The Next Chapter

Nick looked a lot better than he had, that was for sure.

He was still quite pale, and the dark spots on his jaw had yet to completely fade, though they looked a lot better than before. He was still incredibly weak, and had a hard time moving when he first woke up in the morning. Sometimes, he had some difficulty keeping his food down. Sometimes, his joints would flare up and he’d start cursing until someone gave him a shot to dull the pain.

He wasn’t better, but he was getting better, and that was what mattered to Dal.

He continued to hum, knowing that it was helping to strengthen his throat muscles and well aware of the fact that Nick enjoyed the sound. Megan had given him another exercise to start once she had found out that he could pronounce Nick’s name with little difficulty. Now, he was sounding out individual vowels and consonants, all the way through the alphabet. Some sounds were harder to make than others, but he kept at it. Megan had told him that, at his rate of progress, he might be able to pronounce full sentences with minimal errors within a couple of weeks.

“Maybe even before Nick’s out of the hospital.”

He didn’t let his hopes get too high, but he was excited at the prospect. So he diligently did his exercises, making sure not to do them too often, lest he strain something. It was kind of hard to hold back like that, but he was disciplined. Forcing himself to be completely silent for eleven years had done enough to discipline him.

Megan had encouraged him to talk as much as he could. She seemed really excited about his progress all of a sudden. He supposed that Nick’s impending recovery had put her back into high spirits. Occasionally, she would sink into thought and look extremely depressed, and Dal would ask her if she was alright, and she would tell him she was fine, and he wouldn’t really believe her.

Once he had finished humming and occasionally singing Black Rock for Nick, he looked up at the conman. The man had personally requested that Dal hum the song for him, and Dal had obliged. He was a big fan of the song as well. He owned the album. Though he didn’t know if his room was still intact. His parents had probably turned it into a study before the infection hit.

His gut twisted at the thought of his mom, and he pushed those thoughts down like his life depended on it. Concentrate. Hum some more. Look at Nick. Talk to Nick. Try talking in general. You haven’t done it yet today. Go ahead, it’s fine. Just relax and do something to distract yourself for a minute.

He picked up another song and started humming again, occasionally singing a line or two. He sounded terrible. It was as if his vocal cords had forgotten how to speak. And for all he knew, they had. That might’ve been the reason for the humming. He hadn’t asked Megan for specific details on his current condition yet. He ought to do that later.

Very good. Keep at it.

He looked out the window, staring across the base they were on. It was expansive, and there were people everywhere. It didn’t look like any of them were armed. They were just milling around.

Rochelle had come by a couple of days prior to tell them that she had secured a four bedroom house on the base for them to stay at when they left the hospital. She’d handed Ellis the key and told him where the house was and what it looked like. From the third story window in the room, he could see it. It was the only house with a black roof. All the rest had tan or red or copper roofs, with cream-colored walls. Apparently it was typical of houses in the desert.

There we go. Its gone. Back to Nick. You wanted to talk to him, remember?

He did want to talk to him. And as soon as he recalled that fact, his stomach filled with butterflies that almost felt like nausea. He was terrified that Nick would turn him away. He knew, logically, that Nick would likely agree with him to some extent or another, but the knowledge wasn’t comforting. Sure, the two of them had made up and everything was back to normal, but Nick wasn’t suited for relationships and he knew that as well as everyone around him. Nick had said out loud that he would try to do some damage control on himself, but Dal didn’t know how successful he’d be.

He wasn’t sure if Nick really wanted to change. He wasn’t sure if Nick would become noble all of a sudden and decide that he wanted to remain alone so that he didn’t hurt Dal again. He wasn’t sure if Nick wanted Dal to stick around. There were too many things he wasn’t sure about. He didn’t know how to start this conversation.

It was becoming harder and harder to speak. He hadn’t managed to get a single word out. He felt that the task set before him really shouldn’t be as difficult as it was turning out to be. Dal swallowed the lump building in his throat and took a deep breath. It did absolutely nothing to calm him. If only he knew how to still his mind and meditate.

He finally looked up from his lap at the conman. Nick looked up at the exact same moment, and their eyes met. Dal was sure Nick could see the tempest of emotions in his eyes. The way the man was staring at him gave that away entirely.

At the same time, however, Dal was sure he could see some kind of caged emotions in Nick’s eyes as well. It didn’t show much at all. The man really did have a perfect poker face. Dal was sure that Ellis and Megan wouldn’t have seen it. He wasn’t even sure how he was seeing it.

“Um…”

“So, hey…”

They both spoke at the exact same time, and they both stopped at the exact same time. It became sort of like a Mexican standoff. They were both waiting for the other to speak, trying to see who would break first. Dal was relatively certain that Nick could wait until the end of time for him to speak.

So, rather than waiting for the end of time, he swallowed the lump in his throat that seemed to have grown exponentially in size, and began: “I…” He had to get it out all at once or he was never going to get it out at all. He took in another useless deep breath.

“I wwwaanna… wanna… ssttay… ssstay. Stay.” His throat locked up even as he was repeating words in an effort to pronounce them properly, and he swallowed the lump down again. Speaking around the apple in his throat was a bit painful. It felt like he was going to choke on his own tongue.

This was turning out to be really, really difficult. He had diverted his attention to his lap, afraid to look Nick in the eye at that point. He couldn’t speak anymore. It felt like his throat was being held in a threatening vice grip, and for some reason he wanted to cry. He smothered the feelings as best he could, trying to summon the rest of his courage out of thin air, and started to speak again.

But, before he could utter a single syllable, Nick spoke up, “You want to stick with me?” His voice was quiet, subdued. He sounded dulled, but when Dal looked up at him in surprise, he could see that Nick felt anything but dulled. His eyes were bright with surprise, joy, apprehension, and a whole slew of other things that Dal couldn’t pick out.

Realizing he’d been asked a question, Dal sheepishly replied, “Eeyyess. Yyes. Uhghk. Yes.” He had to say it three times before he got it right. Megan had told him that, when he messed up a word, he should backtrack and repeat it until he got it right. It was incredibly annoying.

Nick was silent for a long time. Dal watched him carefully, his stomach being very unhelpful with its constant gymnastics in his abdomen. He couldn’t tell what the conman was thinking. He could feel the first vestiges of panic start to settle in the forefront of his mind, and all of a sudden he was bombarded with anxiety and fear and self-consciousness, and he felt like such an idiot.

Why would Nick want him to stick around? He was a conman. Dal would only get in his way. Dal would be a liability. Dal would slow him down. Nick couldn’t afford to have baggage like that. And aside from all of that, they had already established that Nick wasn’t suited for relationships. Dal wasn’t worried about Nick hurting him. Not really. Either he would or he wouldn’t, and there was nothing he could really do to change that. He could be forgiving and he could try not to get on Nick’s bad side, but that was as far as he could go with it.

“And if I decide then you’re going to be trailing after me like a duckling for the rest of your life.”

Nick probably wouldn’t want Dal to follow after him…

“Are you sure?”

Dal blinked, confused momentarily by the answer. He hadn’t been expecting such a response, and so he didn’t know how to take it for a long moment. Finally, he nodded, unsure of where Nick would take the information.

“Dal… I’m not really… I don’t know if you would really want to do that. I’m not… suited for longterm relationships. We’ve already established this. I … don’t want to hurt you again, but knowing me I probably will. A lot. You’ll be miserable.” Nick spoke in a subdued tone, but his words came out in a rush. “I mean, why would you want to stay with someone like me, anyway?”

Dal stared at him.

“I duuhooon’… don’t hghgaaare. Care. I don’t care out’… about sat. That. Abou’ sszzat. I don’ caaare a’out sthat.” He managed to say, his eyes starting to water. “I jus’ wwwanna ssstay wif… with hhyyou. You. Wisth you.”

Nick took in what looked like a shuddering breath, turning his gaze away from Dal. He stared instead at his hands, and Dal wondered what he was thinking about. Was he considering his options? Was he trying to think of how to best say “no?” Was he trying to think of how it would work if Dal did stay with him?

The conman chuckled suddenly, shaking his head slightly. Dal watched him carefully, waiting with bated breath for Nick’s answer. The silence stretched on, the only sound being from the monitors and the hustle and bustle of hospital life on the other side of the closed door.

“You’re really sure you want to stick with me? Even though I’m an ass?” Nick asked, his voice even quieter.

“I’mm ssshherr. I’m sure.” He replied sincerely, leaning forward a little bit in his seat and planting his palms on the chair between his knees. He felt like a child trying to persuade his parents to take him to Disneyland. Nick turned his gaze back to Dal again, looking both resigned and overjoyed and bitter and excited and apprehensive all at once. At first, Dal was simply surprised at how much of Nick he was able to read in that moment. Then, he realized what had happened, and his heart swelled.

Nick had dropped his poker face, for just a moment. And in that moment, Dal could really see him. There was so much that the conman hid from the world. He hadn’t realized just how strongly Nick censored what the world saw of him. He must have been doing it for years, and yet now he had allowed himself to be vulnerable, for just a moment.

Maybe he’ll change a little bit after all.

“Well,” Nick finally spoke, a smile gracing his features. Dal had never seen him look as happy as he did in that moment. He had never seen the man look so relaxed while awake. He had never seen him smile so genuinely, with nothing bitter or angry hiding just below the surface.

“Alright, I guess,” the conman continued quietly. “You can be a duckling if you want.”

And if I decide then you’re going to be trailing after me like a duckling for the rest of your life.”

For just a second, he almost didn’t believe what he was hearing. Then, his heart swelled and the lump in his throat came back with a vengeance and a tsunami of joy and relief hit him. His eyes were watering, but he couldn’t stop smiling. He laughed, sounding a little on the hysterical side, and slumped back in his chair.

He was surprised at how relieved he felt. It was like the biggest load of the century had been lifted off his shoulders. He almost didn’t know what to make of it all. It was sort of overwhelming. He had genuinely expected Nick to refuse him. He had expected to be rejected. He wasn’t sure why he’d expected to be rejected, but he had. He’d been so afraid of that rejection, he’d been putting off this conversation for almost three weeks now.

He supposed he should’ve known better. Nick cared about him. Nick worried about him. They hadn’t known each other for very long, but it felt as thought they’d known each other for years. They didn’t know a lot about each other, but they knew enough. And over time, they’d learn more.

He didn’t know why he’d been expecting Nick to wholly reject him. The man had yet to decide he didn’t want Dal around and then stand by that decision. And Dal knew it was possible that one day, they really would go their separate ways. Someday, Dal might decide that he didn’t want to live the way that Nick did anymore. Someday, Nick might decide that having a partner wasn’t worth the trouble. Someday, they might have a huge fight. Someday, one of them might get murdered. Who could say for sure?

Right now, though, everything was fine. He was happy. Nick was happy. Everything was fine. He didn’t need to fret about the future or the past. All he was going to do was relish in the bliss that had come with his relief. He didn’t have to be alone anymore. He didn’t have to be afraid that he’d never find a place where he belonged. He didn’t have to think about those things anymore.

He could just be happy with what he had.

I can stay!

“So, I have to ask the question that’s been hanging over us all day,” Megan spoke after a long period of silence. They’d been enjoying each others’ company in the living room of the house Rochelle had secured for them. The rooms were all furnished and supplies already lined the cupboards, refrigerator, dressers, and everywhere else.

Nick had been released from the hospital that day, after a total of five weeks. Megan had been paying close attention when the doctor went over all the post-release information. Nick’s eyes had glazed over as Dr. Mills spoke, and she knew immediately that he was going to be a terrible outpatient.

“Which question would that be?” Nick asked in reply. At that moment, Dal came downstairs. He glanced over at Nick briefly, waved at the three of them, and went into the kitchen. He’d been napping, as he had been almost every day after Nick woke up. The boy had a lot of sleep to catch up on, and the rest of them had all been encouraging Dal to sleep whenever he felt tired. He’d been happy to oblige.

“What are we going to do now?” Megan asked, snapping her book shut and straightening up in her seat a little. She looked directly at Nick, and then over at Ellis. The two men stared at her, both seemingly lost in a train of thought regarding her question.

Dal chose that moment to return from the kitchen with a glass of water and a pink pill, both of which he handed to Nick. The conman didn’t seem particularly interested in remembering when he was supposed to take his medication, and so Dal had taken up the responsibility of making sure Nick took three pills a day until he ran out.

Nick sighed heavily, but he received the cup and pill and obediently took his medication. Dal nodded in satisfaction, sitting down beside the conman and getting comfortable.

“Meg wants to know what we’re doin’ next, Dal. What d’you think?” Ellis asked as the boy settled down. Dal stared at the young man for a moment, seemingly uncertain of how to reply. He glanced at Nick briefly, who was looking away and didn’t turn his attention to the boy. He then returned his gaze to Megan and Ellis, the corners of his mouth tugging into a slight frown.

“I ‘unno.” He replied, slurring his words only a little. His speech had improved in leaps and bounds since Megan had found out he could say Nick’s name without much trouble. She had almsot immediately gone into physical therapist mode and started conjuring up things to do that would strengthen the muscles in Dal’s mouth while improving the dexterity of his throat and tongue.

Now, the boy could speak and be understood fairly easily. Sometimes he slurred his words, sometimes he couldn’t wrap his tongue around a syllable or a particular letter, but he could correct himself on the second try and make himself understood.

“That’s helpful,” Megan said with a teasing smile. Dal shrugged, smiling back. But it wasn’t his usual smile. He looked like he had a lot on his mind. Nick and Dal had been shut up in Dal’s room ealier that day, apparently having an important, very private conversation. Since then, the kid had been in the clouds and never seemed to be quite present. Megan’s smile didn’t waver, even though she desperately wanted to know what was wrong.

I could help, I bet.

No, it’s none o’ your business. If he wanted t’ tell ya’, ‘e would.

She had somehow managed to invoke The Power Of Ellis within herself. Now, she had an inner hick to tell her to mind her own business.

“What do you want to do, Megan?” Nick asked, sounding only mildly curious. Megan opened her mouth to reply with some smart comment on her plans, but she stopped herself. What was she going to do? She had been assuming all along that she would return to her little apartment in Brookhaven, that she’d find her sister and the rest of her family and find out who was still alive and who had died. She had been assuming that when this whole mess was over, she’d split up with the rest of her current little family (because that’s what they are to you; family) and try to stay in touch but probably never see them again.

Now, she wasn’t so sure. She wanted to go home, yes. She wanted to return to her old life and put this whole thing behind her, yes. But she didn’t want to split up with Dal, Nick, and Ellis. They were like her brothers now, and even though they fought sometimes, they were family. At least, they were in Megan’s eyes. She didn’t know if the rest of them felt the same, and she didn’t know if they would want to stay in touch, or stick together, or whatever.

“I…” She began hesitantly, staring at the floor in before the coffee table. “I’m not sure, I don’t think.” Megan looked up and met Nick’s even gaze.

“Why not?” Ellis wanted to know. Megan chewed her tongue for a moment, uncertain about whether she wanted to suggest that they stay together or if she wanted to tell them that she would return to Brookhaven and pick up where she left off.

“I mean… you guys are like family to me,” She finally admitted after a lengthy silence. “I want to go back to Brookhaven and pick up where I left off, but I don’t … I don’t want to never see you guys again.”

Something flickered in Nick’s gaze, and she wasn’t entirely sure what it was. His expression seemed to darken just slightly, and after a moment, he diverted his attention to the floor, before briefly glancing at Dal. The kid made a face, and Nick smirked at him before looking back to the floor again.

“What about you, Ellis?” Megan asked, deciding that she’d save Nick for last. “What do you want to do?”

Ellis smiled, though his eyes held a hint of sadness in them. “I’m in pretty much the same boat, Meg. I wanna stay wit’ you guys, but I wanna get back t’ Savannah, too. I wanna see if I can find Keith, n’ Dave, n’ Paul, n’ all o’ them.”

Megan nodded in complete understanding, “It sucks that we’re from such different places. I might be able to maintain contact via telephone, but I’d never have the money or the time to travel up to Savannah, let alone hire a private detective to find Nick so we could have lunch or something.”

Nick let out a breath of laughter, “There isn’t a private detective in the world who could track me down. I move around too much.”

“Are you gonna go back to conning and scamming people?” Megan asked with a sly grin.

The conman smirked back at her, “Knowing me? Probably. I don’t know if I could stay away from it forever.” He replied easily, as if the fact that he murdered and swindled and was generally awful to people on a regular basis wasn’t a big deal.

Nick didn’t come across as sociopathic, just by virtue of the fact that he was capable of experiencing normal human emotion – even though he did an amazing job hiding it from everyone – but sometimes Megan couldn’t help but wonder what did go through his head when he thought about how many people he’d killed, how many lives he may very well have ruined.

It’s none o’ your business.

I know, I know! I’m just curious. I won’t ask.

“You just be careful,” she replied after a brief pause in their conversation. “I don’t like that you’re an asshole, but at the same time I don’t want to hear on the news that you were arrested or shot by a cop or anything like that.”

“I’ll be fine, Megan.” He reassured, smiling with a ridiculously confident gleam in his eyes. She gave him a half-smile in return. She glanced at Dal, who had been extremely quiet through the exchange. He was staring at his hands, looking very thoughtful. Megan wondered what was going through the boy’s head at that moment. He seemed to be very deep in whatever thoughts he was sifting through.

“So, I guess…” Megan spoke again, trailing off briefly before standing up. She went to the back of the living room, where there was a bookshelf filled with many things that were not books. She dug around in the shelves for a moment, eventually finding what she was looking for – a notebook and a pen that wasn’t dead. She returned to the armchair, opened the notebook once she had sat down, and started writing out her home address. She wrote it on three different sheet of paper before sitting up.

“Here,” She tore the sheets out and ripped them in half so they weren’t as large before handing them to the others. “This is my address, and my home phone. I have a cell phone but I’m not sure if it’ll be working. If you give me a way to contact you, I can text you or something when I’ve figure out what’s up with my phone.”

Ellis grinned, holding his hand out for the notebook, “Yea, Meg, I got a home phone I can give ya’.” He scribbled it down messily, writing his name beside it. His handwriting was a train wreck, but she could read it. She took the piece of paper from him with a smile.

“I gather you two don’t have a way for me to contact you yet, but when you do you should call me or come find me,” she said to Dal and Nick, who both nodded in agreement. “So I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

Dal smiled, but the expression looked strangely meek, “I’llll dg.. defini’ely ghk-call. I’ll… gh-…definitely call.” He managed to say, though it seemed to be more difficult that had been the norm. It looked like he was holding tension in his throat, and she didn’t know why. Was the whole incident with his mom catching up with him? Or was something else going on that she didn’t know about?

None o’ your business, Meg, Inner Ellis spoke up in a sing-song voice. Megan sighed, leaning back and yawning. She glanced over at the nearest clock, taking note of her rather intense fatigue. It was only nine – normally, she didn’t get tired until closer to eleven or midnight.

“I think I’m gonna head to bed, guys.” Megan said. “Sorry to cut the conversation short. I’m exhausted. We can talk more tomorrow, if any of us care enough to bring it up again.” She added with a grin.

“Alrighty,” Ellis replied, “I’m thinkin’ I’ll head up in a minute, too. I wanna get a snack first, though.”

“You had a huge helping of that macaroni and cheese, Ellis.” Nick scolded, “You’re gonna get fat.”

“Nah, I got great metabolism,” the young man retorted with a playful grin as he stood up and headed to the kitchen. Megan rolled her eyes, smiling all the while.

After receiving a chorus of “good nights” from the rest of her little family, she headed up the stairs, turning down the hall and into her room. She closed the door, stripping out of her t-shirt and sweatpants, and clambered into bed.

She was exhausted, and so, even though her mind was buzzing with depressing thoughts of the impending separation of her and her family, Megan fell asleep easily for the first time in a long time.

Ellis woke up feeling amazing. He felt refreshed, he felt well-rested. He felt generally awesome. He hadn’t slept that well in a while. Even after Nick had waken up, the fact that the conman had still been pretty sick for quite a while had continued to wreak havoc on his sleep cycle. Now, he could sleep in and he could sleep well. He’d only been in this house for about thirty-six hours now, and already he was feeling much better now that he was out of that hospital. He rolled out of bed, grabbing the nearest pair of sweatpants off the floor and pulling them on..

He glanced at the clock briefly, noting that it was much earlier than he had thought it was. It was eight in the morning. He had thought it was closer to noon because of how well-rested he felt. Although, considering how early he’d gone to bed, he supposed it wasn’t that bad. He’d gotten ten or eleven hours of sleep. That was actually a lot more than enough. Normally, he would have waken up tired and sore because he’d slept too long.

Well, he supposed today was as good a day as any for a small miracle. He headed for the dresser on the far side of the room, fishing out a t-shirt and pulling it over his head. Today felt like it would be a good day. He leaned back and stretched for a moment before turning towards his door.

He had just started turning the doorknob when he heard Megan holler up the stairs, “ELLIS!” Her tone didn’t sound urgent, but he didn’t want to make her wait if she was yelling for him. He opened his door hastily and started down the hall, heading down the stairs.

“Where are ya’?” He asked a little loudly, and then waited for a response.

Megan didn’t take long to reply. “Kitchen,” she said, sounding a little distracted. He noted that she sounded a bit upset, too… or maybe a little annoyed? He couldn’t really pick out the tone of her voice. Deciding that he ought to not keep her waiting any longer, he strode into the kitchen, looking around briefly and spotting her immediately. She was standing by the dining room table, holding something in her hand.

Ellis stepped over to her, “What’s wrong, Meg?” He asked uncertainly, looking around the kitchen for more clues. There weren’t any, though. He didn’t know what to think. He was becoming anxious about whatever it was that was wrong. What if it was something terrible? Had something happened? What happened? What was he supposed to do about it?

Just as he was starting to get extremely nervous, she spoke.

“They’re gone.” Megan finally replied after a period of silence. Ellis froze, confused at her words. They’re gone? Who’s gone? Nick and Dal? Where to? Why? He opened his mouth to speak, but Megan chuckled suddenly. Then, she threw back her head and laughed and laughed and laughed. For a moment, Ellis thought she had gone insane.

After she had gotten a hold of herself, Megan turned to Ellis and handed a piece of paper to him. He stared at her for a moment in confusion before looking down at what he now saw was a letter. He read it over twice, a strange feeling settling in his chest. He looked at the two names scribbled at the bottom, before a smile grew on his face.

“He’s such a dick,” The older woman said, wiping at her eyes. Ellis’ eyes were starting to water as well, even though he was grinning like an idiot. He didn’t know how he ought to feel about this development. He wasn’t sure if he should be laughing or crying, so he had more or less settled for both.

Nick and Dal had taken off into the night, leaving only a good-bye letter on the dining room table for whoever to find. They hadn’t stayed to say their goodbyes in person. They hadn’t mentioned where they might go first. They hadn’t left any important details for Megan and Ellis to use to find them later.

They evidently had no intention of ever seeing Megan and Ellis again. And while that notion came as a stab to the heart, it wasn’t as though Ellis thought that Nick and Dal hated them.. It hurt to think that Nick and Dal had decided it would be worth it to ditch, but he was sure that, even though their two missing comrades likely had no real intention of seeing them again, they would probably see each other again. Maybe not all at the same time, but they would see each other again.

“What do you think they’r gonna do with themselves? I mean, seriously?” Megan asked, her voice quiet, subdued. She seemed to be a lot more upset about Nick and Dal leaving than he was.

His eyes found the signatures at the bottom of the letter once again. Dal’s was terribly messy. Nick’s was straight-up chicken scratch. But he could still read them. He wondered where they might go first. The country was in shambles. The continent was in shambles.

Ellis looked up from the letter, meeting the redhead’s gaze. “Well,” he said with a grin. “It is Nick, ya’ know. I’m sure they’ll find somethin’ worthwhile.”

Next Chapter

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