to care.

She can’t wipe the smile off her face until they’re back all the way back in Jackson, the streets almost empty, save for the Masons sitting on their porch, watching the surroundings like they do every night. They give them a weird look, and Joel nods politely at the couple as they pass them by. They must make for funny sight, the both of them soaked to the bone, even though it had been sunny outside up until a few minutes ago. Her hair is dripping wet and she’s shivering, but the exhilarating feeling of finally confronting her fear of drowning is making her feel all warm inside despite the now chilly outside temperature.

“I can swim,” she repeats in disbelief as they reach the front door of their house.

“You can doggy paddle,” Joel corrects her, his amusement evident in his voice. “You still got a lot to learn before you can swim properly.”

Ellie smiles wider. “Can’t wait, old man.”

Joel went on to almost regret even teaching her how to swim in the first place, because, less than two years later, he caught her sneaking out of Jackson at the ass-crack of dawn to go “cliff-diving” with her friends at the dam. Apparently, they’d been doing it for weeks when he had found out, and really, it was a miracle Ellie hadn’t been sucked through one of the turbines yet. How that kid found risking her life and pushing her limits like this even remotely fun, he would never understand.

Decidedly, he was getting too old to keep up with a rebellious teenager phase, especially, he felt, coming from his reckless – and stubborn as all hell – adopted daughter.