On the one hand, he felt bad for frightening Ellis, since the guy didn’t really deserve to be stuck between the rock and hard place he had found himself in. On the other hand, Nick had a headache, so screw everyone and all their thoughts and feelings. His fight with Coach had been the start of the the headache. Nick was somewhere between surprised and not surprised at the level of violence he wanted to inflict upon the older man. He was also somewhat surprised that he had stopped himself when Ellis stepped in. Well, Team Dal.
Now, it was looking like the pain was going to continue to get worse until he couldn’t see and inevitably collapsed, much like the incident in the swamps. The pain medication was helping, but only minimally. The powerful pulsing behind his eyes and especially in the back of his head was still pretty horrible. Being in pain soured his mood. Not that it hadn’t been soured already.
The pouring rain was not helping his condition. In fact, the heavy droplets that came down on his head like small pebbles were making his headache worse. That and the cold. He looked over at Dal briefly, suddenly wishing the kid could talk. Idle but intelligent conversation might make him forget his headache. He wondered if Coach and Rochelle would feel differently if the kid could talk. He wondered if Dal would stick up for himself if he could talk, or if he would just sit there and take it. He wondered if Dal would react violently in the same way that Nick had.
Dal seemed to feel eyes on him, and turned to look at Nick. Their eyes met, and it was one of those brief, almost comforting moments when he felt like they didn’t really need words. He was sure that there were things that Dal wanted to say to him, and there were questions that Nick wanted to ask, but it was nice feeling like he could get by with Dal with such a strong language barrier. Nick wondered if Dal felt the same way. He was sure that being mute was awful, and there were times that he could tell Dal wanted to say something. He could sometimes see the frustration in the kid’s eyes, though it wasn’t nearly as noticeable if Nick himself wasn’t in the midst of snarling or hollering at Coach and Rochelle.
Those two… he wanted desperately to beat them both to within inches of their separate lives. He could not understand for the life of him why Dal’s presence was such an issue. He wasn’t a Hunter, and as far as Nick was concerned, he could barely be considered infected at all. He wasn’t dangerous and he did not understand for a second why Coach didn’t trust Nick’s self-preservation enough to trust his judgment of Dal. The older man had to know that Nick had given up his preferred life of solitude in favor of staying alive with a bunch of people he had voiced his distaste for pretty early on.
His head pulsed, and he reached up a hand to rub the back of his head. It didn’t help, but as far as he was concerned, the thought counted. Part of him almost wished that Coach would take the opportunity to say something starkly cruel just so Nick would have the excuse to turn and swing.
He had a feeling that his brain was starting to recycle thoughts. He pulled out the bottle of pills again and swallowed two more – ibuprofen had a six-pills-per-day limit, and he had now taken five and six. He scowled, wishing they had come across something stronger. Perhaps not Vicodin, but maybe Aleve or something that had a track record of actually working on him. He didn’t have a long history with self-medicating (not counting his love for alcohol and cigarettes), but ibuprofen and acetaminophen had never worked on him. He used to take seven or eight at once for mild aches and they would work just enough to keep his pain from being worthy of complaint. Of course, now that he had taken so many of them, he’d have to give it some time before he tried taking anything else. It’d just be utterly lame if he died during a zombie apocalypse because he took too many drugs for a headache.
He thought back to the earliest hours of the time he’d spent with Dal, remembering how worried the kid had looked the entire time. He wondered if Dal knew something about migraines that he didn’t. Probably not. He was probably just worried because occasionally Nick looked like he was about to be sick or pass out.
Though, he didn’t used to get headaches like this. Then again, a zombie apocalypse would change a person.
The streets were flooded as they wound their way back through the neighborhood, occasionally pausing to ransack houses for supplies. It was practically the swamps all over again – just water and mud and ransacking while soaked to the bone.
“I’m getting tired of all this water,” Nick complained, “I’m going to Arizona.”
Ellis chuckled, “Ain’t it kinda hot out there?”
“I’d rather live in a volcano than deal with any more rain at this point,” Rochelle chimed in, and Nick noticed the wariness in her voice. It was present like the cautiousness in Ellis’ every word. Rochelle could tell that something was wrong with the vibe between Coach and Nick. She could tell that Ellis was quieter than usual, and she had probably even figured that Coach and Nick had been fighting again.
Sorry for not inviting you, Rochelle. He was still angry with her. Dal had been outside the safe room when he’d finally found him, and she had denied kicking him out of the room, but something about the way Dal had looked at her said otherwise. He doubted that she had actually told him to get out, but she’d probably done some other thing to imply that she wanted him out. Rochelle wouldn’t have outright thrown him out because she was terrified of him, but that kind of fear would chase anyone out of a room.
It infuriated him that she just didn’t have enough life experience to recognize that the way she treated Dal was almost a direct parallel to how Nick’s first wife had behaved around blacks in Boston. She had been one of those types who would want to cross the street if a couple of black kids were walking towards them on the sidewalk. Nick hadn’t let her get away with things like that very often, not necessarily because he was disgusted with it, but because the fact of the matter was that he would take his chances with the hoodlums over the speeding cars any day. And half the time, they weren’t even hoodlums – just regular teenaged boys heading to the arcade to enjoy themselves, laughing and chatting it up. But because they were black and it was the eighties (though it probably hadn’t gotten much better by the time the infection hit), she was afraid.
And that was exactly the way Rochelle behaved towards Dal. She had no business being frightened of him. He was a regular teenaged boy who could easily have been heading to the arcade to enjoy himself with a couple of friends, but because of the hoodie and the scars, Rochelle was the wife who wanted to cross the street, and Coach was the mayor who believed that schools should be segregated to keep those poor uninfected folk away from the “zombies.”
There was no reason for ninety percent of the presumptions that Coach brought up regarding Dal, and all of them brought forth the comparison between Dal and the other infected. It was the same as comparing a scholar to a thug, just based on things like race, religion, age, class, or any other number of things. It was stupid. Nick had never been the type to hate on another set of people for anything – as far as he was concerned, everyone was an idiot just waiting to be screwed over in the gamble or scam of their choice.
He hoped, in that moment, that Coach would find something to mention, some menial little thing about Dal that wasn’t even true, so that he could turn and swing and down the two hundred and fifty pound man like it was nothing. He wanted, on a deep, carnal level, to give Rochelle something tangible to be afraid of. He wanted to give Coach something to really worry about. Because neither of them knew who it was that they were pissing off at any and every given opportunity.
At this point, he would give anything to show them.
Nick’s headache was getting worse. Dal could tell. His sarcastic jibes had become less about teasing and more about being mean. His neutral frown shifted into a scowl filled with loathing. The tension in his shoulders became more noticeable and he kept running a hand through his wet hair. All those things basically summed up to one major fact; Nick’s mood was going downhill. If Dal’s observations of Nick were correct thus far, Nick’s downhill change of mood indicated that his headache was probably getting worse.
Which, in turn, meant that he would have to be ready to get between Nick and just about everyone.
He hadn’t had to do that yet. He couldn’t imagine it would be too hard, considering how strong he had gotten, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone by accident in the process. He was getting enough nonsense from Coach and Rochelle as it was. He didn’t especially want to encourage their stupidity.
Nick couldn’t be allowed to exchange blows with anyone because he was concussed and didn’t know it. If Coach knocked him upside the head with enough force, he could kill Nick. And sure, it’d be great to see the bastard lose his mind over accidentally killing a non-infected person, but Dal wouldn’t stake Nick’s life on it. Dal wouldn’t stake anyone’s life on it. Probably. There were a couple of names that came to mind.
Dal looked over at Nick, frowning at the well-dressed man’s deteriorating condition. He looked pale at that point, his eyes half closed as if he were shielding them from the light. If it was bad enough that the meager amount of light was making the ache worse, Dal was pretty sure the headache qualified as a migraine. They really needed to stop somewhere and let him rest. Dal wouldn’t have been surprised if the stress from all the fighting and anger was messing with Nick’s blood pressure and giving him the headache in the first place.
He wished he could talk at times like these. Much more so than Nick probably did. Being completely mute was a handicap that he hated. Dal had always been a quiet person – his parents had taught him to be that way. But the difference between choosing to stay silent and being unable to talk was astronomical. If he could still use his sign language, it might not have been so bad – he could’ve taken the time to teach Nick the symbols, and they would’ve had a way to communicate. Instead, he was relatively trapped within his own mind, unable to give anyone his thoughts or explain his feelings or even chat idly.
He hated being mute.
Nick blew out a sigh next to him, one of his hands coming off his holstered gun to rub at his eyes. The rain had started to let up a little, which noticeably improved their ability to see. They plodded on, water splashing around their ankles from the flooded streets and lawns. A tall infected was… galloping (if that word could even be used to describe this particular movement) towards them, something radioactive-looking and green spilling out of her mouth.
“Spitter!” Rochelle identified, the group spreading out some as Nick raised his pistol, fired….
And completely missed. The man looked horrified for the second it took for the car he’d hit to start blaring its alarm.
“Fuck!!” Nick hollered as they regrouped. Ellis had done the honors of actually killing the Spitter for them as they were running to get back together.
“Run! Run!!” Rochelle shrieked, grabbing Coach by the sleeve and pulling him to the left, away from the alarm. Nick, Ellis, and Dal immediately cottoned on, and it wasn’t long before all of them were racing to get as far away from that alarm as possible, before the infected came out of the wood works.
They made it to the other side of the row of houses they’d been walking along before they ran into a group of a dozen or two infected. Dal immediately set to work taking out the ones that came in from the back with Ellis’ help, as Nick, Rochelle, and Coach fought to keep moving forward.
It felt like his whole head was ringing with that awful sound. He could still hear it as if it were within spitting distance, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if the infected around them could hear it just as strongly. No wonder they were attacking with such ferocity. The car alarm itself died off in the distance, but the infected didn’t stop coming. Dal twisted around to get an index on the rest of the party amongst all the infected. He saw Coach, Rochelle, and Ellis…
Coach, Rochelle, Ellis…
His eyes widened a fraction when he realized that he couldn’t spot Nick, and he was sure that the man had probably collapsed, judging by the small conglomerate of infected that seemed to be kicking at the ground. In that moment, his mind blanked out and his movements became a whirlwind that he couldn’t quite follow. All he knew was that he had to get those infected away from Nick and he had to do it fast. His blade tore through flesh and cut into bone, his fist crushing skulls and busting noses as he fought through the thinning horde.
He spotted Nick once he had powered through about twelve infected like a Sherman tank, immediately going to one knee and grabbing Nick’s arm. The man didn’t resist much, and Dal wasn’t entirely sure if he was even conscious. He could see that he was breathing, so he wasn’t dead, but that wasn’t the most reassuring thing in the world at that point. He hauled him up, supporting his weight, and looking around frantically for Ellis, who was upon him in a second.
“Oh my God, wha’s wrong wit’ him?!” Dal shook his head, adjusting his hold on Nick slightly and ignoring the groan that came out of the man’s throat.
“Oh God,” Rochelle was saying, “Okay, okay, we gotta get inside somewhere, uh…” She looked around only briefly before settling on a house nearby that looked to have escaped the flooding. Dal did a quick head count, simply wanting to be sure that Nick was the only one incapacitated. Ellis was sporting new bruises and was scared out of his mind for Nick. Rochelle looked worried, but more collected than he would’ve expected as she pointed out the house and started leading the way to it. The look on Coach’s face was mostly unreadable, but Dal could see that he was angry. About what, he didn’t know, but the man was pissed about something. Probably because Nick had accidentally shot that car.
Please, he thought scathingly, if anyone has the right to be pissed, it’d be me and my blown ear drums.
He mostly dragged Nick into the one house that hadn’t been flooded. The man had found the energy to lift a hand and press it against his forehead with surprising strength, though he was still unable to coordinate his legs. Dal didn’t like being so careless, just considering how much pain Nick was in, but they couldn’t have spent long out there before they were attacked again so there hadn’t been many options aside from hauling and dragging.
Dal carried Nick into a bedroom on the first floor and carefully laid him down on the bed. Nick didn’t move once Dal had put him down, instead opting to be so still it looked rather like he wasn’t breathing. Ellis, he knew, had followed him, looking extremely worried. His face looked a little ashen from his distress. Dal looked over at him, holding out a hand and gesturing as best he could for Ellis to settle down. The man nodded, taking in several stabilizing breaths as Dal turned back to Nick.
Wanting to make sure that Nick wasn’t actually in the process of dying, he took the man’s hand and squeezed gently, waiting for a response. Nick squeezed back and made a soft sound in the back of his throat. Satisfied, Dal pulled away, silently shooing Ellis out of the room and taking the time to pull the door mostly shut behind him, as he didn’t have the finesse to close it all the way as quietly as he would’ve wanted to. He could tell that Ellis wanted to ask him questions but wasn’t sure how the teen could possibly respond. Dal just wanted the conversation to be away from the room Nick was in.
Rochelle asked Ellis when he came out, “What’s wrong with him? Do you know?” Ellis shook his head, looking miserable.
“I think ‘is head was botherin’ ‘im.” Ellis replied uncertainly, glancing at Dal, “D’you know what’s wrong wit’ him?”
Dal nodded, reaching up a hand and knocking on his own head. Ellis stared, and then his eyes widened in understanding and what looked like recollection.
“I thought…” Ellis started, stopped, and then started again, “I mean, ‘e hit his head on the way outta tha’ chopper, before, when ‘e… when ‘e fell. I didn’t think it’d still be botherin’ him.”
Dal shook his head, wishing there was a way to indicate “concussion” to them. They probably didn’t even know what that meant, he’d bet.
“So, he’s concussed then,” Coach stated, and Dal nodded, even though the man wasn’t even looking at him. At least Ellis would know that it was the correct conclusion, “And I bet he doesn’t even know what that means.”
Yea, tell me about it, Dal thought sourly, recalling all the time he’d spent keeping a keen eye out for Nick because the guy didn’t get that he was severely injured.
“Wha… well, I mean, I know what a concussion is, but they’re really a big deal?”
Coach shrugged, “Not usually,” the look Dal gave him was one of incredulity. He called himself Coach, which implied that he was probably some kinds of sports coach, and he didn’t know how serious a concussion was?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“I mean, the headache’ll be bad if the concussion’s bad,” Coach’s voice was taking on a tone that Dal didn’t like, all of a sudden. The man seemed inclined to get angry about everything that Nick did, whether he intended it to have a poor outcome or not. Great. Because one pissed off, unreasonable guy wasn’t enough in this group. “But other’n slowin’ us down, Nick should be fine.”
Ellis seemed to be cottoning on to Coach’s tone as well. The hick scowled slightly, looking unhappy, “It’s ain’t his fault if he’s hurt, Coach.”
“I never said it was anyone’s fault, Ellis,” Coach replied patronizingly, “I wouldn’t blame my athletes if they got hurt, why would I blame Nick?”
Ellis rolled his eyes and turned away, walking over to take a seat on the couch. Dal trailed after him, standing by the window and staring outside. He hoped it wouldn’t be long before Nick was up and about. He didn’t think that Virgil would leave them (Virgil couldn’t leave them; he didn’t have enough gas), but he didn’t think that they should be taking their sweet time, either. At the same time, of course, he wanted Nick to take as much time as he needed, even though he was sure the guy wouldn’t.
Rochelle and Coach made themselves comfortable around the living area while Ellis continued to sulk on the couch. Outside, the storm continued to rage on, the rain and wind picking up to the torrential downpour that they’d been trekking through earlier. Infected milled under the trees, some having the sense to move under the protection of the roofs on porches and others choosing to step into open doors. Dal watched them hide from the water that came from the skies.
One of them laid down on a porch and became painfully still. It was a few minutes before Dal realized that the man had died. His stomach twisted. The infected didn’t seem to eat, or sleep, or take care of themselves at all. They didn’t know that they had to. The fate of the infected, unless a cure was found soon, was death. They would all eventually lay down, like that man, and die. Alone, beaten, sick, starving…
So many people would die like that. Would he die, too? Would the illness he carried with him take a sudden turn for the worse and burn him out with a fever? Or would his body just give out from exhaustion after fighting against it for a while? Or would it win over his mind and turn him into another one of those rabid animals? He turned away from the window, glancing over at the cracked door to the room where Nick was sleeping.
The silence in the room was stifling, but Dal didn’t try to escape from it.
Waking up to a couple of arguing adults as they reached critical volume was not something that Ellis had signed up for when he first applied for the position of zombie apocalypse survivor. In fact, he hadn’t signed up for many of the things that had come to be a huge problem – such as mortality, stress, insomnia, and people fighting like married couples on the verge of a divorce.
“Do you think I’m some kind of moron, that I’d do that on purpose?” Nick’s voice had risen exponentially since the beginning of the argument. Ellis jerked as he regained consciousness messily, not entirely sure he remembered the part about falling asleep in the first place. How long had he been waiting for Nick to get up, anyway?
“Hell if I know, what wit’ you draggin’ around a damn Hunter like it’s some kinda acceptable pet!” Coach hollered in return, eyes bulging out, face flushed with anger. “I ain’t gonna call that genius!”
Dal was noticeably offended, but Ellis wasn’t sure that anyone else saw the look on the kid’s face, which was both murderous and indignant, however sparingly. Rochelle was sitting in a chair by the dining room table, her hands clamped over her ears as she slouched over her knees, trying to block out the fighting. She looked almost like she was in hysterics at their arguing, and Ellis wished she at least had the fortitude to stand up and tell them both to stop.
Ellis stood up carefully, “Guys, stop-…”
Nick didn’t even acknowledge hearing his voice, “What the fuck is wrong with you!? He’s not a Hunter, he’s hardly what I would call an infected and, just like every other infected we’ve encountered thus far, he’s a fucking human being!”
Coach flinched as if he’d been smacked, but didn’t back down, “He’s hardly what could be called a human at this point, Nick! He’s jus’ as much a monster as the rest of ’em!!”
Nick froze for a moment and Ellis knew what was about to happen long before he could’ve thought to stop it. Nick’s fists clenched tightly as he reared back and punched Coach so hard, the man stumbled back and put out a hand to catch himself on the wall. As Coach lurched towards Nick, Dal and Ellis sprang into action in almost perfect unison. Nick was ready to lunge at Coach again, but Dal grabbed him around the waist and hauled him back, ignoring his indignant hollering. At the same time, Ellis threw himself at Coach, grabbing his arm and his shoulder and bracing his weight against him.
“STOP! THAT’S ENOUGH!” Ellis barked as loudly as he could, shoving Coach back, “Fucking Christ, what’s the matter wit’ you two? It’s the gosh darn end o’ the world and yer fighting over a kid!” He turned back to Dal and Nick – the kid had turned and shoved Nick away from Coach, standing firmly between the two of them and staring Nick down. Ellis couldn’t see his face, but judging by how angry Nick looked, Dal was probably glaring at him in some kind of way.
“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with him?! Dal, you’re really gonna let him get away with that?” Nick snapped, and Dal shook his head, his hands coming up as he shook his fists, trying to find a way to communicate, “What is it? Do you really think he has the right to treat you like subhuman trash?”
Dal was looking up at the ceiling, as if he were trying to formulate something, but couldn’t. Dal couldn’t talk, and everyone knew that. It wasn’t fair for Nick to get as worked up as he had and then demand explanations from the one person in their group who was mute. Just like it wasn’t fair for them to ignore Dal when they were fighting, and it wasn’t fair for Coach to make assumptions and Nick to never look to Dal for confirmation in his arguments. Nick just wanted to fight and Coach was ready to appease him. It seemed like it was starting to have less and less to do with Dal and more to do with the simple fact that Coach and Nick kind of hated each other.
Ellis swung out an arm when Coach made to walk past him, stopping the man in his tracks.
Coach was about to say something when Dal suddenly let out a loud wail of frustration, startling Rochelle out of her reverie of ignoring everything. Nick flinched back, looking startled as the kid drove his fist into the nearest wall, going right through the sheet rock. He snarled something incoherent, punching the wall several more times.
“Dal, stop!” Ellis commanded, “Yer gonna break your hand!”
Dal looked at him then, eyes wild and shining with tears of frustration and bottled-up anger. Ellis didn’t move, didn’t avert his eyes, just stared at Dal until the boy slammed the side of his hand into the wall and ran up the stairs like a bat out of hell. Ellis stared after him, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding before he rounded on Nick, anger that he hadn’t allowed himself to feel finally getting the better of him.
“What the hell is wrong wit’ you!? If I didn’t know better, I’d’a said you were just lookin’ fer a reason to hit somethin’!” He shouted, fists clenched at his side. Nick stared at him as if he hadn’t really seen him before, and Ellis was so angry about the whole situation. It made him furious to think that Coach and Nick could forget about things like surviving in favor of fighting with one another.
“I’m tellin’ you, stop fightin’! If you can’t talk to each other without fightin’, then don’t friggen talk to each other!” His voice was steadier than it had been over the course of the past day and a half, “How many times are ya’ gonna nearly get us all killed by some Tank that you attracted with yer damn yelling before you git it?! We gotta do this as a team or we ain’t gonna do it at all! If you can’t get that through yer damn skulls, we’re all gonna end up dead!!”
He took several heaving breaths, his heart thumping in his ears, and finally, he let out a low sigh, “I’m gonna go deal with some damage control, I s’pose,” he told Nick, and then turned to Coach, “Maybe you oughta talk to Ro – she’s seems pretty upset.”
Coach looked somewhere between confused and rather worked up still, but he turned to Rochelle, who was quietly crying in her seat, hands pressed tightly over her ears still. Nick grabbed Ellis’ arm before he had a chance to start up the stairs.
“Maybe I should handle it…” He offered, looking serious. Ellis paused, then scowled.
“You’re the reason he’s upset in th’ first place. I’ll talk to him.”
Nick let go of him, looking like he’d been slapped, and Ellis made his way up the stairs. He stopped at the top, taking several deep breaths and calming his temper. As soon as the anger had settled, his concern for Dal rose to the forefront of his mind. He looked in all three bedrooms for the kid, but he wasn’t in any of them.
Ellis paused with one hand on the door to what he figured must have been the boy’s room. The walls were a light sky blue, with ocean waves painted in a rich green along the white trim. It had obviously once belonged to a little boy, likely someone who had moved out. A lot of their things were still in the room, though…
His stomach twisted as the sound of a small hiccup reached his ears. He stepped further into the room, spotting another door. It was cracked open just barely, and he immediately knew.
Ellis pulled open the door to the closet, where Dal sat with his knees pulled up to the chest and his hands firmly pressed against his mouth, as if he were trying to muffle the sound of his sobs. Ellis didn’t know where or why he would have picked up a habit like that, and he decided he didn’t really want to know. Not yet, anyway.
He crouched down in front of Dal, reached up with a careful hand and gingerly taking Dal’s wrist. The young teen immediately relaxed his hands, allowing Ellis to pull his hands away from his face. The kid didn’t want to look up or straighten his knees, and Ellis didn’t both asking him to. If Dal felt safer curled up in a closet, let him do so.
Dal sniffled a little, and Ellis sighed, “You okay?”
Dal shrugged. Didn’t offer any more of a reply, “It was Nick, right? He’s kinda a jerk, huh?”
The kid leaned heavily against the wall of the closet, nodding slightly. Ellis paused, remembering something he’d seen in the master bedroom, “Gimme just a sec, okay? I’ll be right back.” He stood up and hurried across the hall, throwing open the master bedroom and spotting the speech board he’d seen earlier. It had all the letters of the alphabet on it in large, easy to press buttons. It was too large for them to stick in a backpack, but it’d be good to use this once.
He walked into the boy’s room again, stepping over to the closet and crouching down. He held up the speech board for Dal to see. He flipped the on switch, watching it light up for a brief moment before the lights went out again.
“Do you know how to work-…”
Dal straightened up, looking at the board with wide eyes. Bright green eyes lifted to meet Ellis’ blue ones, and the hick smiled. Dal nodded, leaning forward and pressing buttons immediately. The board spoke the word he spelled in a monotonous electronic voice every time he hit the space bar, and Ellis listened carefully, making sure he got the message right.
“Nick has a concussion.” He nodded, remembering what Coach had said, “Coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If Nick gets hit on the head hard enough, he will die.”
Ellis froze at that, looking at Dal with wide eyes, “Are ya’ serious?”
The kid nodded silently, and then started pressing buttons again, “It’ll take at least a week for it to heal, probably more because he isn’t resting like he needs to be.”
“How d’ya know all this?” Ellis pressed, wanting to make sure that Dal was one hundred percent probably right.
“I’ve been concussed three times. I did my research.”
Ellis blew out a long sigh, “Damn. We’d better go tell him, huh?”
The look he received was tired and raw with emotion. It made Ellis pause, frowning slightly as he took in the pained expression on Dal’s face. It sucked that they couldn’t bring the speech board with them. It sucked that the thing just didn’t fold up.
“S’okay, Dal,” He said, setting down the board, “C’mere.”
He held out a hand, which Dal hesitantly took, and then yanked the kid forward, hugging him fiercely, “S’okay. I’ll find ya’ another board, one that folds so we can take it wit’ us. Or maybe we’ll settle down somewhere’s and we won’t have to worry about carryin’ it.”
Dal slowly wrapped his arms around Ellis, and then tightened his grip just a bit, and started to cry. Ellis held back his own emotional response as Dal fought to contain himself, rubbing the kid’s back to soothe him. Like this, Dal seemed… younger. Much younger. Everyone seemed to assume that Dal was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Somewhere around there. But like this, Dal didn’t seem that old.
When the kid finally regained mastery over himself and they pulled away from each other, Ellis asked the burning question, “Dal, how old are you?”
Dal watched him for a long time, and then lowered his head. He reached for the board pressing two of the number keys.
Ellis heart dropped into his stomach, “Why were you in Louisiana all by yourself? Nick said you had a hut ‘n everything.”
Dal hiccuped slightly, and there was a long, stiff pause before he responded, “I ran away from home before the infection hit. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Ellis nodded, wanting to know more but understanding that he wasn’t welcome to ask yet. He stood up with Dal, picking up the speech board as he went. Dal stood up with him, rubbing at his eyes. He put a hand on the kids shoulder and pulled him in for another, briefer hug. Dal immediately leaned into the contact, and Ellis would’ve let him hang on for longer but they really needed to get going. It’d been an hour since they’d arrived in this house, maybe longer.
They walked downstairs together. Coach was talking to Rochelle still, who looked just as upset as she’d been when Ellis had gone upstairs in the first place. Nick was sitting on the couch, looking sullen.
“Nick,” Ellis immediately said, walking over to him with Dal trailing behind him, “Dal has been wanting to tell you something.”
Nick stared at him, brow furrowed in confused. Ellis handed Dal the speech board, and Dal started pressing keys, much faster now that he was used to it.
“You’re concussed, Nick. If you get hit on the head hard enough, you will die. That’s why I had to pull you away from Coach. I’m not happy with his or Rochelle’s behavior towards me, but your life is more important than getting even. Please try to stop fighting with them. Please.”
Nick was shocked, his lips slightly parted, his eyes wide. When Ellis glanced over at Rochelle, he saw that both of them looked like they were about to be sick.
“H-how do you know that for sure?” Nick seemed to be realizing slowly how close he’d been to being killed by Coach less than fifteen minutes ago, and by infected about an hour ago.
“I was concussed a few times. I did my research.”
“But Coach said-…”
“Coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If he had hit you earlier, you would be dead right now.”
Coach shifted in his seat, the sound making Ellis look over at him again. His head was in his hands and he looked to be extremely stressed out. Ellis sort of wanted to go over and make sure he was okay. He made eye contact with Rochelle, but she just shook her head, touching Coach’s arm carefully. They both looked pale and extremely upset, though they seemed to be working to hold themselves together.
“We should probably get to Virgil before he’s swept away by this hurricane.”
Nick snorted, “We can’t take that board with us, can we?”
Ellis shook his head, “It’s too big,” he replied regretfully, “We’ll have to find one o’ the ones that folds up.”
The conman nodded, looking forlorn, “Y… uh… I’m… the one who upset you, aren’t I?”
Dal stared at him for a long time, before he nodded slowly. Nick forced a smile, looking truly upset about the news, “I… I’m really bad at this… Sorry… for that.”
Dal laughed, though it sounded closer to a bark than anything, and he covered his mouth immediately to muffle the sound. He patted Nick on the head gently, drawing a withering glare from the man, which only exacerbated the laughing.
“You’re a shit, you know that?”
Dal smiled his strange smile at him, working his jaw, “Nngh-nhnn.” Mmhmm, Ellis mentally translated into English.
They packed themselves up and set out within ten minutes. Coach was still painfully quiet. He was acting as if someone had just diagnosed him with stage four lung cancer. It looked like the older man was resisting the urge to vomit. And it had started when Dal had been “talking” to Nick. Ellis wondered then, if Coach’s strange behavior was directly linked to that. To Coach, at least, Dal had been nothing more than a wild, rabid animal that needed to be put down. But by showing intelligent thought, Dal had dashed that theory. Perhaps Coach would come around after all, and decide that Dal wasn’t so bad.
His spirits sufficiently lifted, Ellis walked alongside Nick, Coach, Rochelle, and Dal as they headed towards the Burger Tank to call for their ride.