Dal was missing. Again. Nick was getting a little tired of this charade.
He walked down the last aisle in the grocery section, letting out an exasperated sigh. This seemed to be happening far too frequently. Dal would go missing, Nick would notice, and by the time he found the kid, something terrible would have happened. It infuriated him that he had to keep hunting the kid down.
It was the earliest hours of the morning. Why was the kid even up?
He was all stressed out last night. Maybe he couldn’t sleep. Nick thought as he was crossing through the apparel section, carefully stepping around the campsite along the way, and heading over to check out the home and garden part of the store. That doesn’t tell me where he is, though.
Why did Dal keep running off? Was it because he liked reducing Nick to an incoherent puddle of rage? Did he just not think about the ramifications of running off before he ever did so? Was he just a moron? He was probably being a little unreasonable – there were surely a different reason each time Dal wandered away. This time had to be related to the reason behind his stress from the previous night. Kris or Megan. He was leaning towards Kris, simply because of how much time Dal had spent stiffly staring at her, but he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t be sure until he asked.
Not that Dal could really answer him. But whatever.
He walked speedily through the home and garden half of the store, then veering right and looking down every aisle in the toys sections, and then hunted around in the electronics section. Nothing. He had scoured the store, and nothing. Either he was having a lapse in his normally incredible luck or Dal was purposefully avoiding him. The latter was unlikely, the former was possible, but neither told him where Dal was.
Did the kid leave the store? No way, right? Not with the way the weather was behaving – it was pouring rain outside, by the sounds of it. Dal wouldn’t go out in the rain unless there was an extremely good reason for it, and stress wasn’t a good enough reason to send anyone outside during a torrential downpour. Right?
It had to be worth a shot. He could only hope that Dal hadn’t gone far – maybe he was just standing under the tarps, staring outside. Or perhaps he was just outside the door, close enough to be avoiding the water itself.
The level of stress Dal was forever providing for Nick was absurd. It would kill him long before any infected did. He was going to have to yell at the kid for an hour and make sure he understood that he needed to stop wandering off without letting anyone know where he was going. And since he currently had no way to tell anyone where he was going, his best bet was just going to be to not go anywhere for now. At all.
He stepped around the tarp by the home and garden entrance, glancing left and right, but no sign of Dal. He wasn’t right outside, either. Nick cursed under his breath, heading towards the grocery section with a boiling pit of lava in his stomach. He was getting really tired of this charade.
He hated that he had to deal with problems that stemmed from others now. He hated that he had managed to put himself in a position where he had little to no choice. He hated that he felt his raw loneliness even more strongly than he had before Dal had forced his way into his life. On rare occasions, Nick wished he hadn’t let the kid accompany him. He wouldn’t trade the kid back at this point, but Nick felt that he had been stronger before meeting him.
He stepped around the tarps, looking to his left and then his right before peering through the glass. He didn’t see Dal. He stepped outside, ignoring the loudness of the rain and searching further up the parking lot as he stood just outside the door, under the bit of roofing that would keep him dry.
Probably forty feet out, sitting cross-legged in the pouring rain, was Dal. Nick hadn’t seen him because he wasn’t wearing his usual dark blue – instead, he was sporting the white hoodie he had found for himself the previous night, when they’d been looking for a change of clothes. The paleness of it had blended in well with the downpour.
“Dal!” He called, not particularly wanting to get wet. The kid jerked and turned around, spotting him. Nick wondered if he looked as mad as he suddenly felt. He beckoned him over, watching Dal stand up… awkwardly. He stumbled a little, pausing in his movements after he’d steadied himself and staring at the ground for a moment before he lifted his head and started walking towards Nick. His movements seemed sluggish and tired. Nick chalked it up to the fact that Dal had been sitting in the rain after probably not sleeping.
He turned as Dal was walking past him, following the kid indoors, “You need to stop pulling disappearing acts,” he said, his mood sour. “I’m getting a little tired of running around trying to find you whenever you go missing. Where are you going? You need to get dried off first, you little shit.”
Dal turned from the direction he’d been going in and looked over at Nick. There was a tremor moving through the kid’s entire body, and his face, which was already fairly ashen under normal circumstances, looked paler than usual. Once again, Nick reminded himself that the kid had been sitting in the rain, evidently despite the fact that he’d been freezing.
“Come on, towels are this way,” he grunted, starting towards the home and garden section (yet again). Dal crossed his arms and followed, teeth chattering at that point. Nick mercilessly ignored the sound. It served him right for doing something as stupid as sitting out in the rain for god knows how long.
Nick turned to Dal once they had reached their destination, grabbing a towel and holding it out to him while he stripped out of his clothes. Nick had assisted him in changing out of his jeans the previous night, in favor of a pair of pajama pants and a new t-shirt. All three of them had happily taken off their filthy clothes in favor of something clean to sleep in. It had been a novelty. Nick had felt like he’d never been in a bed before in his life when he’d laid down on that mattress. It had been beyond comfortable. Then again, after spending a great many hours sleeping on hard floors and used sleeping bags, he was sure a cheap futon from the shopping center they were staying in would’ve been considered comfortable.
Once he had sufficiently toweled himself off, they headed back to the apparel section to get him yet another change of clothes. By that point, Nick noted that Dal looked even more fatigued than before. He was still shivering rather violently as well, but he wasn’t dressed and under blankets yet so Nick wasn’t entirely surprised to see that he was still cold. The slight sway in his step, however, could probably not be explained by fatigue, cold, or lack of blankets. His breathing also sounded a bit labored, considering they hadn’t walked very far and Dal was probably the most in-shape person Nick had ever seen.
It wasn’t much longer after that when they returned to the campsite, Dal dressed and looking like he was ready to pass out. Megan was up, reading a book in bed. She looked over when she heard them and sat up, frowning.
“Dal, are you feeling okay?” She asked, swinging her legs out of bed. “You look awful.”
At that, he looked at Dal, who was in the process of shaking his head to indicate that, no, he did not feel okay. In fact, judging by his appearance, he probably felt like hell. He fell into bed, pulling the covers up to his chin and shivering.
“What happened?” Megan asked as she walked on her knees over to Dal’s mattress, “Where were you?”
“He was gone when I woke up, so I went looking for him,” Nick explained, “Genius here was sitting out in the pouring rain like a jackass.”
Megan looked at Dal’s glassy-eyed expression again, biting her lip thoughtfully before pressing a hand to his forehead. Nick watched her eyes widen, and he waited for her to tell him what was wrong.
“He has a fever,” she said quietly, not wanting to wake the others up, “Can you get him some Tylenol and a bottle of water? I’ll wait here and keep him awake.”
Nick nodded, heading off. He hadn’t realized that the kid was sick. All the more reason for him to be called an idiot for sitting in the rain. What kind of moron did that, anyway? He huffed to himself, irritated and a bit worried as he stalked across the store.
He retrieved the drugs and water requested and jogged back to the campsite. Dal was sitting up, leaning against Megan as she rubbed his shivering arms and shook him occasionally to keep him from falling asleep. She looked up when she saw him, looking significantly more worried than she had been a moment ago.
“It’s going up,” she muttered when he’d crouched down, handing Dal the water and pulling out the medication. “His fever, I mean.”
“You can tell?” He questioned, dropping two pills onto his hand and handing them to Dal. The boy had a slight sway, even sitting down. He had to be beyond exhausted, from the fact that he was cold and sick. Dal obediently took the pills, drinking down half the bottle of water before handing it back to Nick and laying back down.
“Touch his forehead,” she said as she was covering Dal with his thick comforter. “You could fry an egg on that.”
Nick frowned, but did as told. As Megan had described, Dal’s forehead was extremely warm. Warmer than it was supposed to be, at least. He’d never done the forehead test on anyone, let alone himself. If he felt like hell, he knew he was sick. His brother and father hadn’t exactly been the caretaker types, what with their separate psychopathy and alcoholism.
Dal was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Megan kept pressing her hand to his forehead in five minute intervals, looking extremely concerned. Her expression of worry wasn’t making Nick feel much better about Dal’s predicament. He wished he knew what there was that he could do to fix it. Injuries he could deal with like it was nothing. Sickness… well, that was beyond his expertise, to say the least. He’d never had to learn.
This stupid kid. He thought, caught somewhere between anger and growing concern.
“So, wait, what about your mom? Did she just leave you with your alcoholic dad?”
Nick sighed heavily, wondering if Megan was ever going to notice that she was irritating him, “She left when I was really little. I don’t even know what she looks like.”
“Why’d she just leave you behind, though?”
“Hell if I know,” he replied a little hotly. “Maybe she could just tell I was defective when I was born.”
Megan halted at that for only a few seconds before she said, “I don’t think you’re defective.”
“You don’t know me very well,” he retorted.
This had been going on for several minutes. It seemed like Megan was quizzing him on his life starting from now and tracking backwards to his childhood. He didn’t especially care for her to be asking so many questions, but at the same time, he couldn’t find it in him to care about answering them. She hadn’t asked him much about Scott yet, so that was a relief. He didn’t really want to start reliving that particular adventure yet.
Dal’s fever hadn’t broken, according to Megan, but it had gone down some. She had checked twenty minutes ago, approximately, and hadn’t stopped talking to him since. Kris was already awake, but silent as the grave as she buried herself in the universe of Anne McCaffery – whoever that was. It looked like a fantasy novel, and he was sure it was very gripping, but Nick wasn’t much for books. They bored him. The adventures one reads about in a book weren’t enough to make his heart pound with anticipation and fear. Therefore, not worth wasting his time with.
If it wasn’t fun, going to save his life, or at least interesting, he wouldn ‘t go for it. That was just how he was.
Unfortunately, Megan wasn’t giving him much of a choice in the matter in regards to retelling his life story. She glanced over at Dal as he rolled over towards the sound of their voices, one hand appearing from under the covers and groping for something. Nick sighed heavily and reached over, giving the kid’s hand a quick squeeze. Dal sighed in contentment and stilled again.
Ellis shifted around in his blankets before slowly sitting up and rubbing his tired eyes, “Mornin’,” he greeted sleepily.
“Good morning, Ellis,” Megan replied cheerily, handing him a box of granola bars. Ellis received it gratefully, tearing it open and pulling one of the bars open. Megan then turned back to Nick, who almost groaned but decided it wouldn’t be becoming of him.
“So, your brother, what was he like?” She asked, and Nick practically felt the nerve she was standing on. She had already been walking on thin ice, but this was pushing it. He had hoped she wouldn’t ask questions about Scott, but he should’ve known better. She had grilled him about his older half-sister, who had committed suicide when Nick was 13. Megan had asked everything from how she had done it to what Nick’s alcoholic father had done afterwards.
Ellis seemed to perk up at the mention of Nick’s brother, but his expression was less curious and more surprised, if not nervous. He could probably tell better than Megan that it was a sensitive topic that she shouldn’t be trying to ask questions about.
“He was a psychopath,” Nick grunted. He was trying really hard to keep from snarling at her, but it was growing difficult with each passing minute. Just asking the question had drudged up a bunch of stuff that he had been cleverly not thinking about for the past twenty years, and things that he had been forcing himself to not think about for the past thirty-six hours.
“He wasn’t, really, though. People exaggerate…”
“No, Megan,” he suddenly snarled, his temper flaring. He was done answering her ridiculous questions. “He was a fucking psychopath and I killed him two days ago.”
Megan’s eyes widened comically, anger seeping into her expression alongside what looked like hurt, “You won’t scare me by-…”
“Meg,” Ellis suddenly said, catching her attention. “He’s not tryin’ t’ scare you. Nick killed ‘is brother ’cause ‘e attacked Dal.”
Megan turned back to Nick again, staring, eyes wide and a hint of fear and what looked like awe in them. Her lips were slightly parted, and he suddenly felt like she was looking at him like he was some kind wild animal. It only infuriated him more, but he bit his tongue and glowered at her until she got the hint and stopped staring. She turned her attention away, her hand finding Dal’s forehead again. She had been checking his fever less and less frequently, but she seemed a little bothered by the fact that it had stopped going down.
“His fevers gone down a little,” Megan said quietly, sounded dejected. Nick wanted to sighed in exasperation and roll his eyes and otherwise provide physical evidence of how annoyed he was.
The fact that Dal’s fever had gone down a little made Nick feel a bit better about the overall prognosis, though, considering that his fever had been maintaining “pretty high” for about forty five minutes. He wasn’t even sure why he had been so worried earlier. His brain had almost started going haywire with concern, but he had stopped those thoughts in their tracks with basic logic. It wasn’t like the kid had never gotten sick before. He couldn’t possibly have gotten to the age of whatever-teen without ever getting sick.
“Hey, Meg,” Ellis said quietly, “Why don’ I tell ya’ ’bout all the adventure we’ve ‘ad through this apocalypse?”
Megan turned to him, her expression brightening some, “Sure, I’d love to listen.”
And so, Ellis started regaling Megan with tales of their adventures thus far. He started from the very beginning – explaining who Rochelle and Coach were and promising that she’d find out what happened to them later on in the story. Nick couldn’t have imagined a more boring set of narratives. Then again, he had lived through those experiences, so it wasn’t really a surprise that he found them to be boring.
After the end of the world was over, he was going to be very bored. All the frightening messes in the world couldn’t possibly compare to the raw thrill of fighting daily for his life. No perfectly executed scam with near-lethal results could compare to the feeling of cracking a baseball bat against the skull of an infected; no game of chase with a group of conned thugs could compare to the feeling in his gut when he was running for his life from a Tank; no amount of danger could possibly sate his thrill-seeking personality at this point. It wasn’t like he had been the type to look for a normal kind of thrill, anyway. He had always relied on true danger to keep himself entertained.
Dal shifted again, pulling his blankets up to his chin and shivering. Megan turned to the kid, holding up a hand to halt Ellis’ storytelling for a moment, and pressed a hand to his forehead. With her hand pressed to his forehead, her brow furrowed in confusion. Obviously, something was wrong.
“What?” Ellis asked, looking curious. Megan slowly shook her head, flipping her hand over as if wanting to make sure her hand was feeling the right temperature.
“His fever’s going up again,” she said, confused, “It’s going up a lot, again.”
Nick blinked, a small burst of anxiety finding him, “Why?” He wanted to know immediately. He was confused – they’d given the kid medication to help the fever, and it had been working, so why was he suddenly getting worse? Megan threw him a look that shut him up quickly – as if I know the answer to a question like that!
“Ellis, go and get a few bags of peas or corn from the frozen food section,” she requested quickly, and Ellis was up and away faster than Nick had ever seen him move.
“Wake him up,” Kris spoke suddenly, surprising Nick entirely. She had been completely silent for the entire hour that Dal had been sleeping, her concentration taken by the book she was reading. Megan turned to her, confused.
“Why? Shouldn’t we let him sleep?”
Kris rolled her eyes dramatically, slamming her book down and getting up. She stalked around the campsite to Dal’s side, grabbing his shoulder roughly and shaking him hard. At first, he didn’t respond, but after a few seconds of the treatment he jerked awake, eyes wide and then eyelids drooping. Kris gripped his other shoulder and hauled him upright, the action waking him up more. He let out a groan of pain, one hand coming up to hold his likely aching head while the other held him up.
“Lift your head,” Kris commanded, her tone icy. Dal shuddered, looking up at her, though his eyes were so glassy Nick wasn’t sure if he could even see right. “Lift,” she grabbed his chin and tilted his head up manually, fingers pressing to the sides of his throat.
“What are you doing?” Nick asked, bewildered.
“His glands are swollen,” Kris stated.
“Yea, figured that much,” Megan grunted, “Obviously his glands are swollen, he has a fever of a thousand and ten.”
“Go and get him a low-dose allergy medication, Meg.”
Kris threw a heated look at her younger companion. “Because I told you to. Grab a thermometer while you’re over there.”
Megan blinked, before glaring at her and standing up to get the requested items. Nick sat still, breath baited as he watched Kris and Dal. Occasionally, she’d shake him roughly to keep him awake, even though it was obvious he wanted nothing more than sleep. She kept one hand pressed to his forehead, his face set in a scowl, and irritation lining every bit of her body language.
“Why allergy meds?” Nick asked after a brief bout of thought, “He’s not having an allergic reaction, is he?”
Kris shook her head absently, “This is what I used to do when he’d spike fevers like this… he always got them after he had the flu. And he always had…” She trailed off into silence, stiffening before Nick had even fully registered the meaning of her words.
A silence fell over them even as the sound of Ellis and Megan’s footsteps approached, from different sides of the store. Nick watched Kris’ shoulders relax some, a resigned look on her face. She shook Dal again, waking him up a little more soundly this time. His fatigue was still winning the battle, but he seemed like he was struggling harder to stay awake. Nick figured that was probably a good sign.
“You used to take care of him when he was sick?” Something was clicking into place that shouldn’t have been clicking. Dal had been – and still was – frightened of one of the two women they had run into. He didn’t seem as tense around Megan as he did around Kris, but the reason for it… Nick hadn’t been able to piece that together until now.
Ellis and Megan appeared at that very moment, Ellis with a plastic bag full of packages of peas and Megan with a box of Claritin-D and a thermometer. Kris punched Dal in the shoulder particularly hard, waking him up the rest of the way. Nick stared at the woman – there was no affection for the kid in anything she did, even now. The fact that she had elected to help at all had seemed to be stemming from impatience rather than actual concern. He couldn’t see any signs at all that she had been worried, or that she cared, or anything of that sort. So, there was no way she was his…
“Mother,” she finally said, taking the pills from Megan and grabbing Dal’s discarded bottle of water. “I’m his mother. Sit up.” She ordered, and Dal didn’t hesitate. Nick hadn’t even realized he had been awake enough to follow directions, but apparently he was working on instinct. The kid straightened up, swaying and looking entirely unhealthy.
She gave him the pills and the water and he obediently took them, remaining upright and waiting for further instruction. Kris pushed the blankets away from Dal’s legs, which the kid probably didn’t appreciate judging by his increase in shivering. She then pulled his shirt over his head and shoved him back so he’d lay down. Her expression of discontent was turning into an angry glare with every passing second, and Nick didn’t miss the way Dal seemed to be cringing away from her now that he was more awake.
Kris took the plastic bag from Ellis, who was openly staring at Kris, and placed one bag of peas on Dal’s forehead, another two on his shoulders, and then two more by his hips. “Don’t move,” she commanded, and Dal let out a weak, unhappy groan. She threw him a nasty look before getting up and moving back towards her own bed.
“When his fever starts to go down, you can take off the peas.” She said absently to Megan, who nodded mutely, looking bewildered.
“You’re his mom?”
The look Kris directed at Megan then was murderous. The redhead’s eyes widened slightly. She looked both surprised and a little indignant. Kris sat down on her bed, grabbing her book roughly and opening up to the page she had left off at.
Nick was still trying to process the information he had just received. Kris was Dal’s mother? So why was he so frightened of her? His stomach twisted at the thought that perhaps Dal had been abused in some kind of way. It wasn’t like abuse was terribly uncommon anywhere, let alone the United States. He’d grown up in a household that many would describe as neglectful and abusive, and people would pity him if he ever tried to describe his childhood. But the idea that perhaps Dal had suffered in some kind of way at the hands of his parents was… much more awful than Nick could’ve imagined.
For a brief moment, he wanted to eviscerate Kris. Then he remembered that she had probably just saved Dal’s life. She was irritable and cold, but she was an asset.
He didn’t like her. He hadn’t liked her in the first place, but now… he sort of hated her. Even though he had no real reason to feel that way. He didn’t know if Kris had beaten Dal or just yelled at him frequently. He didn’t know if he was afraid because of her, or if he was afraid because he was infected and didn’t want her to know what had become of her son. He couldn’t be sure about the contents of Dal’s history without asking Dal about it.
The minutes ticked by, accented by the sound of Dal’s teeth chattering. Nick watched him, feeling a little ill. Eventually, Megan stuck the thermometer in his mouth and deemed his fever low enough to warrant taking off the frozen peas. Kris instructed them to keep the blanket off, because Dal’s body temperature fluctuated – sometimes dangerously – when he was sick, so it was best to just keep him cold until his fever broke.
With the “ice packs” off, Dal was permitted to roll onto his side and curl up into fetal position. Nick felt bad for the kid – he had to be miserable. But he decided it would be best to trust Kris’ better judgment, as she had dealt with him being sick before. She would know what would help Dal get better the fastest. Megan and Kris together would be able to take care of Dal in his current state. Ellis could handle it when Dal was in need of genuine comfort. His thoughts were spiraling away before he could catch them, and his pessimism was at the boiling point. He didn’t need to stick around and take care of the situation. He didn’t need to keep an eye on Dal.
Dal was, in a sense, beyond Nick’s expertise.
He got up slowly, his knees protesting the movement with vigor. “I’m going to start stockpiling supplies,” he said absently. Without waiting for Ellis to say that he would join him, he turned and headed off to where they had abandoned their cart. He hated the way Dal made him think without even trying. He hated that Dal didn’t know what he did to Nick’s psyche on a regular basis. He hated that he cared for the kid as much as he did, and yet, in situations like this, there was nothing he could do.
He hated that he had been made to feel useless.
Well, he thought dryly, at least I’m still better at killing than them.