Nick’s spleen had developed a blood clot, which had basically turned into an aneurism and ruptured the artery supplying the organ with blood. The surgeons had been forced to remove it, and according to Dr. Mills, Nick’s chances of survival had dipped to an all-time low of ten percent “at the most.” The doctor had explained in few words that the spleen played a large part in the body’s immune system, and without it, Nick would have to rely even more heavily on the antibiotics if he was to survive.
So the dosages were increased and Dal, Megan, and Ellis were back to waiting.
Seven hours after Nick had come out of surgery, Dal’s head was still aching and his left ear was half deaf. He hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, as he didn’t really want anyone prodding about in his eardrum to see if he’d ruptured it. That would require him to leave the room, he was sure, and that was just not happening.
Megan and Ellis had been surprised when they’d returned from the cafeteria in a rush and found that Dal had been gifted with a new speech board. They’d been even more surprised when Dal told them that Rochelle had been the one to deliver it. That had been the moment when Megan found out that Rochelle was that Rochelle.
At this point, however, they had returned to their stillness and silence, sitting vigil over a comatose conman.
It had been a long day, and it hadn’t yet ended. Dal hummed more frequently, deciding that he didn’t care if Ellis and Megan heard him. Stress was pretty much eating him alive at that point, and so he needed all the relief from it he could get. Humming helped a lot. He didn’t know if it was the mild distraction or the sound or the soft vibrating of this throat, but it helped.
And so, he hummed. When Ellis and Rochelle knew the song he was humming, they started humming with him. To an outsider it probably looked like they were serenading Nick.
His blood pressure was still low. His temperature had gone up a little a few hours after the antibiotics had been increased and his pulse had come down some, but he remained sickly and pallid. Dal didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to think. Nick had a ninety percent chance of dying, and if he did…
No, he couldn’t even think of it.
He had originally been permitting himself to sleep if he found a comfortable position in his chair and passed out. Now, he wouldn’t allow himself even that much. He wouldn’t rest until Nick woke up or at least started showing signs of recovery. If he’d been sleeping when the monitors had started beeping, no one would’ve been around to hit the Code Blue button. Nick would’ve died.
Dal wouldn’t leave that up to chance. If anything else happened, he would be conscious to respond to it. Even if it wouldn’t make a difference if he was awake or not, he couldn’t take the risk. He couldn’t. Nick could die if he wasn’t around to tell everyone if something went wrong. And so he wouldn’t rest. He just wouldn’t sleep. He could probably last a while without sleeping. He didn’t know when he’d start hallucinating, but he would stay up for as long as he could and then sleep for as short a time as possible. Screw the dangers of insomnia.
Nick would just have to get better and he would have to hurry up with it.
Dal didn’t know what he’d do if Nick died. He couldn’t even think of the possibility. It was too much for him. Nick had to live. He just had to. He had to because Dal wanted to stay with him, and he wanted to conman to know.
So, Nick couldn’t die. Not yet. Not for a long time. Some people deserved to live a long, happy life, and others didn’t. Nick probably went under the category of people who didn’t really deserve to keep on living, but Dal didn’t care. It didn’t matter to him that Nick had done awful things. It didn’t matter to him that Nick was a murderer and a bastard and lived off other people like a very mobile parasite. If Nick died right now…
No, he couldn’t even begin to think of it.
He didn’t know how long it had been, but he wanted to wake up.
Occasionally, he would hear a song. He didn’t always know what the song was, but he heard it nonetheless. Often times, it was so quiet he had to strain his ears to hear it. Then, there were times when it was louder, and sounded like it was being sung by more than one person. Not a chorus of people, but maybe two or three.
He called it singing, but he could never make out words being sung. It sounded more like humming, actually. Sometimes, his mind would supply the words of the songs he knew. Usually, it didn’t bother. The voice that sung to him sounded familiar, and he wanted to hear it, so he muted his thoughts and listened.
He didn’t know who it was, but he wanted to find out.
Nick was the one who found her.
Even as young as he was, he knew what he was looking at as soon as his eyes saw her lifeless form in the bathtub. She was fully dressed, drenched in blood, wrists slashed open. Her eyes were closed. There was red everywhere, and for a long moment Nick just stood there and stared at her.
His older sister had been his only salvation in this Hell he called home.
And just like that, she was gone.
There was pain at all times.
Sometimes, he could’ve sworn it was from a beating at the hands of his father, or that a gang had caught up with him, or he’d been shot, or Scott was trying to practice his skills with the little pocket knife he’d gotten for Christmas. At times, it was a sharp, awful pain that would centralize in one spot – his lower back, his side, the underside of his ribs. Other times, it would be a dull ache that spread through every nerve in his body, sharper in his joints, but hurting all over.
He didn’t know why he was in so much pain, but he had gotten fairly tired of it.
That had been too close.
Nick spat out a mouthful of blood, wiping what had dripped down his chin on his sleeve. His ribs were fractured, but that seemed to be the worst of the damage. He hissed when his body tried to take in a large breath of air and aggravated his ribs. He needed to leave. God only knew if those thugs had reinforcements coming.
He stared down at the four bodies laying haphazardly on the floor, dropping the crowbar he’d been holding. It clanged loudly against the pavement, and he had to refrain from wincing at the noise.
Nick turned away from the scene of his latest crime and escaped into the night. He needed a change of scenery.
His dreams came and went like flashes of lightning. He barely remembered them as they raced by, leaving only a metallic taste in his mouth and the familiar feeling of blood on his hands. He let those dreams flit by as they pleased, not particularly interested in hanging on to any of them.
The world around him was a vast, empty darkness. There was nothing around him, beneath him, or above him. There was nothing. Just a massive void that seemed to fill every part of him. It seemed to mock him. It was a joke of a metaphor regarding his cold, empty heart.
He didn’t know why it was so dark on the inside, but he wanted to get out.
“Da-al.” The strange Hunter croaked, and for a moment Nick had no idea what it was trying to say. After it swallowed hard, it repeated itself more clearly, “Dal.”
His stomach dropped as he realized what it might be trying to say. Still trying to hold on to the idea that this Hunter was nothing more than a slightly-smarter-than-average infected, he slowly responded, “Dal?” He repeated back to the Hunter. “What’s…? Is that your name?”
When it nodded at him in response, he frowned. He knew this was what he wanted, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like how easily this was panning out. Either this Hunter was smarter than Nick was willing to give him credit, or he was a complete idiot.
“I’m Nick,” he finally replied.
This is what you wanted, Nick. Just play along.
It felt like it had been a long time since he’d opened his eyes. The darkness that enveloped him was neither warm nor comforting. It was a cruel, cold, unhappy place. He didn’t know why he was having such a hard time getting himself to leave. He was just so incredibly tired, he hadn’t wanted to wake up, and then it seemed like it had gotten harder and harder as time went on.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping, but he needed to wake up.
With the memory of one of the few times he’d heard Dal speak still fresh in his mind, he was met with a realization that hurt and comforted him all in the same breath. With a sharp intake of air, he looked up at the night sky above him. He was tired, but he couldn’t sleep any longer.
That humming he’d been hearing was Dal.
And so, he woke up.
He didn’t get the luxury of getting gently adjusted to the bright, loud, smelly world around him, either. No, instead he was rammed into by a car-sized amount of sensory information that left him reeling with a powerful, throbbing headache. He shivered against the frigid cold, his whole body aching and sore, and waited for the worst of his fresh migraine to fade into the background noise, which seemed to be dying down as he became used to it.
Once the noise had quietened some, he was able to pick out specific sounds from amongst all the racket. A soft beeping that seemed to be in time with his heartbeat, footsteps striding up and down a hall somewhere to his left, distant voices engaged in heated conversation, and the soft sound of humming.
The humming was very quiet this time around. Quiet enough that he had to strain his ears and blot out the rest of the noises around him to hear it properly. He knew the song. He wasn’t entirely sure what song it was yet, but he knew it. The tune was sort of ambiguous without all the instruments playing together, but part of his brain knew that he would recognize the song in just a moment.
On the black rock is where I spend my time…
Nick wasn’t a particularly musical person. There were very few songs he listened to, and even fewer artists. The number of albums he had owned over the course of his entire life could be counted on one hand. He didn’t really like music that much. It was usually background noise at bars and clubs and casinos. He didn’t listen because he was too busy swindling.
There was only one song in existence that he could listen to on repeat. So, the fact that Dal knew the song… no, the fact that Dal was humming it beside him at the moment he decided to wake up was a little bit amazing. He wanted to hold his breath and continue to feign slumber so he could hear the kid hum the whole song. At the same time, he wanted to start humming with him, though he wasn’t sure his parched throat would be able to utter so much as a hiss.
So he settled for simply waiting and listening. He didn’t bother trying to figure out where he was. He knew he wasn’t at home anymore, but that was as far as his knowledge went. At the moment, he didn’t really care anyway. He wanted to enjoy this, for once in his face-paced life. He wanted to be able to enjoy more of these kinds of moments. Living the life he had lived thus far had been good fun and all, but the past several days he’d been living with Megan, Ellis, and Dal – even with the fighting and the drama – had been beautiful and comfortable in their simplicity.
With any luck, he wouldn’t lose out on those simpler things in the future.
Dal concluded Black Rock with a sigh, and Nick could hear him shifting around in his seat. His lips quirked up in a very slight smile and he parted his lips, trying to operate his sand-dry vocal cords and failing. He closed his mouth again and swallowed several times, before trying again.
On his second attempt, he managed to croak out his message: “Mor…” His throat caught on itself midway through the word, forcing him to swallow once more and try again. “Morning.”
He heard a sharp intake of breath, and he couldn’t help the way his smile broadened. He turned his head slowly, ignoring the pounding in his skull, and cracked an eye opened. The window was covered by blinds, thankfully, but that didn’t stop the fluorescent lights above him to blind him entirely. He blinked hard several times, attemping to move an arm to rub at his eyes. It was a lot harder than he felt it should have been, but after a moment of real effort, he managed to accomplish his task.
Finally, with his vision returned and the lights less blinding, he took the time to take in those who had been posted beside him for… however long he’d been sleeping.
Ellis was staring at him, looking like he wasn’t sure whether or not he ought to cry or smile. He appeared to be somewhere in between, disbelief and joy coloring his blue eyes brighter than usual. Megan looked startled, her eyes wide and her red hair pulled back into an unusally messy ponytail. Her eyes were already starting to water, and Nick was beginning to get the impression that he had been a lot closer to death than he’d realized.
Finally, he tilted his head up a little so he could actually see Dal, who had been posted closest to his head. The kid’s eyes had never been wider, his face had never been paler, and he most certainly hadn’t looked quite so terrible. The shadows under his eyes were as dark as bruises, his face was gaunt, and he definitely looked like he had lost all the weight he had put on after his fever had broken.
How sick had he been? How long had he been sleeping? What in all hell had happened while he’d been unconscious? He was beginning to feel bad for falling ill. He could tell that it had put his friends through an emotional wringer. He hadn’t actually realized that getting (extremely?) sick would have that kind of effect on them. Apparently, Dal’s opinion of him wasn’t the only one he’d underestimated.
No one was saying anything. He felt like a deer in headlights. The three of them had to all be thinking that they were hallucinating, because he really couldn’t think of any other reason for them to be looking at him like he had literally just risen from the dead. He felt almost like he had disturbed some kind of mood or moment, and that perhaps he should just go back to sleep. He was certainly still tired enough to sleep for a month or two.
He stared, for an excessively long time, at Dal. How long had he been asleep?
“Jeez,” he said, “I must’ve been out for a long time if you’re talking now.”
All at once, the tears were flowing. Megan immediately started to rub at her eyes in what was likely an effort to conceal her tears. Ellis had started to laugh, sounding close to hysterical. Dal punched him in the arm with unfair harshness, crying uncontrollably. Nick wasn’t at all prepared for that reaction, and he helplessly rubbed at the spot where Dal had hit him, staring at all of them in utter confusion.
“You ass!” Megan suddenly exclaimed at him, angry all of a sudden. “You almost died!”
He blinked, alarmed. How close to death was “almost?” How long had he been sleeping?! What had happened? Before he could start pelting them with very confused questions, he noted Megan and Ellis looking past him, towards where he was now guessing there was a door. He turned his head, ignoring the increasing in pounding in his head. A nurse stood there, looking alarmed for a moment before surprise overtook his expression.
“I heard you yelled and…” The young man smiled at them, looking pleased. “Well,” he continued, “I’ll go and get the doctor.”
“Thank you, Justin,” Megan replied thickly, clearing her throat and looking slightly embarrassed. Justin nodded and turned away, heading back down the hall from whence he had come. As soon as he was out of sight, Nick turned back towards his friends, seeking out the button that would sit him up somewhat, as he was relatively sure he wasn’t going to be able to sit up on his own. He wanted to, but just by how difficult it had been to lift his arm, he could tell it was impossible.
Ellis, who had only just come out of his laughing fit when Justin had appeared, suddenly spoke when Nick had gotten about a third of the way to where he wanted to be. “Nick, wait, your missin’ a kidney. If ya’ sit up too high, it’s gonna hurt a lot.”
Nick froze, his finger coming off the button, and looked up at Ellis. There was a pregnant pause as the information sank in. “I’m missing a what?”
“A kidney,” another person spoke that Nick didn’t know, and he turned to look at the intruder. A man stood in the doorway, wearing a white lab coat. The nurse from earlier, Justin, had followed him into the room and approached Nick’s bedside to take his vitals. Nick allowed him to do his job, instead choosing to size up the doctor. He didn’t appear to be too much of a threat. He looked exhausted, but pleased at the same time, if not a little astounded.
“A kidney.” Nick repeated.
“And your spleen,” the doctor continued, walking further into the room and stopping at the foot of the bed. “You’re extremely lucky.”
The conman’s face drained of color. “How lucky is extremely lucky?”
“You should be dead,” was the offhanded answer he got from Justin the Nurse. It was completely unsatisfying.
However, right when he was about to start asking more questions, the doctor continued, “Nick, once you lost your spleen, it was generous of me to guess that you had a ten percent chance of survival.”
The doctor glanced at a chart as Justin the Nurse handed it to him. He frowned slightly, but shrugged and went back to speaking to Nick. “You had severe sepsis, which is basically when you get an infection in the normally sterile environment of your blood. The cause was the gunshot wound in your side, and your lack of care for it.”
Nick forced himself to be quiet long enough for the information to sink in. Severe sepsis. Lost kidney and spleen. He’d had a ninety percent chance of dying. He was beginning to see why Megan, Ellis, and Dal had been hysterical at his awakening, and why he’d gotten punched. He looked over at the three of them. Dal was still trying to get hold of himself. Ellis was working extremely hard to not smile. Megan was glaring at him. He felt kind of bad for making them worry so much.
The silence stretched for a good minute before the doctor finished reading the chart he’d been handed and spoke again, “I’m going to schedule another CT scan and a full blood panel for tomorrow.”
He grunted an affirmation. The doctor nodded curtly and left with Nurse Justin, the two talking about something irrelevant on their way out the door. Nick’s glare faltered. He really had almost died. It’d been a while since he’d been standing on death’s door, and it was for such a stupid reason. Infected bullet wound. If he had taken a moment to stop sleeping and taken care of the damn thing, he wouldn’t have wound up in his current predicament.
He looked over at Dal. The kid’s arms were wrapped around his middle and he was hunched over his lap, shaking like a leaf. Nick’s heart ached. He felt terrible. Not for getting sick, no. He felt terrible because he was pretty sure he knew exactly what kinds of thoughts had been going through Dal’s head while he sat vigil over Nick. He had a feeling Dal hadn’t slept through the night in days. Nick didn’t know how long he’d been out. He didn’t know how long Dal had been waiting for him to wake up. Nick had waited for only a couple of days for Dal to wake up when he’d been sick, and those days had nearly destroyed him.
“Dal, come here,” he said. The kid didn’t seem inclined to look up. Or move, for that matter. Nick wasn’t having any of that, though. He leaned over, barely managing to contain himself when a sharp, piercing pang shot through him, stemming from his lower back and left side, which must’ve been where his spleen and kidney were removed. He gritted his teeth and grabbed Dal’s shirt, leaning back to his original position and yanking the kid along with him. Dal looked for a moment like he was going to hit the floor, but he caught himself and allowed Nick to pull him over.
He didn’t have to tell the kid to hug him, which was a relief because there was no way he would’ve been able to say something like that out loud. Ignoring the pull of the stitches in his side, he hugged Dal back, pushing down the discomfort and the visceral desire to push the kid away. Ellis and Megan fell very, very quiet, though Ellis didn’t stop grinning. Nick glared at him from over Dal’s shoulders, daring him to say something at any point in time. Ellis ought to know by now that he’d kill him if he wanted to.
The pause seemed like a lengthy one. Nick was sure it didn’t last more than a minute or two, but it seemed like an eternity. He really didn’t like affectionate physical contact. He was sure a psychologist would cite his childhood or something, but the reason for it didn’t matter to Nick. He’d never had to worry about it because no one had ever really craved physical attention from him beyond sex or a knuckle sandwich.
Now, however, it seemed that he was going to have to get used to it.
Eventually, Dal pulled away on his own accord, and Nick let him. The kid sank back into his seat, looking so incredibly drained, Nick thought for a moment he was going to fall asleep right in his chair.
“Dal,” he said, and the kid looked up at him. “Geez, you look terrible. When’s the last time you slept?” Dal shrugged unhelpfully at his question, and Nick had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. “Is there somewhere you can go and sleep?”
For a moment, he was sure he was going to be resisted. But he put on his best stern-face, knowing just by Dal’s reaction to his question that there was somewhere he could sleep. “Go take a nap. You can come back when you wake up. I don’t care if you only sleep for an hour, kiddo. You look like you haven’t slept in days.”
“That’s because he hasn’t,” Megan muttered. The look Dal gave her was one of such utter betrayal, Nick couldn’t help chuckling. The kid looked at Ellis helplessly, but the hick only smiled at him.
“E’s right, Dal. We’ll all still be ‘ere when ya’ wake up.” Ellis paused briefly before continuing. “Well, me n’ Meg might be in the cafeteria, but Nick’ll still be here, and that’s what ya’ really care about, right?”
Dal’s face fell. He looked impossibly defeated. “I’ll still be here, Dal.” Nick reassured as gently as he could make himself sound. “I promise.”
The kid looked like he wasn’t sure he could believe him, but nonetheless he slowly stood up and made a wobbly trip out of the room. He swayed all the way out the door and around the corner. Nick watched him go, listening carefully for a good minute after he was out of sight in case the kid collapsed in the hallway like he looked like he might.
“The room is right next door,” Megan spoke up. She seemed to sense his concern. “He’ll be fine.”
Nick nodded silently, frowning. He looked back over at the two of them. Ellis’ facial muscles were finally starting to relax, though he still looked just as happy as he had when Nick had finally caught up to the hick, Coach, and Rochelle in the swamps. Megan had stopped glaring at him, her gaze gentler than before.
“I have two questions,” Nick finally said after a lengthy pause, watching them with an even gaze.
“Shoot.” Megan replied with a nod.
“First… where the hell are we?”
Ellis was the one who supplied the answer this time, looking a lot calmer than he had earlier. Nick was glad the moment had passed. “We’re on a base in Texas. Uh… El Paso, I think.”
“Yea, El Paso.” Megan confirmed, glancing at the younger man only briefly.
Nick frowned at that bit of information. He’d only known about their exact location for ten seconds and already he was itching to get off the base. By base, they had to mean a military base. That meant military in general. Officials of the law. Nick had always and probably would always have a problem with the law and “authority” figures. He didn’t mind doctors too much, so long as they weren’t completely dicks, but police, military, and those of the world who had anything in common with them? He’d rather die than be confined by their walls.
Nick had spent six months in juvie when he was fifteen. Rather than learning not to break the law, he’d learned not to get caught, and that the “authority” should be fought and otherwise hated. It had not been a good experience, but he had learned a lot from it. Sure, he’d learned all the “wrong” things, but he’d still learned and that counted to him.
“And…” He looked back up at them, “How long was I out?”
Ellis and Megan exchanged a glance, the latter grimacing while the former looked uncertain. Nick’s brow furrowed. They had to know he was going to ask, but the little moment they were having seemed to tell him a lot by itself. He had been out for a long time.
Finally, they turned back to him, and Megan answered his question. “You were out for sixteen days, Nick.”
The world seemed to come to a sudden, screeching halt around him. Sixteen days?! For a moment, he was sure they were joking, but the serious look on their faces was enough to tell him that they weren’t. He had been out for sixteen days. Nick took a deep breath. That probably constituted as a coma. He’d been in a coma. It was no wonder that the three who had been sitting vigil over his bedside looked so worn.
“Dal hasn’t left your side for anything,” Megan spoke again, sounding like she had just realized she could let go of a large load of stress. “He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t sleeping unless he passed out in his chair. The only reason he didn’t dehydrate to death was because I’ve been bringing him soda and juice and water whenever I come back from the cafeteria.”
He wasn’t sure if she was trying to inflict guilt upon him or if she was intending her comments to explain just how good Dal was to him. He didn’t really need either. He felt guilty enough for robbing the kid of his sanity for sixteen days, and he already appreciated every aspect of Dal and their relationship.
He nodded mutely, not really having anything to say to that. He felt both terrible and bitterly overjoyed. He supposed this must’ve been how Dal felt when Nick started showing him affection for the first time – those early days when simply worrying about the kid would make him cry. Nick was more important to Dal that he had ever been to anyone else in his life.
People had been dedicated to trying to fix him. People had been kind in various ways to try and get him to behave in certain ways. The only other person to ever care about him was his sister, but that had been more about her feeling the need to protect him because she was the oldest and he was the youngest.
Dal honestly, truly cared about Nick. Not because he wanted anything. Not because he felt the need to. Nick didn’t actually know why the kid cared about him so much. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve to have such a good kid walk into his life. Maybe he hadn’t done anything. Maybe it was just his time for redemption.
Ha-ha, very funny.
If Dal did accompany him, he would likely return to his life of swindling and conning, and simply add a partner in on his crimes. He didn’t know if Dal would permit that, or if the kid would just hang back at whatever home base they established while Nick got into every kind of trouble he could find.
Then again, he didn’t actually know if he would return to that lifestyle. Perhaps he would just settle down somewhere with Dal and try for a minute to make an honest living. The kid was fifteen – he probably ought to finish school. Nick could easily lie and say that he was nineteen, since Dal looked a lot older than he was, but he didn’t know if the kid would want that. He didn’t know anything. His future was completely up in the air at the moment.
Perhaps Dal would be the one to finally domesticate him. And would that really be such a bad thing? He’d get to listen to the kid hum – or sing, once he could talk properly. They could listen to O.A.R and Dave Matthews Band and whatever interesting things Dal listened to. They could have road trips, or they could stay at home. They could just enjoy each other’s company. They didn’t have to live a complicated, scary lifestyle.
The days he had spent living with his friends in that house in Brookhaven had been the best days of his life, even though they had taken place during a minor apocalypse and there had been fighting and drama and Dal getting sick. He had never been so comfortable, so happy with where he was and what he was doing.
His friends. He’d never had that before. Before, he would never have allowed himself the luxury of friends. Friends were dangerous. Friends meant returning to a place on a semi-regular basis. Friends could be used as leverage. Friends were too risky. Now, he had three, and he was surprised to note that he didn’t mind having them. Even if they were somewhat annoying. Even if they didn’t understand him or themselves. Even if they cried a little too much.
He supposed this new life forming in front of him didn’t look all that bad.