Jackson was quiet. But then again, everything had seemed quiet for the last weeks of her life. Even Ellie’s thoughts were still. She should feel something: fear, anticipation, anger. Yet, she felt like a giant vessel of emptiness.
Someone had spotted her at least a quarter mile ago. She’d seen the flash of the scope or binoculars. It was only when Ellie walked up to the Main Gate’s sign and raised her tattooed arm that someone shouted her name. The name was echoed by a few more callers. Funny she should be surprised when the gates slowly opened.
She stared at the gates for a moment, then kept walking.
Ellie waited for something to slip through her apathy, to ring bright inside, but all she felt was this unnatural calmness as she stepped into the walls of Jackson. It was like the wrath that had consumed her for months had burned through her like a fever, leaving her drained and clear-headed.
The flashbacks hadn’t stopped. She didn’t think they ever would. Joel’s head cracking open, Nora’s bones breaking, that man's—Owen’s—gasps that the woman was pregnant, the bark of a dog, the alarm whistle of the Scars… It all could take her away into another world in a heartbeat, but she finally accepted her condition enough to live in the real one.
A small crowd of people surrounded her. She looked for Dina among them if only to have confirmation she was okay. All of these people had familiar faces. It hadn’t been but a few months since she’d been here, by her reckoning. She’d made a trip into Jackson for a new hoe the week before she’d left for Santa Barbara. Put things into a strange perspective; it felt like she’d been gone years.
She felt like a different person.
Ellie nodded and greeted the individuals who stepped out to welcome her back uncertainly. Maria’s authoritative shout had them all backing away to a more comfortable distance. Maria shouldered through the small crowd. When Ellie met her gaze, she finally felt an echo of emotion: fear. Then Maria approached, and her arms rounded Ellie tightly. Ellie took a sharp breath of the scent of her canvas jacket: horses and hay, and the fear released.
“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re back.”
Maria pushed Ellie back, and Ellie held her gaze again before glancing nervously at a few more people who’d come to satisfy their curiosity. Maria noticed her discomfort and commanded, “Alright, back to work, everyone. Thomas, let Ren know I’ll finish up in the barn tomorrow.” To Ellie, she said, “Come on. Let’s get some grub in you.”
Surreal… That was her life now. Even Jackson’s streets seemed hyperrealistic, abnormal for their normality. Ellie knew the way to Maria’s house, the house she’d shared with her father until he’d died nearly ten years ago. She knew the steps, the porch, the door—but no, someone had painted that since she’d last been to Jackson. Tommy and Maria had been together then, and Maria had made her sit down to a cup of tea for a few claustrophobic minutes before Ellie escaped back to the farmhouse.
The house smelled the same at least. Based on the boots on the threshold, Tommy was still bunking at the barracks. Ellie stared at Maria’s slippers, tennis shoes, and riding boots before she added her own to the line.
It was the time of day that the kitchen was full of yellow light from the setting sun. Everything was in place, clean. Ellie wondered if Jim still did that for Maria; he’d been saying for years that the woman was too damn busy to do it herself. The hard kitchen chairs were made softer by new cushions. The fabric was patterned pansies, their little laughing faces bright.
Maria interrupted her musing by saying, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s made to be sat on.”
“Thanks,” Ellie murmured, letting the cushion drop back onto the seat. She winced as she removed her pack; the rough material scraped her hand. She rolled her shoulders when they were free of the weight of her weapons and supplies. “I should’ve left my guns at the gate.”
“I’ll have someone come along to collect them tonight. Have you eaten?”
So they were going to be normal. It was a relief. She managed a faint smile, and Maria responded with a wink. This woman was as tough as nails, but she’d always been good to Ellie.
“I have leftover shepherd’s pie.”
“If you have enough, that would be good.” When Maria moved to light the stove, Ellie interjected, “I can eat it cold.”
As Maria was wont to do, she went about her business uninterrupted. “I don’t want it cold. There’s a nip in the air recently anyway; it’ll warm the house. See any snow on the ground during your trip?”
“Just some on the peaks.”
They talked a little about the route Ellie took coming back into Jackson. She reported that she’d picked off a couple infected, but she’d seen no hordes and no bandits.
With the casserole in the stove and a glass of water in front of Ellie, Maria pulled out the neighboring chair and rested her arm on the table. Her gaze lingered on Ellie’s left hand, but she didn’t ask the obvious question. “Are you passing through?”
“Not if there’s still a place for me here.”
Once again, Ellie was folded into Maria’s hug. Maria had given her time to deflect, to decline, but Ellie opened one arm instead. This embrace was gentle enough to raise tears to her eyes. For as quiet as her emotions had been, she seemed always a hair’s breadth from tears. Her voice was strangely thick as she asked, “Are Dina and JJ…?”
“Here, living with Robin and James.”
Then it came, the deluge of relief that made her sob into Maria’s shoulder. As words like safe, okay, here shook through her, the deep, illogical fear that had taken residence in her chest when she’d come upon the empty farmhouse released. The sobs—like the flashbacks—came until they didn’t anymore. She’d made a mess of Maria’s jacket by the time she finished.
“I thought you sent them here.”
Ellie shook her head against Maria’s jacket, then pulled away. “I just left.”
Maria wrung out a clean washrag; she said nothing though her expression made her disapproval and disappointment clear. Ellie pressed the rag to her face, breathing in the cool scent of water. The memory of that last moment with Dina made her eyes burn.
Maria’s gaze was direct but gentle. “I’m not the one you should be saying that to.”
“I know. God, I missed them so much. I thought they had to be back here, but I wasn’t sure, and…” She took a deep breath to compose herself, feeling everything settle into even—if exhausted—once again. “Just hit me hard.”
There was a thunderous knock on Maria’s front door. She paused, patted Ellie’s knee, and climbed to her feet. From the back of the house, Ellie could only hear Maria’s indistinct voice before footsteps—running footsteps—came down the hallway and into the kitchen. She had half a moment to realize who it was—but she knew the moment the door opened—then Ellie’s arms were full of Dina. The chair slid back from her force.
“Ellie, oh Ellie, you’re here… I can’t believe…”
Dina wept against Ellie’s shoulder as her words spilled out in a jumble of exclamations. Now Ellie’s tears were slow. She tucked her nose against Dina’s neck and breathed her in, taking in the weight of Dina’s body in her arms as she held her close. She was thankful for at least this, Dina whole in her arms one more time.
When Dina pulled back, she looked everywhere but Ellie’s eyes, her gaze tracking all over her body as her hands did the same. She brushed a new scar on Ellie’s neck, touched the shadow under one eye, and when she came upon Ellie’s hand, she gasped in horror. Ellie, who was judging the healthy look of Dina’s face, took a moment to realize what Dina was reacting to.
“It’s okay. Almost healed.” The words seemed to come from someplace other than herself.
It had taken longer to heal from Abby’s bite than the clicker’s.
Dina cupped Ellie’s cheeks, and finally, she met Ellie’s gaze. Ellie didn’t have a smile, not right now, not like this. Instead, she leaned close to rest her forehead against Dina’s, brushing their cheeks together. She had so many things to say, but seeing her again rendered her mute. It was all just too raw.
“How are you?” she asked instead.
That pulled Dina back. She knelt beside Ellie’s chair and gazed up at her. Ellie could read the hurt on her face but didn’t know how to erase it. It was hard to lose familiarity; she stroked her thumb along Dina’s cheek to wipe away tears. Dina shook her head, pulling away from Ellie’s touch. She softened the gesture by taking Ellie’s hands. “I can’t… Ellie, you can’t just ask me that.”
“Okay. Can I ask… How’s JJ?”
Dina bit her lip, seeming to smile despite herself. “He missed you.”
The past tense hurt. Ellie nodded, managing as close to a smile as she could. Her voice trembled betraying when she asked, “Can I see him?”
All Dina’s ambivalence was gone in a moment. Her voice was firm with earnestness, and she rose again to pull Ellie’s face to her shoulder. “Of course.”
Ellie opened her mouth because everything was bubbling up inside to be shouted out all together in a blistered mess: sorrow, thankfulness, fear, hope, pain. Then Dina stood up and brushed off her pants, and the moment was gone. Dina’s casual façade crumbled as she cupped a hand in front of her mouth; another sob shook her. She swallowed noisily and managed to say, “Come by tomorrow morning.”
She was gone before Ellie could ask if JJ still woke up at the crack of dawn.
After a few discreet minutes, Maria stepped back into the kitchen and pretended to check the oven. That pretense done, she sat back down beside Ellie. Her hands were dry and warm over Ellie’s. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I think I will… Eventually.”
“Ellie, understand I’m asking as Jackson’s leader. Do we need to worry about anyone coming back here?”
Ellie thought of her interactions with the Rattlers, with Abby, and… What had she called the boy? Lev. She shook her head wordlessly. Their silence stretched. Maria seemed to be waiting for something, but Ellie couldn’t provide it. Instead, she studied the cracked linoleum beneath her socks.
“Do you want company?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t.” Maria studied her again before rising to collect a few books. Logs and ledgers, Ellie noted. Ellie watched her work, considered her journal, and felt content just to sit and scent their dinner in the oven.
Eventually, their table was warmed by lamplight, someone had come and gone with Ellie’s weapons, and Maria and Ellie broke fast together. Cheese, mashed potatoes, beef, carrots, peas, and gravy, rich and delicious. For the first time in months, Ellie ate until she was full. She set her fork on her clean plate and sighed. “Thank you.”
“Thank Liz. She was the one who made it.”
“Mind passing my thanks along?”
That, of all things, seemed to catch Maria off guard. Ellie endured her scrutiny steadily. Whatever Maria saw made her squeeze Ellie’s shoulder.
“I can stay in the barracks tonight.”
“Absolutely not. I have a spare bed. Or a couch if you’re feeling self-flagellating.”
Ellie couldn’t help but smile at Maria’s tone. She jumped when someone thundered at the door, but her start was only that. This time, Ellie knew by the shout who it was. Maria got up in no hurry; she set their dishes in the sink. “I can turn him away.”
“No. I’ll talk to him.”
Maria hesitated at the threshold of the kitchen as if waiting for Ellie to change her mind. Then, with a sigh, she squared her shoulders and walked to the front room. Tommy’s limp was distinct as he tromped through the house. His grin was wide as he folded her into a hug. Ellie stiffened before she managed to pat his back. He was not to blame for what she did with the information he’d brought her. Tommy collapsed back into Maria’s chair and they both pretended he hadn’t just fallen.
“You find her?” he asked.
What had happened to this man? She’d always considered him gentle; his grin at the thought of Abby’s death was grotesque. Ellie leaned back in her chair and felt the pull of the still-healing wound on her side. She thought of the pass of her blade against Abby’s skin, the scream she gave when the knife bumped her collarbone…
“Yeah,” Ellie said.
She looked at her hands, studied the stumps of her last two fingers, and she shrugged. She raised her gaze to meet his directly. “I let her go.”
Tommy’s grin of zeal slipped away into disbelief. Then horror. And last, anger. “You what?”
“I let her go.”
“You had her, and you let her go!”
Maria interjected, but Ellie shot her a glance that, surprisingly, stilled her. “It wasn’t worth it.”
“Have you forgotten what she did?”
“No, Tommy. I still fucking dream about seeing him die. Abby took Joel from me. But I was the one taking everything from myself after that. What would killing her bring me? Another nightmare?”
Tommy pushed off hard from the table to get his feet under him, and he loomed over Ellie, rage outlining his face. “You goddamn coward—”
“That’s enough. Out of my house, now!” Maria’s tone brooked no argument. Tommy stared down at Ellie in disgust for a long moment before he murmured, “Yessum.” His irregular gait announced him leaving the house.
The bullet had taken more than Tommy’s eye. His personality had changed. He was volatile, quick to lash out in anger, and resentful of the health of others. Though his face had healed, his brain didn’t.
“I’m sorry, Maria.”
She sighed as she sank back into her chair. “For his temper?”
“You asked me to bring him back whole.”
Maria stilled; her face hardened in anger. Her gaze was direct as she asked, “Did you shoot him?”
For a moment, Ellie felt renewed guilt gnaw at her. “Abby did. And I let her go.”
“Ellie, I don’t care who pulled the trigger. Tommy chose to leave; he chose to attack a city full of hostiles on a fool’s errand; he chose to take that risk. And he did it all in anger that I can’t blame on his injuries. I can’t ignore that, and neither should you. Hold him as accountable as you hold yourself.”
Was it really that easy? Maria’s words softened the struggle Tommy refreshed within her. She hadn’t necessarily done right by letting Abby go, but killing her would have been wrong and leaving her to die even worse. Even acknowledging this familiar guilt didn’t make her regret her choice. When Ellie raised her gaze, and Maria looked back at her defiantly. “You don’t get to assume blame for any choice he made.”
After a moment, Maria softened and patted Ellie’s shoulder. Her tone was purposefully light. “Come on. I ran a bath. Wash the road off and keep me company for a while.”
Sleep was a new, so unfamiliar thing. Ellie’s rest on the road—at least, after Santa Barbara—had been better than she’d gotten at home, but in Maria’s soft guest bed, in the safety of Jackson… Her sleep was dark and long. She dreamed unfamiliar, fleeting shapes, but there were no nightmares.
She awoke with a gasp and stared at Maria, who leaned against the doorframe. She knew where she was and felt relief. There was weak sunlight outside her window. Still early then. Ellie pushed herself up onto her elbows before she sat up fully. Her hand was stiff and protested any pressure. Maria approached, setting a bundle of clothes on the foot of the bed. “I had someone grab a fresh set for you. Yours are hanging to dry.”
“You’re welcome, Ellie.” Maria depressed the mattress as she sat; she found Ellie’s ankle under the covers and patted it. “I’m glad you’re back home.”
“Me too.” It wasn’t a lie.
“Have you made peace with it all?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
This time, Maria leaned over to kiss her forehead. That made Ellie smile.
Jesse’s parents shared a big two-story house a few down from Joel’s old home. She knew the way, pausing only a moment in front of Joel’s house. Another family had moved in months ago, absorbing Joel’s possessions as their own. She wasn’t sure what she felt as she gazed up at smoke coming from the chimney, but the emotion wasn’t negative.
Jackson was awake at this hour, and Ellie offered silent nods to the residents that greeted her—only one in surprise but all the rest with curiosity. Word got around about her return quickly, but that was small town gossip. She’d have to get used to that again.
Standing on the porch of Robin and James’ house, Ellie shook off the unease that had settled over her before she knocked. She still felt numb underneath that. Maybe it was all relative, and this was how other people felt in their day to day. She’d gotten as used to the crush of depression as the rush of adrenaline during combat; everything else felt less in comparison.
Footsteps sounded in the house, and it was Dina who opened the door. Even after the night before, she seemed surprised to see Ellie. She was beautiful, askew and uncertain. Ellie felt a coil of anxiety loosen. She wanted to step into Dina’s arms, kiss her neck, but she knew she didn’t have the right of casual intimacy anymore.
Instead, Ellie said, “Hey.”
“Good morning.” Dina looked her over, her smile rueful. “I like that shirt on you.”
Ellie glanced down at herself unconsciously. Button down and plaid, just like every other shirt in Jackson proper. Dina turned to walk back into the house, and Ellie’s eyes traveled up Dina’s body. She was a little heavier than she had been the last time they’d seen each other; the weight looked good on her. Dina turned and raised her brow in a familiar way.
“You’re letting the cold in.”
Ellie toed off her boots by the line of shoes on the porch and stepped inside in her socks, careful with the latch. She was surprised to see James standing in the living room and even more surprised when he offered her a hug.
Why should she be surprised? Jesse’s parents had always been kind to her, especially in that year after Seattle. Ellie stepped into his embrace and fought off tears after he released her. James leaned down to meet her gaze, his hands heavy on her shoulders. His squeeze was firm, and his dark eyes were kind. “It’s good to have you back, Ellie.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, uncertain what else she could say.
He, like Maria, seemed to know when to feign normalcy. “Would you like breakfast?”
“Thanks, but Maria wouldn’t let me out of the house until I ate.”
“And that worked?” Dina walked back into the room carrying her jacket and boots.
“Yeah. Two eggs, oatmeal, and a slab of bacon.”
She’d always wondered at the people pre-Outbreak who thought being skinny was the mark of beauty. She’d lost weight through and after Seattle, and with that weight, her appetite. She'd hated that her ribs showed, how preoccupied Dina was with her eating habits. Funny to be proud of something as little as her appetite reemerging. Funny too to see Dina’s disbelief. Ellie wasn’t sure how to interpret that look, and all those things she hoped to say rushed to the surface.
Then she heard the unmistakable sound of JJ in the next room and nothing else mattered. She turned, then stopped, looking between Dina and James. Her question was hesitant. “Can I see JJ?”
She didn’t know what she’d do if she was denied.
“Go on in,” Dina murmured, finally offering a true smile.
He was making a mess of the mashed fruit on his placemat, eating about as much as he got in his hair. JJ’s cap of dark hair had grown, and it had started to curl around his ears. He babbled and waved, grinning widely at his grandmother.
At the first sight of little JJ, Ellie had to rest against the doorframe to gather her composure. She took a deep breath and blinked her burning tears away, pushing away the familiar sneering voice inside that whispered how Ellie could consider herself worthy of this after leaving her family behind for a selfish fool’s errand. She waited until she was calm again before she took a hesitantly step forward. She’d scared her little boy enough with her fits that a tearful hello could be too much.
“Hey, big guy! My little spud’s growing up to be a tater.”
When JJ saw her, Ellie thought her heart would stop. When he grinned, laughed, and squealed, kicking his legs in his chair and waving at Ellie, she couldn’t do anything but cross the distance between them and lean down to kiss his head, apple sauce and all. His happiness caused a burst of joy and love she was powerless to ignore.
“Can I pick you up, Potato?”
His arms lifted as he continued to grunt and kick in his excitement, and Ellie pulled him from his seat to settle him into the crook of her neck. She kissed his soft neck, breathed in his familiar scent, and then pushed him back just enough to kiss his cheeks. He giggled against her mouth. Ellie’s tears collected on his soft shirt before soaking against the skin of her finger. Against his temple, she whispered, “I am never gonna leave you again, JJ.”
She didn’t want to let him go, but he needed his breakfast. There would be more time. After one last kiss, Ellie settled him back in his seat with a crashing sound that still made him laugh.
Dina was at her shoulder with a damp cloth, and she smiled tightly as she wiped JJ’s breakfast from Ellie’s face, neck, and shirt. The touches were impersonal, and Ellie felt their distance with an ache. She touched Dina’s wrist to gain her attention. “Can we talk?”
Dina pulled away. “I have a shift this morning.”
“Whenever you have time. Whenever you want.”
Dina touched her cheek, still without a smile. She chewed on her lower lip as she studied Ellie again. “I’m not used to this earnestness.”
Ellie couldn’t joke, not now, not about this. Dina continued to watch her before she sighed and nodded. Her faint smile was balm. “Later.”
“Can I stay this morning?”
“You’ll have to ask Robin and James.” Almost in apology, Dina continued, “But I’m sure they’ll say ‘yes’.”
According to Robin, JJ still had a late morning nap. Ellie played with him for nearly an hour before naptime. She praised his coordination, his crawling, and the amazing way he used a chair to stand. He’d started sitting up on his own early so why not this too? She made him laugh, and with a gasp, noticed two of his little front teeth were coming in on the bottom.
He’d changed so damn much in just a few months, and she’d missed it.
“Soon I’ll be calling you, ‘sir’, Potato.”
Robin shooed her out to put JJ down for his nap, and Ellie accepted a cup of tea and sat on the front porch with James. “Not working?” she asked, uncertain for both their presences that morning.
“I traded my shifts. Dina was itching to start working again, and this schedule’s better for all of us.”
Good that she was working. Good for her to do things other than housekeeping, which had always left her so exhausted. Ellie felt a prick of guilt for keeping Dina away from that before. Ellie had been the reason why she’d never taken Jesse’s parents up on their offer. For all Dina talked about wanting a farmhouse outside of Jackson, Ellie knew Dina would be happiest doing more than tending a home. Happiest with a family and support. It wasn’t like Ellie had offered much of that.
“Yeah?” she asked now. “What’s she doing?”
“Working with the electricians parttime. Apparently Eugene taught her quite a bit.”
Ellie smiled at the thought, wishing she could say something that didn’t relate to Seattle. James glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “She misses you.”
Her smile faded. She nodded, studied her tea, and took a sip because what could she say? Except… “Can I stay for lunch?”
Robin asked if Ellie would feed JJ after his nap. She knew this was a gift to her, not a favor to them, and accepted readily. He was still sleepy in her arms, soft and sweet as he nursed on the bottle. She missed this. Missed him. Missed resting on Dina’s shoulder watching him nurse from her. All of those months, chafing at the thought of staying and now regretting every second she’d missed.
By the time JJ was finished, James had a warm bath set up in the sink. Ellie was grateful. She murmured to JJ as he splashed in the bath. She carefully soaped his hair and body and rinsed him clean. He was warm against her when she gathered him in a towel to dry him. Then he decided to be less than helpful as she dressed him. After a few minutes fighting over getting both legs in the correct leg of the onesie, she declared herself victorious and proclaimed her victory with JJ shrieking out laughter as he sat on her head.
“Probably should have bathed him after his lunch,” she said to Robin, who smiled in reply.
Without asking, James fixed her a plate of leftovers for lunch. Ellie tucked in, teasing JJ about who he resembled with his eating habits. “There’s mushed carrots on your eyebrow, Spud. Mixing your tubers, huh?”
He laughed at Ellie’s words, but as Robin teased, “Someone has to.”
Dina stepped into the kitchen, her gaze guarded but not unwelcoming. She seemed surprised to see Ellie again, lingering to watch Ellie offer JJ a bite of biscuit.
Ellie hesitated, glancing at her plate. “I asked if I could stay for lunch.”
“No, that's not it. I’m just… I’m glad.” Dina leaned over to kiss JJ’s head, and he smiled up at her, waving until Dina kissed him again. James set a plate down for Dina. When JJ indicated he was done with his meal, Ellie waved Dina off; she wiped him down, murmuring, “Gotta keep that clean face clean, Potato.”
Ellie sat down with JJ on the floor in Dina’s room. She was content to watch him unload all his toys and play with only one. They made a game of out giving it back and forth.
She glanced up when Dina stepped past the threshold. If he kept the same schedule she remembered, JJ would be nursing and taking another nap soon. She cleaned up JJ’s toys and climbed to her feet. Ellie reached out, pausing before she could touch Dina. “I’ll get out of your hair. Thanks for this morning.”
Dina took her hand. “That talk? I’d like to have it. Just… Let me take care of JJ. Wait for me?”
Ellie followed Dina out of the back of the house. She guessed the field just beyond the next street was their destination. The grass was kept short for recreational activities, but it was just as popular with adults as with kids. Dina walked up to the ancient oak in the corner of that field and settled down in the crook of one root. She patted the spot beside her.
It was cool enough to need a jacket in the shade of the tree. Autumn was coming, and the first snow would be here before they knew it.
They were sitting close enough that their knees touched, but Dina had angled away so they faced each other. It should have felt confrontational, but Ellie was so desperate for contact that even this was enough. She reveled in just sitting beside Dina.
As their silence stretched, Dina reached out to touch the base of Ellie’s left finger gently. She finally prompted, “So…that talk?”
After all her silence, her words came without hesitation. “I’m sorry.”
Dina’s gaze was wary again.
Ellie glanced at her hands and pinched her left forefinger. “I’m just… It’s not me asking for forgiveness. I don’t have that right. But I’m sorry. For everything. For Jesse, for dragging you to Seattle—”
“You didn’t drag me anywhere.”
“You wouldn’t have been there except for me. Jesse told me that, and he was right. So that’s my part in it. I’m sorry for pushing you away. I’m sorry for leaving—leaving you and JJ.”
Now Dina’s bitterness rose to the surface. Her tone warned danger, but Ellie owed it to her not to shut down. “You left your family behind for what, death?”
Ellie was too ashamed to raise her gaze. “Yeah. Basically.”
“Your own death.”
She hesitated, uncertain if that was true.
“He cried for you. I cried for you. I lost Jesse too, Ellie. Not only that, you made me lose you too! You left me with that grief. Alone. Don’t do me the discourtesy of pretending it was anything but a glorified suicide attempt.”
She remembered those last desperate minutes of dragging Abby into that fight, setting aside her weapons to do it. She’d hoped either to die or to kill, maybe equally for each. She’d been at a point of ending it one way or another, consumed by the addicting the idea of losing this grief, this rage, the burning desire to push forward and make someone, either Abby or herself, pay. Dina and JJ hadn’t registered at all. Nothing had but her own selfish wrath.
Ellie finally admitted to herself, “Maybe it really was that.”
“I don’t understand… Why? Why was it so important?”
How did Dina have the ability to cut to the heart of it with just a few words? She touched her arm over her sleeve and rubbed, imagining the shape of the bite beneath her scar. “I…have to start at the beginning, I guess. I told you about my… My immunity.”
Dina’s anger shifted into sharp interest. Her hair moved on the breeze, and Ellie could smell her. The memory of her desperation settled as reality reminded her of itself. She was here now, and the past was done. It was her choice whether or not to go back. She had a choice.
“My best friend was with me. Riley. She was bitten too. She turned. I didn’t.”
“Riley,” Dina murmured. “You never talk about your past.”
“She was my first crust. We kissed right before the infected swarmed us.”
“Your first kiss?”
Ellie nodded, biting her lip. She was sure her smile was a wince, but she met Dina’s sympathetic gaze for just a moment before looking back at her hands. Dina murmured, “I’m sorry.”
“I went to Marlene. She was the leader of the Fireflies in Boston QZ. She said the Fireflies could use me...make a vaccine. She hired Joel to smuggle me out. Except the contacts were dead every step of the way.
“Dina, so many people died to get us there. For me, for the hope of a cure. It took us almost a year before we found the Fireflies in Salt Lake City. I don’t remember much. We were on our way in, got swept in some rapids, and then I woke up in a car with Joel driving away from Salt Lake. He told me that they’d given up on the cure, that there were others like me.”
Ellie pressed her palms together and winced when she put pressure on the stumps of her fingers. Recounting this hurt. She’d spent so much of her journey back to Jackson allowing herself to revel in the good memories of Joel that dragging out the bad ones refreshed the emotions she’d tried to cast off: guilt, pain, regret.
She had to keep going. “It was a lie. All of it. Joel took apart that hospital to get me out. He destroyed the Fireflies and their hope of a cure.”
“After going all that way, why would he do that?”
Now Ellie met Dina’s gaze. “They had to take out my brain to get the samples they needed.”
Dina’s eyes widened, and she pressed her hand to her mouth. So horrified over such a pragmatic choice. Ellie looked away. “I knew he was lying, but I tried not to think about it. I wanted to mean something. I would have made that choice, to die for them. My life…” She was frustrated that she couldn’t adequately articulate her point but tried again. “My immunity was supposed to mean something. And if it didn’t, if it was just random luck, it would be okay to be happy and live my life.”
“And vice versa?” Dina asked, her voice dark with sadness.
Ellie nodded as she took a long breath. “Yeah. Basically.”
Dina turned away from her, smoothed her fingertips over her mouth, and asked, “When did he tell you the truth?”
“Only after I found it out myself. I went back to that hospital, found their recordings. I told him if he lied to me again, I’d leave Jackson. He’d never see me again.” Ellie felt the pull of grief as she remembered the expression on his face. Her voice thickened, and she wiped away her tears. “So he told me the truth. And I told him I...never wanted anything to do with him again.”
When Dina reached for her, she pulled back. “Don’t… I have to finish.” Ellie swallowed her tears. “That night after the dance… I told him I was willing to try to forgive him. I was just so tired of fighting. I loved him, even with that fucking truth between us. We had time for me to get over that, right?”
Dina’s hands cupped hers gently. Ellie accepted her touch now. In the wake of Ellie’s strained silence, she murmured, “And he died the next day.”
“Yeah,” Ellie choked out. “I was… So angry about that, that I wasted all that time. I was angry at myself.” She had to wait for her voice to come back. “If he’d just let me die, he’d be alive today. We could have a cure. My life would actually mean something.”
“Your life does mean something. You mean something to me. To JJ. To Robin and James and Maria. To Jackson.” Dina shook Ellie’s hands between hers vehemently, catching her gaze to make Ellie take heed of her words. “What fucking use is the cure if they have to murder you for it?”
“Come on, Dina,” she scoffed. “One for a million? Who wouldn’t make that choice?”
“Me! Don’t you know you’re one in a million?”
And, just like that, Ellie choked out a laugh and everything inside settled just a little bit smoother than it had been before. She offered Dina a shy grin despite the tears on her face. “Your pickup lines are worse now.”
“No one to practice them on.”
She had no right to ask, no right to wonder, no reason to be jealous or angry, but still… Ellie chewed on her lip and couldn’t hide her tearful smile. She knew that Dina’s statement didn’t have any implications for their relationship. Still, she was grateful. She sobered and looked back down at their joined hands. “It wasn’t right to pull you into that without telling you the truth. About all of it. It wasn’t right to leave without saying it either.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t right.” Despite her sober words, Dina jostled Ellie’s knee with her own. They smiled tentatively at each other, and Ellie took the time to study Dina again. Her hair was a little longer, her face the same. Still so beautiful, more so with every passing day. Their silence stretched, but it wasn’t fragile.
“What are your plans now?”
Ellie mimicked Dina’s casual tone. “Ah... I’m thinking about asking Maria if I can take a position in the barn. I got pretty good at wrangling sheep. Hey, what happened to our flock? Did you bring them back to Jackson?”
“You went to the farmhouse?”
She nodded. “I was looking for home. Just… You and JJ weren’t there.”
Dina pulled her hands away and pressed her face into them as she cried. Ellie watched, frozen in uncertainty. She reached out to touch Dina’s shoulder, and then they were a tangle of limbs, Dina’s weight in her lap, and she was so fucking grateful to still be able to offer this comfort. She smoothed her hands over Dina’s back and waited her out.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Dina gasped. “I waited a week. I had this stupid hope you would turn around, change your mind, and walk back through that door. I knew it wouldn’t happen, and I couldn’t handle the hope. So I left too.”
“So you’re staying?”
“Yeah. I’m staying.”
Their silence stretched again, but that was okay. They’d done this before, sitting together and just soaking each other in. The chill in the air didn’t register with Dina in her arms. Ellie rested her cheek against the crown of Dina’s head and closed her eyes. She waited for guilt to settle, for the itching claustrophobia that had plagued her to climb, for the memory of all those deaths to intrude, but only the sound of Dina’s breaths and the feel of her body registered.
Eventually, Dina cupped Ellie’s left wrist to study the ugly red scars of her last two fingers. “Wanna tell me about the two missing elephants in the room?”
What else could she say but, “Abby bit them off.” Ellie shrugged despite Dina’s sudden tension. “I was stupid enough to have them in her mouth.”
Ellie raised her hand and pursed her lips. She sank into the true answer. “Tommy was right. She was in Santa Barbara. God, that fucking journey. Never had a month take so damn long. I found her boat. Tracked her into town. I…got mixed up with some slavers. They told me Abby was locked up in their compound. So I went.”
Dina was silent, but her chest wasn’t moving and her tension was back.
Ellie frowned at her hand. “It was weird there. They had these infected chained up like dogs. One asshole was taunting one...” She sensed Dina’s growing dismay and realized details were not warranted. “I found the slaves, prisoners, whatever. Set them free. Or they did it themselves, really. I just killed the guard. Told me Abby was on the beach. They had her strung up in…”
The words were hard to find. “Kinda like a stockade, I guess, just strung up with rope. She was fucking skin and bones. I… I cut her down. What the else could I do? She pulled down the boy, her companion. We went down to the beach to a couple boats, and…”
Dina was silent and still. Ellie had to tell her the whole truth. Dina had the right to know what had happened, to know who was holding her. “She said she wouldn’t fight me. I made her. I threatened the kid, used my knife, cut her up.” Ellie lifted her left hand and waved her two missing fingers, pulling a face. Sometimes, like now, she could still feel them. “I had her pinned, head under water…”
She remembered the sound of their combined splashing, the taste of brine and blood, the feel of Abby’s desperate jerks, and the feeling: misery etched in misery, with no outlet. Because there was no satisfaction in coming even that close.
“And?” Dina’s prompt startled her, and Dina cupped her hands, pressure grounding. “Ellie?”
“No. No, I’m okay. I was just…lost.” Ellie offered a tense smile. “I’ve been lost for so long. Maybe my whole life. And killing her wouldn’t make me any less lost. I just couldn’t do it; I realized I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be there at all. She didn’t make me walk away from you. She didn’t make me go to Seattle. She didn’t make me kill all those people there. That was all me. And killing her wasn’t going to justify any of it. Wouldn’t bring Joel back. Wouldn’t make these nightmares go away.”
“So you let her go?”
Ellie nodded. “I realized I had a choice. I’d been...reveling in those last few moments of Joel’s life to remind myself why I was fighting instead of thinking of all the goodness that came before, you know? Blaming myself as much as her. I made myself sick with it. That’s on me. There’s no reason to feel guilty for remembering being happy with him. I’ve been trying to remember the good times more than the bad ones since I let her go. You know what? It’s been nice.”
The weight of Dina’s body was grounding. Ellie rested her cheek against Dina’s hair and accepted her touch. Eventually, their fingers intertwined. Though Ellie had no idea what Dina was thinking or feeling, it seemed like they’d never been closer. Ellie turned to press a kiss into her hair. “I missed you so much.”
“Tommy got drunk last night, apparently went on a diatribe about you letting Abby go. When I heard that, I actually had hope for the first time since this all started that I would have you back again. I should be wishing you’d killed her. Then I wouldn’t have to worry you’d decide to do it all over again.”
“I’m done, Dina. It’s over. I’m not leaving again.”
“And the Fireflies? Their cure?”
Ellie had considered that scenario briefly, thinking of setting out to make good on her hope to serve as a cure for humanity. “Even if they’re still out there, still trying to figure it out… I’m not willing to die for it anymore.”
Dina pulled away abruptly, turning Ellie’s face so that she could study her. Ellie wondered if Joel had felt like this: a kicked dog hoping for a gentle touch. She’d take anything Dina would offer but no more than that. “I’m done. I can’t ask you to do anything but trust me when I say that. I know I don’t even have that right. Just… If you’ll let me, I’ll prove it to you.”
“Don’t break my heart again,” Dina whispered, her eyes filled with tears.
“Do you…” But she couldn’t ask. She had no right to ask, whatever the answer.
Abruptly, Dina kissed her. It was all teeth and tongue, but Ellie kept her mouth soft, compliant under the assault until Dina’s kiss softened into hers. Dina whispered against her mouth just as softly, “It’s not like I have a choice to do anything but love you.”
Hope burst forth, bright and powerful, filling Ellie up until she felt she’d burst with it. It was as strong as Ellie’s wrath had once been, but it felt a shit-ton better.
She knew it wouldn’t be a fairytale ending. Her flashbacks, her agony, her guilt were all still real, but they were just a little less important. Maybe Dina would never forgive her properly. Maybe she’d never trust Ellie again. But finally, Ellie got Joel’s point: she’d found a reason to keep living outside of death. She’d prove herself to Dina and JJ every passing day. By being happy to live.