As The Shoe Drops

At times, he would feel safe, protected, surrounded by walls of softness and love. At other times, it was like he was dangling off a cliff, held up only by the slender hands of his glaring mother. Those times filled his chest with dread and anxiety, and made his sleep fitful and disturbed.

“I didn’t want children in the first place!” Daddy is yelling, his hands moving about as if he were searching for an object to throw. Mommy’s hands are in her hair, pulling every now and then to indicate the depth of her own fury.

“Then why won’t you listen to me!?” She shrieks in reply, “If he doesn’t want to be with us, then just get rid of him! We can put him up for-…!”

“That child is a gift from God, Kristina!” Daddy hollers in equal volume, spouting words that Dal recognizes only because he remembers them causing fights between his parents before. “We can’t just get rid of God’s gifts! He’s ours now, and we have to at least keep him because you wanted a baby!’

“He doesn’t love me anymore and he never loved you! I don’t want a child like that! He won’t even let me hold him!” Mommy yells back, and the fear in Dallas’ chest is overcome by a pain in his heart that he’s never felt before.

“That goes against God’s will-…!” Daddy wants to keep him only because of his God.

“God wouldn’t give me a child that won’t love me!!” Mommy just wants him gone.

The world was hot, and then cold, and then hotter, and then colder. Freezing, burning, freezing again, burning up. Fire behind his eyelids. Surrounded by icicles. Yanked back and forth. Torn to pieces. Ripped to shreds. Burned alive. Frozen to death.

His mother’s lifeless eyes glared hate into his very being. Blood splattered across a body he could barely recognize. Mother, dead. Taken from him. He was never even able to make her smile.

There was pain. So much pain. He could feel his own blood seeping through his clothing, huge areas of his flesh that he knew had been torn to shreds. He could feel the sting of the air on those wounds. The scent of burnt rubber and hot metal filled his lungs, alongside the powerful stench of blood.

His blood.

Dallas’ eyes were spilling tears. He could already hear sirens, he could hear someone talking to him, trying to keep him from going into shock. His whole body felt cold and hot at the same time. He was trapped under that stupid motorcycle. He could hardly breathe past the weight of his fractured ribs.

He was in so much pain, but all he could think of was how angry his parents were going to be.

Distantly, voices. Louder, panicking, then quiet. Voices, then just one voice. Talking, then muttering. Whispering. Pleading. Someone’s about to cry, he was relatively sure. Then, more panic. Lots of movement this time, like he’s being shaken. Loud voice, then louder. More talking. Hollering, calling for someone. For help. What, he wondered, was going on out there?

“Da-al,” Dal hates the way his voice sounds, but he speaks anyway. He wants this man to at least know his name, even if he ends up forgetting it later.

“Dal?” The man looks confused. “What’s…? Is that your name?”

Dal nods. The man frowns, obviously unhappy with the situation. “I’m Nick,” is his half-hearted reply.

“You… you have to get better, Dal. You have to. You have to.” That voice is impossibly familiar, but wracked with misery and rawness, he doesn’t quite recognize it. A strange, painful ache filled his chest, and he strained his ears to hear that voice again, twisted his memory to try and remember it. It was just beyond his reach. If he could just grab it…

Nick

In his dreamland, Dal sucked in a breath and turned his wide-eyed gaze skyward.

He had to get out. He had to. Someone was waiting for him.

Nick was a mess.

It wasn’t the most obvious thing in the world, that was for sure. Nick didn’t show much in the way of emotion in any situation, especially not if that emotion was pain or sadness. He wasn’t particularly private about his history, but he was extremely private about his emotions. So, the fact that Ellis could tell that Nick was a complete mess was a show of just how bad it was.

Nick was already a fairly pale person. He didn’t really have the same healthy glow to his face that Ellis did. Now, though, his face was white as a sheet. His eyes had dark shadows under them, and he didn’t seem interested in speaking to anyone unless Dal’s fever started going up and he needed to yell for Megan.

Ellis was pretty sure Megan hadn’t noticed yet. If she had noticed, she probably didn’t realize what that meant in terms of the extremeness of the situation. She didn’t know Nick enough to understand that the conman’s visible depression meant he was probably in the deepest hole ever.

Dal had been sick for about two days now, and as far as Ellis could tell, Nick hadn’t gotten so much as an hour of sleep in that amount of time. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, actually. He seemed hellbent on getting no rest until Dal was either better or dead.

Ellis shifted on the couch slightly, wincing as pain shot up his leg. He hadn’t been of much help in past day or so, because he had seriously re-injured his ankle. When he’d run downstairs to get the ice pack that first afternoon, he’d landed fairly wrong and pain had shot up and through his ankle. He’d fallen, unable to get up for a brief moment, before he forced himself to his feet and managed to grab the ice pack and race back upstairs. Ever since he’d pushed himself like that, though, he could hardly put any weight on his leg at all. He had been wondering if it was broken. Probably not – it’d hurt a lot more if it was broken, he was sure.

He felt incredibly useless because of his injured leg. He’d cleaned out the still-healing gash in his temple that morning, just to keep himself occupied. Dal was currently in bed, Nick posted right beside him in the large armchair in his room. Megan was in her room, likely either trying to nap or reading. No one had been able to get much sleep (except Dal) since the kid had fallen sick. No one really wanted to sleep. Nick seemed to be afraid that Dal would die if he wasn’t there to check his temperature approximately every half hour.

Ellis eyed his injured ankle with a mild scowl on his face. He disliked the feeling of waiting uncertainly, caught between hopeless and hopeful. He didn’t appreciate the feeling of helplessness. He didn’t enjoy being forced to watch Nick go to pieces while knowing there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. He hated that he was basically an invalid on the couch, useless as he was.

Megan had been the one to tell him to stay off his feet as much as possible until she looked at his ankle and assessed the damage, but Ellis wasn’t sure how much more nothing he could stand to do. He didn’t particularly want to make the damage worse than it was, but he couldn’t bear to just sit around and twiddle his thumbs while Dal burnt out from a fever.

He swung his legs off the couch, grunting in mild pain when he smacked his knee into the coffee table. Ellis carefully balanced his weight on his good ankle and stood up, grimacing at the pain. It really had gotten a lot worse since he’d basically fallen down the stairs. He was sure it was either sprained or broken.

He limped into the kitchen, peering around in the cupboards and poking around in the fridge. If he couldn’t help them take care of Dal, he could at least help them take care of themselves. None of them had eaten since yesterday morning’s breakfast of coffee and home made biscuits – courtesy of Kris.

His heart twisted as he was pulling out fixings to make a vat of soup. He hadn’t given much (if any) thought to the fact that Kris had been killed. He hadn’t given much thought to the evidence that Dal had almost been killed in that same moment. He didn’t know how the kid had managed to save himself. He bore signs of a serious struggle, including bruises around his throat and arms that looked like the work of a Smoker, as well as deep cuts and scratches that looked to be the work of a Hunter.

Ellis wondered if anyone had thought to clean out those wounds. He’d have to do that when he went upstairs. He was sure they weren’t infected, but it couldn’t hurt to rub some alcohol into them anyway.

The soup he was making – cream of broccoli – was a recipe from his late mother’s handwritten cookbook. He hoped Nick wasn’t a picky eater like he’d been when he was a kid. Ellis used to hate broccoli. Now, he couldn’t get enough of it. He supposed that it was part of growing up. His taste buds had matured with the rest of him.

It only took him about fifteen minutes to make the soup. It was a quick, easy recipe. He wouldn’t be able to bring it upstairs to give to everyone, because he would have to limp and thus end up spilling the soup everywhere. But, he decided, he could see if Megan was awake and get her to do it while he was cleaning up Dal’s face and arms.

He grabbed the alcohol and a couple gauze pads and made his way upstairs. The stairs creaked as they always did, as did the hallway. He headed first to Megan’s room, where he found her reading on her bed.

“Hey,” he greeted her when he knocked on her door frame. She looked up at him jerkily, startled by his sudden appearance. Megan looked exhausted too. Not as much as Nick, but she obviously hadn’t slept last night, possibly also the night before that.

“Hey,” she returned, smiling slightly, tiredly.

“I made a pot o’ soup. I’d really ‘preciate it if ya’ could bring a couple bowls up fer Nick’n Dal. I’d do it m’self but I’d spill ’em everywhere with this dumb limp.” He requested, “Oh, an’ you can have a bowl too, if ya’ like, ” he added with a wink. Megan smiled more broadly.

“Yea, no problem. And thanks. Where’re you off to?” She wanted to know. He jabbed his thumb towards the other end of the hall, where Dal’s room was. Megan opened her mouth in a silent “oh” and nodded, before snapping her book shut and swinging her legs off her bed. Ellis turned away from her door then, and started limping his way down to the other end of the hall, whilst Megan headed downstairs behind him.

The door to Dal’s room was shut, and he didn’t want to risk disturbing anyone so he pressed an ear to the door and listened as carefully as he could. No sounds of any kind, so he gingerly wrapped his fingers around the doorknob and eased the door open.

Nick had passed out in the armchair. Ellis didn’t know how long he’d been out, so he was going to have to check the kid’s temperature. He limped over as quietly as he could, creeping around the chair that had migrated from a corner of the room to right next to Dal’s bed, and picked up the thermometer. At the rate they were going, the batteries on the thing were going to die.

He paused to glance at Dal’s face, noting that the cuts on his face were looking a little swollen and unhappy, but they weren’t as badly infected as Ellis’ stitches had been. A little alcohol and they’d be fine. He could do that right after he checked the kid’s temperature.

He put the thermometer into Dal’s mouth, blinking in surprise when the kid opened his eyes blearily and looked at him. After a moment, he seemed to figure out what was going on and closed his eyes again, relaxing. He seemed to be really out of it, but Ellis supposed anyone who was sick would be.

The meter beeped and Ellis retracted it with his hand, looking at the numbers. His eyes widened, startled.

That couldn’t be right… could it?

“-ck! … -ick!” Nick jerked violently, eyes flying open as he surged forward, ready to leap out of his seat and deal with the crisis. But Ellis’ hands came down on his shoulders and shoved him back into his seat, an act that startled him. Was he being seated so he could receive bad news? Was Dal…? He forced himself to school his thoughts, unwilling to think like that until he absolutely had to.

“Wha…?” He managed, confused, dazed, and altogether not together. Megan appeared in his line of vision and he looked over at her, still confused. She was holding two bowls of soup, looking like she’d just had the daylights scared out of her. She held out one of the bowls to him, and he was about to reject it when Ellis took it from her and forced it into his hands. Nick just held it, looking at it for a moment before raising his gaze back to Ellis’ face.

“Eat it, ya’ insultin’ prick.” Ellis said commandingly, and for a moment, Nick was certain that he had been woken up like something terrible had happened so that Ellis could force him to eat.

“What is it?” Nick asked, completing the sentence he had started earlier but hadn’t finished. Ellis grinned at him wordlessly, stepping to the side, evidently so he could see Dal’s state of health. The conman’s eyes widened, his chest constricting and all the air leaving his lungs in a mass exodus.

“‘E’s all better!” Ellis provided the jovial caption for the sight before Nick’s eyes, his already huge grin somehow managing to get even wider.

Dal looked at him from his spot in bed, one hand dabbing at the cuts on his face with a wet strip of gauze – likely doused in alcohol. The kid smiled his strange smile, looking incredibly tired but at the same time, alert, awake, and apparently feeling much better. His face, which had been switching between the usual ghastly pale and an incredibly unhealthy flush, had fully regained color. Dal looked better than he had when his fever had broken in that Walmart.

He felt… numbed. Nick hadn’t actually been expecting Dal to recover. And perhaps that was why it had hit him so hard when the kid had gotten sick in the first place. Now that Dal had gotten better, he didn’t know how to react. He didn’t know what to think or feel or say or do. His brain had been reduced to such a messy puddle of misery that he didn’t know how he expected to pull himself back out of it.

“Nick?” Megan spoke then, pulling him just far enough out of his reverie to notice that he was openly staring at Dal. The kid hadn’t wavered from his intense scrutiny, though he occasionally winced as he was pressing the gauze pad against various cuts and bruises. Nick hadn’t even thought to clean them, he’d been so busy panicking over that stupid fever.

“Your fever broke,” he finally said, realizing belatedly how stupid that sounded. His voice was uncharacteristically quiet, and he was pretty sure everyone in the room was waiting for him to do something either shocking or terrible. Or perhaps both.

Slowly, as if uncertain about his reply, Dal nodded silently. Ellis’ grin had disappeared, and he looked rather concerned as he watch the conman. Megan’s eyes were darting from Ellis to Nick repeatedly, as if she was trying to read the air between them.

The conman looked to the floor for a long, seemingly tense moment. He wasn’t sure how he felt about this particular bit of information at the moment. Part of him was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Perhaps he’d wake up from this pleasant dream and find Dal was dead in his bed. Or maybe Dal would suddenly start convulsing in front of him. Or maybe Ellis would get sick, now. Pessimism was something he was particularly good at, and in this situation, was it both unwelcome and unneeded.

The other shoe already had dropped and Nick knew it.

At the moment, he sort of hated Dal.

Next Chapter

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