Wisdom always chooses these black eyes and these bruises over the heartache that they say never completely goes away
Maria paced carefully around the table in her basement. Tommy eyed her from a chair and across from him, Dina sat, bouncing her legs.
“I say we kill the bitch,” said Tommy, tilting his head. “’Fore she can kill us. She don’t have a loyal bone in her body.”
“Of course, Tommy, and I suppose you want the pleasure of doing so,” Maria slammed her hands on the table.
“I sure as hell do,” Tommy retorted.
Dina looked up and her brown eyes were solemn, “I have questions.”
Maria agreed, “While the both of you hold your grudges, I think it’s fair to get whatever information we can get out of her and then I will decide what to do. Jackson has had enough trouble and enough grief.”
Outside the gates of Jackson, Ellie and Dina shared the weight of Tommy. With a rag caked with blood on his face to match his anger, he growled. “Finally,” he said through his teeth. “This wasn’t worth losin’ an eye for.”
Ellie felt the panic swelling within her with each step, the throbbing of shame deep in her stomach. There was a part of her that didn’t believe she’d make it out of Seattle alive.
Seattle was a hole she jumped into. It swallowed her whole and lived underneath her skin like a parasite. She wanted to dig it out of herself with her mother’s knife. She wondered if it was all worth it.
Failure, she thought. She wasn’t dead and she had gotten the best of her. She will pay.
Maria had cried. Maria is not someone who cried easily, but she cried when Dina told her she was pregnant by Jesse who was gone.
She cradled Tommy in her arms after they tended to the loss of his eye better than Dina could. The gold necklace shimmered around her neck. Maria said, “Thank you for bringing him home,” but it couldn’t have been enough. Everyone in Jackson knew it was a miracle any of them came home.
Maria heard Tommy’s account of Seattle, heard Dina’s account of Seattle and finally, it was time for Ellie’s account.
“I wake up screaming every night,” she admitted, unable to look at Maria.
Maria braced herself on the table, sucked in air through gritted teeth. It wasn’t easy to lose Joel and in her own words, “It wasn’t fucking easy to see my husband come home without an eye and a gold necklace, but someone has to be the adult.”
After all, what was Jackson’s purpose? She thought. Wasn’t this supposed to be a sanctuary?
Maria had a soft spot for Ellie, what she loved most about her is that she knew that Ellie wouldn’t give up and it was just so hard to believe her when the woman at the end of Maria’s shotgun said—
“She let go of me. She told me to go. I was going to die and she let me go with Lev. I don’t know where she is. She was crying in the water as I left. I swear.” With a shotgun barrel to her head, Abby’s eyes locked with Maria's, wrists wrapped in metal and trembling.
Then she tracked her eyes to Dina, whose black hair framed her face and remembered how she gripped that hair and slammed her face into the floor until she saw enough blood. Abby remembered how she yanked her hair back with a knife to her throat.
“Stop,” Ellie said, her nose and throat filled with blood. “She had nothing to do with this.”
“She’s pregnant,” Ellie’s voice weakened at the admission, a last ditch effort.
Abby panted, the rush of the kill making her heart pound in her chest as she held the knife to the unconscious woman’s throat.
“Good,” Abby replied, the ghost of a laugh under her tongue, placing her hand on the top of the woman’s head for the cleanest possible cut in front of Ellie, the more blood, the more turmoil.
Abby didn’t break Dina’s cold stare, not even with a gun in her face.
Abby opened her mouth to speak, but Dina rose from her chair and sneered, “Murderer.” She stomped up the stairs and slammed the door. Abby waited until she didn’t hear the footsteps anymore.
“Please,” Abby begged Maria, “I want to see Lev.” Abby’s voice broke as tears slid down her cheeks, “If you decide to kill us, you can do whatever you want to me, b-but not in front of him, not where he can hear me scream.” Maria rested the shotgun on the table and watched Abby break down completely. Abby breathed in hard.
“Please, Maria, make his death swift.”
“What if Ellie shows up and everything she said is true?”
“And what if she fucking doesn’t because the murderer killed her already?” A broken mug against the wall.
“Tommy, you need to calm down,” Maria started, her voice strong and steady, “That girl isn’t lying to me.”
“That bitch killed my brother!” Tommy shouted, rising and leaning his weight on his good leg. “Did you fucking forget that, Maria? How she took a golf club and beat Joel to death? Or am I the only motherfucker in this town that remembers?”
“Tommy, I have not forgotten Joel,” said Maria, placing her hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “Nobody forgot about Joel.”
“I hope Ellie put a bullet in her own head 'cause she was good for nothing. I could’ve killed that bitch on my own, I almost did. She swore to me, Maria, she swore to me!” Tommy screamed.
“I know Ellie promised you and I know Ellie promised herself she would get justice, but we both know Ellie wasn’t capable of it.”
Tommy broke down, something too familiar to Maria after the group’s return from Seattle. His voice broke as he sobbed. Maria had grown tired of the wounds Seattle left on Tommy, it had fractured their relationship.
Maria couldn’t shoulder the blame Tommy placed on her for allowing Ellie and Dina to go just as much as she couldn’t hold it herself. She considered herself responsible for Jesse's death, he shouldn't have snuck pass the patrols.
Tommy said it so many times before, “They weren’t killers, Maria, they were kids.”
Maria sat across from Lev, the boy with the thin scars on his cheeks. He recounted his story, admitted to shooting Tommy. “I want to tell him I’m sorry.”
“I stopped Abby from killing Dina. She was going to slit her throat in front of…” he trailed off, speaking her name, it felt wrong. Maria finished softly, “Ellie.”
“They kept us in cages and starved us. They terrorized us with the de—the Infected. They kept the Infected on chains. One night, Abby had tried to escape with me. It was because,” he drew in a deep breath, “One of them, they took Abby and I didn’t see her for hours, when she came back, she had a black eye, bruises on her arms, she was bleeding between her,” he gestured downwards.
“She was crying. She couldn’t say what happened or what they made her do. When another female prisoner, Alice asked her how many of them, Abby held up both hands, then three fingers.”
“Christ,” Maria breathed out. The thought of it made her stomach twist, it made her grit her teeth. Years ago, Tommy had told her about a girl about Abby’s age who rebelled against the poor conditions and a group of men in the military had their way with her, left her in a warehouse for dead until her sister snuck out and found her.
Maria considered herself fortunate to have her father and what they built in Jackson. The world was unforgiving and what was left of humanity was as scarce as the bare necessities needed to survive.
He shifted in his seat. “When we reached the Firefly base, everyone was dead. Abby told me stories about them and what she did with them. We just followed Owen’s lead.”
Maria sat back in her chair. She remembered in the months following Seattle, Ellie threw a Firefly pendant in her direction from across the room. Owen Moore.
“I can’t look at it,” she said. “I shouldn’t have—”
Maria sighed and reached for Lev’s hand. He didn’t snatch it away. “Why Jackson?”
Lev said, “Abby had told me about it after the theater. When we left the Fireflies, I told her it was the place that nobody would suspect her to go. No WLF.”
“And she didn’t go down easily with that idea, I imagine,” Maria said.
“No, she told me someone from Jackson could kill us both on sight. She didn’t know if Ellie or Dina were there. She said if it wasn’t them, it would be someone else. She didn’t want me in danger because of what she had done.”
Lev paused and breathed before continuing. “I told her we had to try, that maybe there were Fireflies at Jackson. I begged her and told her that if I died, I wouldn’t be angry at her.”
Maria sighed, removing her hand from Lev’s.
“Is Abby alive?” he asked.
“I am still questioning her,” Maria confirmed.
Abby was careful about what she chose to tell Maria. There were times where she felt as if she didn’t have a choice. There was so much that happened between the death of her father, the death of Joel, Seattle and Santa Barbara. It felt like it was too much ground to cover.
Maria noticed Abby answered questions easier when there wasn’t a gun in her face. Maria noticed Abby responded better when she wasn’t restrained either. Abby wasn’t scared of death.
Maria knew Abby didn’t trust her and Jackson was the last place in the world she wanted to be and yet here she was, the infamous murderer, the talk of the town.
“I heard you’re an ex-Firefly,” Maria said. Abby shuffled her feet.
“Yes,” said Abby, her voice thin. Maria undid the handcuffs around her wrists. Maria noticed her flinch, her eyes meeting Abby's. A hint of fear, then shame for making the fear visible.
Abby thanked her softly, nervously rubbing her wrists where the metal dug into the skin. Maria sat down across from her, gesturing for Abby to continue.
“Me and Lev, we were looking for them before we got captured.” Abby swallowed hard, closing her eyes, lifting her hand carefully to fidget with the end of her ponytail. “I should’ve been sharper, more careful, I saw the Rattlers’ graffiti on the wall. We were so goddamn close.”
Maria didn’t speak and then she saw it. Abby’s eyes watering.
“I was fifteen years old. In Saint Mary’s, I walked down that hallway. The alarm had gone off. It was my father who Joel murdered.” Abby shuddered, held back a sob. “My father was trying to help.”
She struggled to breathe. “I would dream I’m walking down that hallway, the red lights coating the walls, his blood all over the floor.”
“Downstairs in the parking garage, we found Marlene. She had been shot in the stomach and in the head. The Fireflies were trying to make a vaccine,” she finished through her teeth, “My father was going to make a vaccine.”
Maria’s face shifted from indifference to revelation. Abby shook her head, her eyes to her feet. “You don’t understand how we all lost that day.”
Tommy limped into the basement. As soon as she saw him, she looked down. “Yeah, you know who I am,” he laughed.
Tommy dragged the chair from across the table and sat inches away from Abby, the last time they were this close, she was standing over him, holding a gun. He smelled like old leather, tobacco and mint.
“You shot me in the head, girl, I know you ain’t scared to look me in the eye.”
Abby looked up, seeing the scar on his cheek and the aftermath of her pulling the trigger. She winced. Abby never got to see aftermaths like this, not when she had a winning streak. Abby shot to kill.
“You know, you look a lot different without those arms of yours, girl.” Abby didn’t respond.
“Ex-Firefly, ex-WLF, huh?” He gestures with a tilt of his head in the direction of Maria. “My ex-wife tells me that my brother killed your father.”
“Yes,” Abby responded.
“And you,” Tommy cut his eye at her, “You took it upon yourself to murder my brother. Five years you waited.”
Abby closed her eyes, “Yes, I got permission from Issac, the leader of the WLF, to hunt down Joel. I had heard about you first.”
“Hmm,” Tommy wet his lips, “You were about to get torn to pieces by that hoarde of Infected. Me and Joel saved your ass. The fear in your eyes, girl. But that fear didn’t hold you back when you shot that runner that was trying to make a meal outta me. I knew you were a force then.”
Abby took a deep breath, nodding. I don’t know if he’s complimenting me or insulting me.
“And your leader, you turned against him to protect that boy. Your man was gonna kill you, but then his sister shot him and you escaped with the boy, that right?”
“Yes, I fought my way out. I put bullets in the WLF soldiers’ heads to save me and him. I was Issac’s best.” There was no pride in Abby’s words, her eyes were empty. None of that means anything now.
“A traitor,” Tommy said sharply. “A traitor none of those Wolves stood a chance against.”
“I’m sure you don’t know I’d been looking for you, too,” Tommy drawled. “If it was up to me, I would’ve killed you myself, strangled you with my bare hands—Shit, I wanted to string you upside down, beat you with a bat tricked with nails like a piñata until your guts spilled out.”
Abby inhaled shakily. I knew he was a piece of work from the way he led the Infected to me and Manny with those shots, she thought. That’s not a swift death.
“You should know I left Jackson first. I left Maria a letter. I killed plenty of you Wolves along the way, three hundred and eighteen of them, including that friend of yours on the pier. And you should know I couldn’t come after you to make you number three hundred and nineteen because you took my eye,” he pulled the skin beneath his right eye, cracking open the eye with nothing but salvaged flesh to fill the space left behind.
Abby clenched her fists, looked to Maria and then back to Tommy. “I…”
“You should know my brother told me what he did before you beat him with that golf club.” Abby unclenched her fists, glanced down in her lap.
Tommy held out his hand, opening his palm. Abby tentatively took what was in his palm, a chain warmed from the body heat. She looked at the emblem, the Firefly sigil, flipped it over, Thomas Miller.
She couldn’t hold back the gasp. “You were a Firefly.”
Tommy scoffed. “And a killer just like you.”
Abby opened her mouth, closed it.
“See, the people of Jackson don’t trust you. Hell, I don’t trust you, but Maria and Dina been thinking about telling them why you killed Joel,” he leaned forward and Abby felt his breath on his face. Mint. Tobacco. “It won’t win you any points and if we let you speak, they might stone you, but a little clarity is the icing on top of the shit cake.”
Abby chose her words carefully with a trembling voice, “Lev… He had nothing to do with that. Don’t hurt him, please.”
“We know he didn’t, he wasn’t in the room when you tortured my brother,” Tommy said. “All the boy did was leave me with a limp. Now, did you kill Ellie?”
“No,” Abby said, she inhaled, “I told you,” she glanced at Maria, “She wanted to fight and she almost drowned me and she let me go. I don’t know where she is.”
Believe me for his sake.
There was a knock on the door. Maria called to open it. Dina’s voice.
“I brought Lev like you asked, Maria.” Abby looked up, her eyes widening.
Abby softened visibly as Dina let go of Lev’s arm at the base of the stairs and he ran over to her and hugged her. Abby rubbed Lev’s back like a mother would, pressed her lips to the top of his head, meeting Tommy’s gaze, then Maria’s and Dina's whose eyes lacked coldness this time.
“There, there, kid, I’m alright, are you okay? Have you been fed?” Lev nodded and Abby felt the wetness of his tears on her shoulder.
Maria said, “We decided not to kill you,” she looked towards Dina who continued, “We decided not to let you leave either.” Dina crossed her arms.
Tommy looked at Abby and Lev, Lev showed fear more than Abby. “It’s a goddamn liability to let you leave. I ain’t sure if you’ll leave and change your mind, come back with whomever and slaughter us all. You’re welcome,” he finished shortly, scooting his chair back.
“Thank you,” Abby whispered, feeling Lev squeeze her hand.
Dina spoke next, “We have rules at Jackson, rules that we expect the both of you to follow.”
Maria finished, “Abby, we aren’t tolerating anything. If someone here gives you a problem, you have to come to me. We don’t fight each other. I don’t want to hear about a single threat from you. You come to me. Understand?”
Abby nodded. “I understand.”
“I’m going to walk you to the home you’ll be residing in. Lev has already been sleeping there for the past two nights. I want you to get cleaned up and I will leave you dinner for tonight. You and I will talk more then.”
Maria looked towards Tommy and Dina and stepped up to place her hand on Tommy’s shoulders.
“I hope you know trust is earned.”
Abby looked down.
And forgiveness? A pipe dream.
A steel winter. Ellie left a track of footprints in the freshly fallen snow. Outside the gates of Jackson, she stood. It was just past 7, dark and cold. She shivered in the leather jacket she salvaged from a store in California.
When she was spotted outside the gates, they made her wait. She fiddled with her gloves, fingers tracing over the spot where her last two fingers were. Why the fuck are they making me wait?
Maria greeted her at the gates. “Follow me to my house, Ellie.”
It was a brisk wind in the air as their boots crunched against the snow. Ellie blew air into her gloved hands. I’m grateful I arrived at this time. No one knows I’m here. They’re all in their homes. I know Maria wants to talk.
Closing the door behind them, Maria and Ellie removed their boots. Maria gestured for Ellie to sit on her couch by clapping the brown leather.
“When’s the last time you ate?” called Maria from the kitchen.
“Yesterday,” Ellie replied. “I found a rabbit.”
Ellie removed her gloves, set them on the table and shrugged off her backpack and gear. She looked around the living room, her eyes falling on a photo of Joel, Tommy, Maria and her. She was young then, 16, her tongue out in the photo. She remembered Joel scolding her and Maria laughing it off.
“You don’t want to smile,” Joel rolled his eyes.
Maria said, “Let her be a teenager, did you smile in photos when you were a sixteen year old?”
“Maria, you know there ain’t no photos around—”
“Really? Tommy, go get the book.” Tommy chugged down his whiskey and laughed.
“What damn book?” Joel asked.
“Yeah, I wanna see pictures of Joel when he was my age!” Ellie laughed.
Tommy cracked open the book on the table, flipped to a page, “See, Joel never smiled,” pointed to a picture of him and Joel together, a younger Tommy with a messy head of blonde hair was beaming next to Joel who wore a dark buzz cut.
“Wow, you look like such a fucking old man now,” Ellie laughed, leaning over the book. “Who fucking knew young Joel would look like he was a part of the military! And you’re not even smiling!”
Joel laughed, “I’ll shave your head so you look like you were gonna join those bastards, too.” Ellie yelped, smoothing her hands over her hair, Tommy and Maria chuckled.
Maria’s voice cut through the memory and she placed a plate of rice, green beans, a breaded chicken breast and a glass of water in front of Ellie, but Ellie didn’t know what she said.
Ellie grabbed the fork, pushed around food on the plate.
“Eat,” Maria commanded and Ellie didn’t hesitate anymore.
“Are you gonna talk to me?” Ellie said after a swallow, holding her hand to her mouth.
“I don’t want you to leave again,” Maria started. Leave again?
“You left Dina and no one heard from you for over a year, Dina said you left to kill Abby. I thought you’d put a bullet in your head.”
“And?” Ellie said, putting down her fork, crossing her arms and staring at Maria.
“You didn’t kill Abby,” Maria treaded carefully, watching Ellie’s face change.
How does she know I didn’t k—
“Because Abby and the boy came here.”
Ellie stood up, “And did you kill her, Maria?” Ellie threw the fork and it hit a painting.
“Ellie,” Maria stood up with her hands out, walking towards Ellie, “I need you to calm down.”
Ellie turned away, running a hand through her hair. She collapsed to her knees, her hand on her chest as her breathing quickened. “Fuck,” Ellie said, her eyes squeezed close. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. The room is fucking spinning. Fuck.”
“Ellie?” Maria crouched next to Ellie, her arm around her neck only to remove it as Ellie lurched forward and gagged, the chewed rice, green beans and chicken breast returning and spilling onto the floor.
“Damn it, Ellie,” Maria said softly, holding back Ellie’s long hair.
Ellie retched again and Maria moved to go get a towel and a bucket.
When Ellie was done vomiting and Maria was done cleaning, she spoke, hands shaking. “So you just let her become a part of Jackson? After what she did?”
Maria crouched in front of Ellie. “I interrogated her several times, Ellie. I thought she killed you. With a gun to her head, she said she didn’t, but you let her go.”
Ellie gasped, “Fuck, I let her go.”
“Why did you let her go?” Maria placed her hands around Ellie’s shoulders and squeezed gently.
“I…” Ellie’s hands shook harder, her voice higher, “I remembered Joel.”
Did I make the right decision? I can’t do anything fucking right. She came back. Why did she come here? I should leave. I should leave. I should leave. Should I kill her before I leave? I fucked up. I fucked up. Where’s Tommy? Where’s Dina?
“Ellie?” Maria shook her as Ellie’s breathing quickened and her eyes zoned. “Ellie? Are you going to throw up again?”