The stables were without a doubt the quietest damn place in the entire fucking settlement. Possibly this was due to holding only three horses total, but it didn’t hold all that many people either. You may have gone kicking and screaming, ranting and raving the first time; then you realized: horses were much preferable to people. Feeding, cleaning, and talking with Ellie’s horse might have been a chore, but at least it was a chore that didn’t make you want to drive a hoe through your fucking eye. You could save that for your mornings and that goddamn corn plot of Tommy's.
“Getting kind of low on the hay,” you told the horse as you groped for the feeding trough through the bright afternoon sunlight flooding Callus Two’s window. He (or so Ellie insisted; you weren’t about to check yourself) stamped his feet when you found it, nearing only to nicker in obvious disappointment at the little amount of food inside. “Sorry,” you said with a careless shrug. “It’s hard all around.”
“I don’t remember giving you permission to give my horse attitude.”
Twisting around, you saw Ellie standing pale in the entrance of the stable. Her glassy eyes flashed dimly even in the well-lit stable, her lips set in what you could only assume was a shitty attempt at a scowl. How she was to frighten anyone when she still looked as limp and moist as a fucking cooked noodle was beyond you. You could have tackled her to the ground—if the damn horse hadn’t got in the way. As soon as Callus Two spotted her, he was pressing you against the rough, splintery wall to get at Ellie.
“That’s right. You know who loves you,” she crooned as she patted his neck with one hand and held a second up to his fucking gross horse lips. A familiar crunch filled the air. So that was why the damn horse was so excited to see her.
“The fuck are you doing out of bed?” you grumbled. If Ellie was well enough to bring the thing treats, she was well enough to feed and water and clean it and scoop its fucking shit. Wielding a shovel with one arm was no easy task—though you would admit to yourself (and yourself only) that the work had done wonders for your muscles. That did nothing to change the fact that you spilled the fucking manure all over your shoes more often than not, though, which meant you felt no inclination to be charitable.
“Is she taking good care of you?” Ellie asked the horse. “Just tell me if she’s not. I’ll have her fired so fast her fucking head’ll spin.”
You were in no mood listen to the little shit poke fun at you. Filthy, exhausted, and hungry, you wanted nothing more than to choke down whatever the fuck the cafeteria had left over this late and crawl into bed. Too bad for you that Ellie was somehow your personal responsibility until Joel came back from wherever the hell he’d run off to. The brat had come down with a bout of food poisoning due to fucking marshmallows of all things. Tommy couldn’t have thought of a better punishment for you skipping out on night-watch duty if he’d fucking tried, not that Joel had allowed it easily or all that willingly.
“Get back to the goddamn infirmary,” you snapped, “and quit wasting the apples on your fucking mule.”
Ellie shot you a look of what might have been amusement—the same look she’d shot you since your being assigned to be her personal slave. She might not have taken Joel ditching her very damn well, but you remaining behind seemed to go a long way in cheering her up. You supposed there must have been something funny about watching you struggle to open fucking doors with your only damn hand clutching a plastic cup of water; still, it didn’t exactly endear Ellie to you any further than she’d already managed by wormin her way into your shithole of a life.
“Why should I?” Ellie wanted to know. Callus Two had finished his fruit and moved onto mouthing his slime into Ellie’s hair. The fucking horse seemed more interested in breaking your toes than grooming you, but you shuddered all the same. Horse spit was not something you wanted to have stuck in your hair until wash day. The horse shit was awful enough. Unfortunately, Ellie saw and her weak smile only grew at your obvious discomfort.
“Just go.” Maybe if you started shoveling, she’d leave you the hell alone—not that that ever worked. “I don’t want yelled at for letting you walk around again.”
“She’s with me.” Maria stepped inside, her eyes narrowed at you. Ellie practically beamed.
“So she’s well enough to be out and about?” you asked coolly. Maria’s presence was not one you knew well enough to think snarling would be tolerated. Though you sensed a kindred spirit in her commands and scowls, it was carefully buried underneath several layers of strained patience.
“I haven’t thrown up in twenty-four hours,” Ellie said with a brightness that did not match her syrupy movements.
“I’ve seen more of your fucking insides than I ever wanted in the past week and a half and one day means you're good to go?”
“She’s fine.” Ellie turning to speak softly to her horse again forced Maria to answer your question. You noticed that though she met your eyes, Maria’s expression didn’t seem as fiercely determined as usual. Ellie still looked pretty damn white and sweaty. Food poisoning hadn’t been too bad in the distant past, but in this day and age where medicine was jealously guarded and hard to come by, all anyone could do was watch as Ellie tried and failed to keep down one grainy dinner roll after another. Tommy and Maria had spent as much time as they could spare in the infirmary with her. If they thought Ellie was well enough to move about, who were you to argue? Besides her fucking nurse, that was. At least this meant they were watching her. It would keep Ellie out of your hair for a few more days, thank fucking god.
“Fine.” Arguing with Ellie’s aunt wouldn’t do you any favors anyhow. “Just make sure I haven’t been abusing your pet and get out of here. I want to be done before it gets dark.”
Ellie looked over at Maria, who simply shifted her gaze to frown at you. “It’ll take as long as it takes. This is your job until further notice. Failure to do so—”
“Means I don’t get to eat.” You rolled your eyes. How many times did Tommy think you needed to hear this fucking lecture? A couple of days without food had been more than enough to get his damn point across. Several months with three regular meals a day, however meager, made it all the more difficult to go without. It spoiled you. As much as you hated knowing that, though, you just couldn’t bring yourself to not eat when there was food available. For all you knew, next week it wouldn’t be.
“Ellie,” Maria said, the frost in her voice so apparent you were surprised that you couldn’t see her breath, “go get your saddle.”
Normally, you got the feeling that Ellie liked watching you get told off. Hell, you assumed she fucking loved it. Today, she scuttled off eagerly enough. Callus Two tried to trot after her. Maria, however, blocked the way and looked entirely unperturbed by the hooves going up and down near her feet. It didn’t seem likely that looking busy would work to get rid of Maria any better than her annoying niece, but you did your best. Then Maria cleared her throat.
“What?” you demanded.
“Listen.” Maria stepped closer, her expression not flickering away from her scowl once. You didn’t see why you should do as she said, but the idea of having a pistol shoved to your head was just as unappealing as it was any other day. “You let anything happen to her—”
“Me? I’m not the one letting Joel’s dying whatsit out on a joyride, th—”
“Quit interrupting me.” When her palm pressed into the holster at her thigh, you fell into a silence that was sure to be as sullen as you intended it to be. There you’d been, minding your own fucking business, and now Tommy’s damn wife was in here acting like you’d dragged Ellie out of her sickbed yourself. “We got a signal from Joel. She’s not going to sit still until she sees him. So she sees him, and you bring her right back here. Understand?”
“No, I don’t fucking understand,” you said, shoulders hunching up around your ears as though you were some sort of cornered cat. “Why the fuck does she need to go running after Joel when she’s sick as one of your bitchy dogs?”
Unlike everyone else in Jackson, Maria didn’t react at all to your temper. There was nothing there of Joel’s impatience or Tommy’s pained sympathy. It was like your words slid off of her. All Maria was concerned about was getting her way; how you went about it didn’t seem to matter. “We can’t get her well until she knows he didn’t ditch her. We need someone to get her there safely.”
“What about you?”
“I can’t leave right now. But before you go, I need you to understand one thing very clearly.” Maria got so close to you that your skin crawled. Every fiber of your being screamed at you to retreat, to get the fuck away before she drove a bullet through your skull. Instead, you stood your ground, muscles tensed as her nose nearly touched yours. “You’re expendable. She’s not.”
Even with adrenaline racing through your system so fast that thinking was difficult, your lips curled at the suggestion that a fucking fifteen-year-old warranted more importance than you, the experienced adult. You’d been hunting since before Ellie had been a fucking thought in some guy’s dick. Of course, you’d lost your arm and become a useless sack of shit since then. You knew it every bit as well as Maria. Arguing wasn’t going to do you a lick of good. Despite this knowledge, your chin lifted in defiance.
“And how do you suggest I get her away from Joel if he’s not finished with whatever he’s doing out there?” you demanded.
“Drag her back,” Maria answered. “Tie her to the horse. I don’t care. I’m just saying, if she’s the only one that comes home on that horse, that’s fine. If she’s not, don’t bother coming back.”
That pissed you off. Everyone kept acting like you’d asked for this, like it was only out of the goodness of their hearts that they didn’t send you packing out the front door with no time to prepare—as though the collective of humanity even had any goodness in their hearts these days. Your knuckles went white around the handle of your shovel; your lips parted with what you could only hope was a stinging retort, and then Ellie came back and the room was once again filled with excitedly prancing horse.
“What’s going on?” Ellie looked honest to god curious, as though the idea of Maria threatening you was the furthest fucking thing from her mind. You’d seen Maria give Ellie her fair share of lectures (the only person in the damn settlement that bothered), but Ellie seemed to take these in stride as part of being family. Maria was no family of yours, but she seemed perfectly willing to chew you out for something you hadn’t even done yet. And in fact, Maria didn’t bother explaining. All she did was smile that same strained smile given over the discussion of Ellie’s health.
“Nothing,” Maria answered, and stepped away from the horse. “Saddle up. Hold tight to [Name] while she’s steering.”
What you could do to this order but snort? “Like I know how to drive a goddamn horse.”
“You don’t drive,” Ellie said. “You ride.”
Maria didn’t look like she believed your lack of horsing experience. Why shouldn’t she have, though? Horses took up space and food—a lot more of both than human beings. Jackson was the only non-military settlement fucking stupid enough to keep them around. It was obvious why: Ellie’s damn sentimentality. Callus Two was like the damn dog she’d never got at that godforsaken school of hers. You, on the other hand, had grown up with real fucking transportation: cars and buses and airplanes, for fuck’s sake. By the fucking way? You only had one arm. How the fuck would you steer a horse one-handed?
After considering you through narrowed eyes for another minute or so, Maria snorted herself, turned back to Ellie, and folded her arms across her chest. “Fine,” she said. “You steer. But if you start having trouble, you’re walking home.”
“We are not walking home,” Ellie muttered underneath her breath as Maria marched past her and out into the stable hall.
“You will if you have to,” Maria called back flatly. That was the last you heard of her. Only the sound of her boots against the ground announced that she had left. Ellie, meanwhile, was busy getting her saddle situated. It was clearly from Before: old and scratched, with fraying straps and tarnished buckles. You supposed it must have done the job fine, though this didn't matter much either way. Surely Ellie of all fucking people didn’t know how to ride bareback either.
“Are you coming or what?” Ellie’s voice snapped rudely into your musings about whether or not you actually should have learned to ride a horse when you’d had the damn chance. When you looked up, she was already atop Callus Two, reins in her hands and as close to a look of impatience as she could manage on her face.
“And if I don’t?” you asked in a voice of feigned curiosity.
“Can we not do your fucking drama queen bit right now?” As if the dumb horse could sense Ellie’s agitation, he began to stamp again. “Shit,” was all you got out before you’d been backed into the wall again to avoid having your feet broken. Ellie did not appear to notice or care. Her eyes were already glued to the tree-line outside the window. “I need to see Joel. Either get on or fuck off—but remember it’ll be really fucking easy for me to catch up with Maria on horseback.”
“Not right now, okay?”
The look she threw you was almost pleading, or maybe that was just the sheen of sickness underneath her shell of contempt. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that that made you clumsily climb onto Callus Two’s trough and scramble onto his back. Last time you had been in this position was when Ellie had brought you to Jackson. She’d been a hell of a lot more accommodating then; now you were forced to struggle to get yourself adjusted all on your own. Ellie didn’t even wait before she snapped the reins and the horse started off. The bouncing made it much more difficult for you to find your balance and all that came out of your mouth for the next few minutes was a stream of quiet but vehement profanities.
“You done now?” Ellie asked once you had finally come to a stop behind her, legs pressed against hers and hand clutching at her hip as lightly as you dared. With the back of her red-brown head nearly pressed against your nose, you could smell the faint, cloying scent of illness clinging to her. This was the first you’d smelled of it and it nearly made you sick yourself. Even what used to be Wyoming got warmish in the summer, meaning that you hadn’t had to cuddle the little shit to keep her warm at night. You wished you had been able to keep that distance now. “Hey. Bitch. You settled?”
“I’m—fuck!” The damn horse obviously hated you, as he took the incline down toward the forest with such a bound that you nearly flew off the back again. “I’m settled, thanks.”
She glanced back once at you without pulling to a stop. Unlike you, Ellie knew the lay of the land surrounding Jackson well enough to not have to look where she was going. You could find your way to Joel’s swimming pond and that was fucking it. You were half-surprised that Maria hadn’t insisted on blindfolding you for this little venture with how little you were allowed outside these days. And for what? Who the fuck were you supposed to bring here? Who the hell did she think you liked enough to remain in contact with? “What’s your deal?”
“My deal?” you repeated incredulously. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Look, I didn’t fucking ask to be saddled with you for this. If I’d had my way, I’d be going to Joel alone.”
“Too bad for me that your family seems so damn keen to keep you around.”
The back of Ellie’s neck turned slightly pink. When she looked at you a second time, you could have sworn that the ends of her lips were twitching up. You must have been mistaken; Ellie never smiled at you or because of you. Then again, you weren’t sure if you were mistaken when Ellie spoke again, her voice uncharacteristically soft: “Yeah, well, you need to get out sometimes, too.” Must have been those marshmallows talking.
Once in the forest, Callus Two slowed considerably. At this rate, it would be past dark by the time you got Ellie home. Maria hadn’t outright said you had a time limit, but you wouldn’t have been surprised to find her standing at the gate waiting for you if you took too long. You snorted into the top of Ellie’s head and looked away. “Your gesture of kindness might be more appreciated if your fucking aunt hadn’t twisted my arm about it.”
“She shouldn’t have to twist your arm," said Ellie.
“Why the fuck should I listen to her?”
It was Ellie’s turn to sound incredulous. “Because she’s in charge.”
Why did you have to explain the workings of Ellie’s family business to her? That round of food poisoning must have fried the last few brain cells left in the kid’s head. “Tommy is in charge,” you said slowly. Ellie’s responding eye roll was so massive that her head moved along with it.
“Maria is in charge. Jackson belongs to her family. She used to run it with her dad before he—”
“Died,” you finished for her. Everyone’s loved ones were either dead or fungal and it wasn’t hard to tell if it was the latter. “If it’s Maria’s settlement, why does Tommy give me all my assignments?”
“Maria can’t stand you,” Ellie said bluntly. “Kind of a repeated pattern in your life, if you think about it.”
Already the images were there. They had been creeping closer and closer and closer every night since that bungled attempt at watch duty. You could see a stunted, misshapen figure chained to a tree just out of the corner of your eye, hear the grunting slowly turning into the godforsaken clicking, taste the ghost of warm meat in the back of your throat. Holy fucking shit, could one glimpse of a familiar face in the dark really turn you back into a quivering member of the non-fungus walking dead that quickly?
“Fuck!” Ellie hissed. “Let go.”
Too late, you realized your broken fingernails had dug into her side. You hastily forced your fingers to straighten, balance be damned, but you didn’t bother offering Ellie an apology. You simply sucked in a high, quick breath. “You stand me,” you answered smoothly a moment later. Ellie snorted again, forcing you to add almost insolently, “And Joel.”
You had, of course, intended to get a rise out of Ellie. Baiting her was about the only fucking thing that brought you joy in this life anymore—and no way in Hell were you speeding your way along to Hell. You figured you might as well enjoy the simple things in life, but Ellie had to go and ruin that too. She didn’t immediately snap at you; in fact, Ellie hardly responded at all. For what felt like a whole damn minute, the only sound in your ears was the steady beat of horse hooves against the wet leaves on the ground. When Ellie finally did speak, her voice was so quiet that you could barely hear:
“Did he ask you to go with him?”
“Did Joel ask you to go with him?”
A frown pressed wrinkles into your forehead. Was Ellie fucking delusional all of a sudden? “Did Joel as me to go where?”
“This isn’t that hard of a question!” Ellie snapped, twisting in her seat to glare at you. “Did Joel ask you to go along with him on this trip or not?”
Now that you understood what Ellie wanted to know, you couldn’t help a bitter laugh from bubbling out of your lips. You had been afraid that things were about to turn genuinely serious there for a second. “Why the fuck would Joel ask me to go anywhere with him? You’ve heard him. I’m ‘quite frankly as useful as a chocolate teapot in the desert heat,’” you said, mimicking Joel's drawl for the last bit. For once, Ellie didn’t fire back with a comment about how you were as useless as a chocolate teapot. She really must have been sick, because she just turned back around and was silent again.
Well, if the rest of this trip went by without Ellie’s typical useless chitchat, you could count that as a victory. You: one, Ellie: somewhere in the fucking thousands. Unfortunately she did not remain speechless. “He had a girl once, you know.”
Her tone was so different all of a sudden. You found yourself frowning at her through the flitting shadows of the trees. What did Joel’s past have to do with anything? He tolerated you because Ellie—for reasons that were beyond you—liked having you around. “A daughter or a girlfriend?” you asked. Again, Ellie fell silent. Obviously, she was still thinking about it, though, because her thin shoulder blades were pinched together. You were only just starting to feel a burning annoyance in your chest at her for bringing it up if she wasn’t going to elaborate when she finally got her damn tongue back on track.
“A girlfriend,” she said quietly.
“Before or After?” you inquired, still faintly frustrated by the pointlessness of the conversation when you could have been in your room sleeping off your inadequate meal.
“After. I met her once. Tess.”
“Tess,” you echoed. What kind of woman had Tess been, you wondered? Tough, presumably, to have lasted that long. Joel took any and every insinuation that Ellie was anything other than his daughter so badly that Tess must have been an adult. You imagined a tall woman, quiet, with smoldering coals in her eyes instead of fire. Maybe she had been a better shot than you, or more likely she had done something productive with her life. She’d definitely have been whole, at least, probably didn’t go around chopping off limbs in a wild attempt to stave off the inevitable burning of eternity.
Wait. Why the fuck did you care what Joel’s old girlfriend was like? You ought to have wished she was still around so she could fill in for parent-guardian when he was gone. It was Joel’s fault you were being dragged on a horse out into the middle of nowhere to begin with!
While these unsettling thoughts flipped through your head, Ellie appeared to be lost in thought. You could not see her eyes from where you were sitting, but she held the reins loose in her hands, unmoving other than the occasional twist to get Callus Two back on what she must have felt was the right track. Even more irritated to find that she could escape your presence that easily, you cleared your throat. Ellie gave a fucking ridiculous start and said “What?” with obvious frustration, which you ignored.
“Where the hell is your dad anyway?” you asked. Too much longer and the clickers would be out—and it wouldn’t easy to keep them from hearing the steady rhythm of Callus Two’s hooves. Maybe a horse could take out a few on its own; maybe not. You weren’t all that eager to find out firsthand.
As soon as the question was out of your mouth, Ellie’s shoulders hunched again so that her shoulders were up around her goddamn ears. “Joel isn’t—”
But whatever Joel wasn’t (the possibilities were endless), you never got to hear. Laughter had filled the air, several different laughters, and they echoed against the tree trunks eerily in the red-orange light of the evening. The smart thing to do probably would have been to keep going—but hell, you weren’t the one driving. Frowning, Ellie pulled your ride to a complete stop. In the shadows beyond Callus Two’s path, five darker shadows shifted, closer and closer until their owners appeared: three ragtag men and a couple of equally ragged women. As always in bands such as these, there was an obvious leader; the dark-haired man stepped forward so that his relatively clean-shaven face showed clearly in the sun. As the laughter died away, he smiled a disarming smile that showed a surprisingly whole set of teeth.
“Oh, he’s far enough away, darling. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.”
Ellie frowned down at the man. “Who the fuck are you?” she asked, tone mild. Either she was even more of an idiot than you thought, or Ellie had goddamn balls of steel. It was true that none of the five had weapons drawn, but several backpacks had crowbars sticking out of their tops and the man in front had a sawed-off rifle in plain sight. For all of Ellie’s tense curiosity, however, his eyes were focused squarely on you. He did not even seem to have heard Ellie speak.
“How you doin’, sweetheart?” he asked, sauntering forward as casually as fuck. Your eyes felt so wide that they might pop out of their sockets. Your fingers had once again latched onto Ellie’s hip as your only anchor to this goddamn earth. “Looks like that crazy plan of yours worked—‘less you just go runner slower than the rest of us.”
Your companion twisted in the saddle to gape at you. “You know him?”
You would have known him anywhere. Seeing him, your chest ached as badly as the day you had met, and once again you tasted meat in the back of your throat, the first real meal you had had in years and years and years.
“Ezekiel,” you breathed. And then, before Ellie could demand that you explain or before anyone else in that cramped forest space could react, you had launched yourself off of Ellie’s fucking horse and tackled Ezekiel to the ground.