On occasion, Ellis would literally wake up with a bad gut feeling.
Usually, these bad feelings turned out to be a Bad Idea Keith had embarked upon – one which would leave him hospitalized for days. Sometimes, the bad feeling clued him in to something bad happening to another one of his friends or their families. Sometimes, the bad feeling was just because the milk had gone sour, which he wouldn’t realize until he had actually had some of it.
So, when Ellis woke up with a bad feeling, his first reaction was to worry. What was so bad during this mess of an apocalypse that he would wake up with a bad feeling? He hadn’t actually had one of those since long before the world ended, so why was he getting one now?
Ellis swung his legs out of bed and got dressed. He was thinking that he ought to go out and get more supplies from the Walmart in town sometime today. They were running low on food stuffs and toiletries. He’d have to go through the kitchen and make a list of what to get. He hoped at least some of the perishables hadn’t yet gone bad.
He limped carefully down the stairs, not wanting to aggravate his ankle the way he had yesterday. The living room was deserted, which was a bit of a surprise – normally, Dal was always the first one up and he would perch himself on the couch and do his exercises for several hours.
Ellis had no idea how much progress the kid was making. Because he had been in the room at the time, he knew that Megan had changed up his exercise routine a little – she now had him carefully sounding out vowels, tilting his shoulders forward and backward, and wiggling his fingers as best he could. Ellis supposed that such a seemingly dramatic change in the level of difficulty in his exercises was a sign that he was probably making significant progress.
The fact that Dal wasn’t up yet made Ellis’ bad feeling worse. He took that as a sign that, whatever was up, it had to do with Dal. Perhaps the kid’s fever had returned. He sure hoped not. Dal had been fever-free for two days. There was no way it’d returned now, right?
Ellis made his way into the kitchen after snagging a small pad of paper and a pen off the top of the television that they didn’t use. As he was peering through the cabinets and fridge, noting down what they were running low on, he heard the sounds of someone else getting out of bed. His mind was still buzzing with that bad feeling, and he felt like every passing moment that Dal wasn’t in the living room was making it worse.
He dumped the pad of paper and the pen on the kitchen counter and headed back upstairs. At the very least, he wanted to see if the kid was in bed. Maybe he was just sleeping in because he didn’t want to get up. Maybe he’d been up late last night for whatever reason. Maybe he just didn’t want to come out of his room because Nick was in a terrible mood still and his agitation was likely to put Megan in a bad mood too, and he just didn’t want to listen to them fighting again.
Ellis’ bad feeling reached critical mass when he walked into Dal’s room and the kid was nowhere in sight. He stood in the doorway, looking from the bed to the large armchair, as if he thought Dal would materialize out of nowhere. On the last vestiges of hope left in him, he walked over to the closet and pulled it open, looking at the dark corner, right where Dal wasn’t.
His bad feeling ricocheted through the ceiling and continued up to the heavens, quickly being replaced by worry – and maybe a hint of fear. Where was Dal? Had he gone off somewhere? How long had he been gone? Ellis couldn’t remember if he’d seen him in his room at all the previous night. Sure, maybe he’d just gone for a walk, but maybe he’d also run away. Ellis was well aware of the fact that Nick was angry with Dal for making him worry. He didn’t know the extent of that anger, but he knew that it was there.
Had Dal run away because of it? He couldn’t be sure. All he knew was that, evidently, the kid wasn’t home. Ellis stood in Dal’s room, his mind reeling. Had the kid disappeared overnight? Without word to anyone that he was going away? Why would he just leave like that? It couldn’t just be because of Nick, right? What had Ellis done to warrant a decision that there wasn’t a reason to stay?
No, no, he was jumping to conclusions far too quickly. Dal might not have run away. He might just have gone out for a walk. He couldn’t be positive that the kid had ditched overnight because of Nick’s bad mood. He didn’t want to jump to the conclusion that it was the conman’s fault, because that would start him towards anger and that wasn’t where he needed to be.
Ellis came to a decision at that moment. He walked over to the nightstand and grabbed Dal’s speech board before going downstairs. He went into the kitchen and grabbed the pen and the pad of paper, bringing them back into the living room, setting the speech board down momentarily and sitting down to scrawl out a quick message for Megan and Nick. He didn’t know if they were awake yet, and he didn’t think he had the time or patience to wait for either of them to get up.
Dal’s missing. Gone to find him.
He left both writing implements on the table, stopping only briefly to pick up the board, grab a pistol and a round of ammo out of the designated gun closet, and hurried outside. All his running around in the house had started aggravating his ankle, but he didn’t stop to rest it. It hurt a lot, sure, but getting Dal home safely was significantly more important.
Immediately after walking outside, he threw his head back, took in a deep breath, and cawed as loudly as he possibly could. He knew that Dal knew that call – he’d explained it to him almost immediately after finding Nick in the swamps. But there was no reply. He clenched and unclenched his fists several times before he turned to his left and started walking.
As far as Ellis could tell, Dal had put almost all of his stock into his relationship with Nick. And if Nick decided to cut that relationship off, Dal probably didn’t even realize that he had anything else left. He genuinely didn’t know if Nick and Dal had had any kind of interactions with one another since the conman had decided to be furious about being made to worry. If they had, Ellis could imagine it had been unpleasant. If they hadn’t, that meant Nick had been purposefully ignoring Dal, and that kind of behavior would definitely clue the kid in to his status as “not Nick’s friend anymore (for now, probably).”
He’d find Dal if it was the last thing he did. If the kid had run away, it mattered a lot to Ellis that he tell him how important he was. Dal didn’t get to just ditch because he thought Nick didn’t like him anymore, or because Nick was being a jerk, or because Megan and Nick had been fighting. He didn’t get to just decide that Ellis was chopped liver. Ever since the world ended, everyone always seemed to leave him out of their calculations when it came time to think about group opinions.
Dal’s sense of self-worth was obviously in the toilet. If it hadn’t been, there was no way the kid would’ve left, likely without thinking that anyone would really miss him. Knowing that he would be missed would’ve kept Dal from leaving. Ellis just knew that. The kid had put way too much into his relationship with Nick, and not enough into his relationship with anyone else. And while that made Ellis want to punch Nick square in the jaw for messing up so badly, it also hurt a little.
Okay, maybe a lot.
His eyes scanned every square inch of everything around him as he marched through the streets, taking in everything and listening carefully for any signs of life. It was possible that, if Dal didn’t want to be found, Ellis would never find him. It was possible that the kid was so far away at this point that Ellis would never be able to catch up.
He wouldn’t rest until he found him.
“Fine! Stand around with your thumb up your ass and pretend this has nothing to do with you! I’m going to go and look for him!!”
The sound of the door slamming was still echoing in his ears, alongside Megan’s last statement before leaving. He still stood in the middle of the living room, now alone. His fist was still clenched around Ellis’ note, from when Megan had shoved it into his hands. His heart was still hammering in his chest, and his mind was still providing every excuse it could think of for why this wasn’t his fault.
Even though he knew it was.
The anger he had felt towards Dal for making him worry hadn’t last long in the first place. It had only lasted a couple of hours at the most, before it had melted away into a deep-set loathing directed towards himself. He hadn’t felt contempt towards Dal for a moment longer than it took for him to realize that the person at fault for his show of weakness was none other than himself.
He had allowed himself to get attached. He had failed to follow through with his con. He had decided to let the kid stick around. He had refused to take responsibility for his action, and he was the one who took it out on Dal.
There had been no one to blame from the start but himself.
And now, the kid was gone. This time, there was no hoodie in the door, there was no note, there was no sign. There was nothing. Just an empty living room and an awful ringing in his ears. Slowly Nick’s clenched hand relaxed, the note he’d been clutching falling lightly to the floor. He wasn’t sure if he ought to go out and help look for Dal. He wasn’t sure if he had any right to try and find him.
As Nick stood there, his mind slowly started to quiesce. The ringing faded away, the echoing of Megan’s voice dissipated, all the excuses and the thoughts settled back into the silty darkness of his mind. For a moment, there was silence. A loud, awful silence that surrounded him like a thick, suffocating blanket.
Have you ever been nice to anyone?
He lowered his gaze from the front door to the floor a few feet in front of him. No, he had never been nice to anyone. At least, not for a decent reason. He had shown a better, kinder side of himself for the sake of getting things out of people. He had been pleasant mannered to persuade people to trust him. He had never just been nice.
A strange feeling, one that he wasn’t entirely accustomed to, settled in the pit of his stomach. It was almost like nausea, but closer to the sensation of butterflies in his stomach. Close to anxiety, but it wasn’t anxiety. It wasn’t something he knew. He wasn’t even sure where, exactly, it had come from.
It was a feeling that reminded him that he was and always had been completely incompatible with other. It reminded him of all the times he could’ve turned back and changed himself and his life. It reminded him of all his shortcomings, of all the ways he had failed everyone around him, all his life. It reminded him of all the pain he had caused, all the people he had unfeelingly betrayed.
He didn’t understand why he was feeling this way. He didn’t understand how he could make it stop. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t like the confusing array of emotions running through him. He didn’t like the stirring, tingling nausea in his stomach. He didn’t like the memories that it was drudging up. He didn’t like that he couldn’t make himself move in one direction or the other.
Should he go out and try to find Dal? Would the kid even be willing to come back with him, if he did find him? He reached up a hand and jerkily moved his fingers through his hair. He didn’t even know what he would say to Dal if he did find him. He was nervous about the prospect of it. He knew that he was the reason Dal had bolted.
The way he had looked at the kid yesterday… What had he been thinking? He had looked at Dal the same way Kris used to look at him. How could he do that to him? How could he be so selfish as to not think for even a second about how the kid might react? Had he ever thought of how his actions might impact Dal? Had it been like this from the start? Had he always been so thoughtless and uncaring?
Had he really always been this awful?
“Dal!!” Ellis hollered at the top of his lungs, mild desperation beginning to set in. He’d been out for a long time. It was long past noon, he knew. The sun was beginning to lower in the sky, slowly but surely, and the worst of the day’s heat had passed.
But still no sign of Dal.
He had crossed clear to the other side of the city, taking every turn, glancing down every alley, looking towards every roof. He knew he hadn’t looked everywhere, simply because this place wasn’t small enough for him to have done so in the amount of time that had passed, but it felt like he had. It felt like he had searched every nook and cranny. It felt like he had seen every square inch of Brookhaven.
He had noticed when he’d first left the house that there weren’t any corpses in the streets anymore. He didn’t know why, but they had been cleared away by someone. He didn’t especially care who – it meant that the stench they’d been dealing with had started to go away, slowly but surely. It was certainly making this excursion less horrible.
He had wondered if some organized group of volunteers had come through to clear away the bodies, preparing the continent to welcome back its residents. It would certainly explain why the electricity hadn’t been turned off yet. Someone would’ve had to return to the power plants throughout the country and run maintenance and whatever else it was people did to keep the electricity flowing through the power lines.
Still no sign of Dal.
His ankle was killing him. It seared with pain every time he put weigh on it, and ached and throbbed when he wasn’t. He had refused to slow his pace, and had thus started limping and walking interchangeably, depending on how much it was hurting at any given point in time. His bad feeling had only gotten worse as time wore on, so he felt that he didn’t have time to waste. For all he knew, Dal was literally standing on the edge of a building, bracing himself to jump.
Ellis, as a naturally optimistic person who’d had little to no trouble throughout his life, couldn’t possibly begin to understand the mindset of someone who had fallen so deep into despair that they ran away from home, ran away from the source of the problem. He didn’t understand the kind of depression that led to suicide. He couldn’t even begin to imagine that level of emotional pain.
Still no sign of Dal.
Even if night fell and he couldn’t see, Ellis wasn’t going home. He wasn’t going home until he found Dal. That was the end of the discussion. He couldn’t bear to leave the kid out for any longer than was absolutely necessary. He couldn’t bear to have him thinking he was unwanted for another second. He couldn’t imagine how awful that felt.
He tilted his head back yet again and let out another voluminous caw. His throat was raw from all his yelling and cawing, and he didn’t care at all. Part of him wondered if it was smart to be making so much noise. If Dal didn’t want to be found and he heard Ellis cawing like that, he might run the other way. But surely if Dal heard the calls, he’d recognize that he was being searched for because he was wanted, right?
He couldn’t possibly know for sure. He couldn’t know anything for sure until he found Dal and talked to him. He adjusted his grip on the board he was carrying for the umpteenth time. When he did find Dal, they were going to really talk. They hadn’t done that… at all, really. Dal was quiet in general, but he’d been as silent as he’d been pre-speech board since his mother had died.
The thought of Kris sent a twist of guilt through him. No one had stopped to talk to Dal since Kris had died, almost as if everyone had forgotten she was his mother. She may have treated him awful, she may have lost her right to be called a mother, she may have been a terrible person through and through… but to Dal, she was his mom. It didn’t matter if she had been awful and cruel and generically mean. She was still his mom, and for a lot of his life, she had been one of the few things he’d ever had.
Still no sign of Dal.
Ellis walked another several blocks before he decided to yell again. And it must’ve been his incredible luck – the same luck that had saved his life a week before the apocalypse had begun – that permitted him to tilt his head back when he did. As he dropped his mouth open and took in a deep breath, he glanced diagonally to his right and stopped dead in his tracks. He closed his mouth, staring up at the roof of what looked to be an office building.
Sitting on the ledge of this five-to-seven story building, was Dal. Ellis couldn’t really make out whether it was genuinely him or not. He couldn’t have been sure because the kid was pretty high up and the sun had been blinding Ellis’ left eye for some time now, but he knew it was him. He knew because it had to be Dal.
“DAL!” He hollered up at the person, watching as they slowly turned to look at him. “Don’t ya’ dare move! I’mma be real mad if ya’ do!”
Without another word, he took off, ignoring the searing pain shooting up his leg. He threw open the unlocked door to the building and raced up the stairs. His ankle shrieked pins and needles at him, nearly had him stopping to collapse in pain, but he pushed through it. He found the door to the roof and threw it open, staring at the kid sitting on the ledge.
Dal didn’t turn to face him, even as he was limping across the roof to stand a couple of feet behind him. Ellis hesitated for a moment. A long, long moment. He stared at the kids back, words lost to him, waiting for some kind of sign that Dal was ready to welcome his company in the first place.
Finally, Ellis continued forward, right up to the ledge. He didn’t like that Dal was sitting there, but he could tell now, at this proximity, that the kid didn’t have any intention of jumping. Dal seemed fairly keen on not looking at him, and Ellis was fine with that. He got up on the ledge and sat down beside the kid, setting the speech board between them. He noticed the way the kid’s head turned just slightly to investigate the object that had been placed there, but he didn’t comment.
It was delicate, in a way. He didn’t know what to say or do, really, but he knew what he didn’t want to do. He didn’t want to mention anyone’s fault. He didn’t want to mentioned the worry and fear Dal had caused. He didn’t want to guilt anyone. He didn’t want to make Dal feel terrible or trying to persuade him to regret his actions to validate Ellis’ feelings. He almost certainly didn’t want to bring up Nick, unless Dal mentioned him.
For a while, he didn’t say anything at all. Partly, he waited to see if Dal would say anything. Partly, for once, he wanted to collect his thoughts before he spoke. Besides, now that the anxiety-provoking part of his day was over, he was perfectly fine with just sitting with Dal and settling the butterflies that had been floating around his stomach for several hours.
He had no idea how long he’d been out.
“Did I ever tell ya’ ’bout my ol’ buddy Keith?” He asked, finally settling on where to start. Dal didn’t reply, which Ellis decided to take as a “no.” He leaned back, putting his weight on his hands and looking up at the sky, with it’s pastel clouds. He really had been out for a while. No wonder his ankle was hurting so bad.
“Aw, man, how could you ‘ave hung around me this long and I didn’ talk ’bout Keith? Oh, boy, I gotta lot t’fill ya’ in on.” He chuckled, thinking of all the fonder memories of his best friend. “Keith is like, Evel Knievel, but no motorcycle. He was always pullin’ these dumbass stunts, shit no one else could do. I mean, he always got hurt – like this one time, he drowned in the Tunnel of Love! You wouldn’t think it could happen ’cause the water’s so shallow, but that’s how it gets you, man. Overconfidence. Keith was with his lady at the time, and he was yellin’ for her to save him, but she didn’t want to get wet.”
Dal tried, but Ellis didn’t miss the shaking in his shoulders as he laughed. His smiled broadened, “An’ there was this other time, me, Keith, n’ Dave went t’ this s’posedly haunted house. I gather some folks got burnt up in there a long time ago, and their ghosts still ‘aunted the place. Real neat, some ol’ guy told us ’bout it. Anyway, we all went and some kids lit the damn place on fire while we was in there.” He recalled aloud. That had been a close call, too, he remembered. It’d happened only a week before the infected had reached Savannah.
“Hot damn, man, Keith’s arms n’ ‘ands got all burnt up cause the ceilin’ caved in in front o’ me and there was a two-story drop out a window behind me, so ‘e was using his bare hands to try and dig through the burnin’ rubble. I almost died, actually, but the floor caved in an’ there was a window so I was able to git out.” He spoke, excitement finding him as it always did when he was retelling stories about Keith and his adventures. “Was real close though. Keith almost died too, but Dave got ‘im out. I think Dave was actually the only one who wasn’t hurt. Ha, it sucked but it was pretty fun too.”
“Keith ‘n me used t’ get into all kinds of trouble.” He said, his smile fading only a little as nostalgia reached him. “I miss ‘im sometimes. I mean, I got you guys, but I still wish Keith were ‘ere too. ‘E always made it more fun. I bet he woulda loved to fight zombies with us.”
Dal reached over with one hand and started typing on the board sitting beside him. “What happened to him?”
Ellis shrugged, “‘ell if I know, really. Alls I know is that ‘e got out on o’ them whirlybirds. Son of a bitch didn’ even wait for me. Though we lived on opposite sides’a town, so I wouldn’a been gettin’ on the same chopper as him.”
“Am I going back?”
The question surprised Ellis, but the answer didn’t take more than a second to come to him, “Well, I’d sure like it if ya’ did, but we don’t ‘ave to go yet. My leg kinda hurts, so we’re gonna be at a slow limpin’ pace anyways. We got time.”
Dal didn’t reply to that right away. Ellis wondered if he was considering asking if he could just not go back, to which he would probably say “absolutely not.” He didn’t know what he’d do if he was unable to convince Dal to come home with him. He hoped the kid wouldn’t make him.
“Y’know,” he said, his voice quieter than it had been. “S’not like I wouldn’t miss ya’ if ya’ left. No one told me t’go look for ya’. I left a note t’say I’d gone out to find ya’. Didn’ even stop to wake e’rybody else up. I must’a ran through this whole darn city… village. Whatever.”
Dal sank into his shoulders a little, and Ellis let out a sigh, “Nah, man, don’ feel bad about it. S’not like I’m blamin’ ya or anythin’. I just…” he paused, glancing at his knees. “I just don’ want ya’ thinkin’ ya’ don’ matter to no one. ‘Cause that ain’t true, not for a second. And I promise I’ll never change my mind.”
Dal made a thin sound, lifting a hand to his mouth and hunching forward more. Ellis reached over and grabbed the speech board, moving it to his other side for a moment and scooting closer. He then wrapped an arm around Dal’s shoulder and pulled him over. It was like a dam broke at that moment, and all of a sudden the kid was letting out heaving sobs. Ellis gently rocked them side to side, offering the physical support that Nick had never been comfortable with.
He let the kid cry against him for as long as he needed to. It seemed like all the hurt Dal had been accumulating in his fifteen years of life were pouring out of him all at once. He couldn’t imagine what kind of life the kid had lived, to bring forth this kind of response to Ellis’ words. He just didn’t know enough about Dal, he suddenly realized. He didn’t really know anything about Dal, aside from his age and his history with concussions. He wanted to know more. He wanted to really get to know Dal, to be someone he could talk to. To be a friend. A brother.
Ellis had never had a younger sibling. Keith had been the older brother he’d never had, and Ellis had always been thankful for that relationship. He hoped he could be the older brother for Dal that Keith had been for him. Maybe with fewer stupid stunts, though.
They sat together for a long, long time, even after Dal had calmed down. Occasionally, Ellis would tell him a story about Keith, or Dave, or his mom, or the friendly lady down the street that Keith used to stay the night with when his brothers locked him out. When he finally glanced over to see how the kid was faring, he was both surprised and overjoyed to see a smile on his face. Not the usual not-smile that he had worn before, but a real, honest-to-goodness, recognizable smile.
Ellis grinned so wide his face hurt when Dal started actually laughing at one of his funnier recounts of Keith’s misadventures. It was a rich, joyful sound, and Ellis hoped he’d get to hear more of it. After everything that had happened, he was incredibly happy that he had been able to bring Dal out of his reverie of depression. He had been so far into it, Ellis had wondered if he would be able to help at all. If he would’ve been able to persuade the kid to come home with him.
It was getting to be extremely important to him that Dal keep smiling. That he start laughing more. That he got happy and stayed happy. So, he committed himself to making the kid smile and laugh as often as possible. He’d help Dal make his own happiness. If anyone in the remaining world deserved it, it was the kid sitting beside him.
“So, there was this girl who came through Savannah one time, n’ Dave thought she was kinda cute so me n’ Keith decided to try and hook ’em up, ya’ see…”