The sky was overcast and the threat of rain loomed in the distance. Kris was silent as the grave and Dal was doing his best to be even quieter. He was nervous, perhaps even bordering on terrified. But he didn’t really think she’d let him get slaughtered on purpose. Or rather, he didn’t really think that she would slaughter him. If he got killed, it would be his own fault. He was probably a dozen times stronger than Kris at this point, so unless she shot him, he could easily take her out.
There were bodies more or less littering the streets, and most of them didn’t have any visible injuries. There were a couple with pools of dried, rotten blood around them – likely victims of Ellis and Megan’s speech board adventure. The rest, however, were just infected who died of natural causes.
Dehydration. Fever. Starvation. Heat stroke. Any of a number of other things could’ve explained any number of deaths, but it all came down to the same thing; they died because they were infected.
It was horrifying for Dal, because he knew exactly how close he had been to ending up like that. He could’ve expired like that, simply because he wouldn’t have had the knowledge to eat or drink.
It had been five days. If there were any infected left, they were either lucky as hell, or sane like Dal was. The actual likelihood of either of those scenarios, however, was close to zero. The epidemic was over, for the most part. Soon enough, CEDA or the military were going to come through the States and clear out the bodies. Soon enough, people would return to the country (or perhaps the continent) and try to pick up their lives where they had left off.
That was, of course, assuming that anyone had actually gotten out. For all Dal knew, this was it for the Americas. For all he knew, they would never try to repopulate the continent. Maybe people would be too afraid of the risk of catching the illness. Maybe no one would ever want to come back. Maybe their group would be the only ones living in the Americas for the foreseeable future.
Who could say for sure?
A soft sound reached his ears and he slowed his steps, listening carefully. He couldn’t quite place the noise. It hadn’t sounded quite like a growl, but at the same time it had. His mother had taken several steps ahead of him, and he picked up the pace so he could catch up with her again. Before he made it to her side, however, something thick and slimy wrapped around his throat and torso, effectively pinning his arms to his sides, and yanked him back. He came clean off his feet and hit the ground hard, managing a yelp of surprise before the grip of the tongue tightened and mostly cut off his airways.
He wheezed rather loudly as Kris was spinning around, reaching for the machete holstered to her waist. She took two steps forward before a loud, familiar shriek sounded, practically echoing in the otherwise silent streets. Dal’s mother turned to the left in time to be slammed into, her gun falling off her shoulder as she flew back and hit the ground.
He couldn’t breathe. Dal put every ounce of strength he had into pulling his arms away from his sides, in an effort to loosen the grip enough to free himself, but he was losing strength fast. He choked, eyes watering and fear ricocheting through him. He could distantly hear his mother’s cries of pain as she was shredded by the Hunter who had pinned her.
The grip around his throat tightened probably tenfold and completely cut off his airways. Panic set in as he twisted and turned and writhed, mouth open and eyes wide. He couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe couldn’t breathe. The edges of his vision were going fuzzy and gray, his clenched fists loosening as his strength started to leave him alongside his consciousness. No no no no no no please please I don’t want to die let go of me let go of me please – he could distinctly hear Kris shrieking louder and louder, her cries becoming more panicked and more distressed – I need to help mom I need to help mom – but he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move. There was nothing he could do. Someone please help me save me I can’t breathe I can’t see oh god please help help help help help – fear tore through him. He didn’t want to die. He couldn’t. Not yet. Please don’t let me die.
The sound of his mother’s cries had died off, and his stomach twisted. Everything was dimming and he could hear his heart pounding in his ears, but he couldn’t hear his mother. His eyes were slowly starting to close, hands twitching occasionally, as he fought to remain conscious.
A black blur was stalking towards him, and for a moment he could’ve sworn it was his mother. He blinked, eyes closing for what felt sort of like an eternity, and a heavy weight fell on his stomach, persuading him to open his eyes again to try and figure out what had happened. His brain was fuzzy and muggy and everything was dark and he couldn’t see and he couldn’t breathe and he saw the blur on top of him raised a clawed hand and he then realized what he was staring at.
He suddenly realized what was about to happen. He shut his eyes, only barely able to feel the tears streaming out of them, and braced himself as best he could for pain.
But it didn’t come. Suddenly, the grip around his throat disappeared and he sucked in such a deep breath so suddenly that he choked on it. He was in the middle of wheezing and coughing when he opened his eyes and saw a clawed hand coming down on him again. Dal’s newly freed arm came up to block the claws, and he let out a sharp cry when those nails tore through his bare skin. With his other arm, he struck out, forcing the Hunter to roll off him to avoid damage.
Actually, the fact that it had done that was… strange. But he couldn’t think about that now. He rolled in the direction opposite of the Hunter and stumbled to his feet, eyes wide. He was still gasping for air, his head still felt fuzzy, his whole body suddenly felt extremely warm and fatigue was finding him at the worst possible time. He swallowed hard to wet his parched throat and brought up his arms in a defensive stance.
His vision was swimming and his head was pounding. The Hunter snarled and leaped at him, springing forth from her spot. He side-stepped her easily, but he didn’t anticipate how fast she could turn. He was midway through spinning around to face her when she suddenly struck out with her claws again, grabbing his upper arm with one hand and aiming another clawed strike for his face. She landed a solid hit, tearing open his cheek, and he stumbled away from her once he had managed to tear himself out of her iron grip.
She let out a loud, piercing shriek, claws at the ready, and leaped for him again. She was too fast. Way too fast. He swore internally and stepped back, bringing up both arms to guard, and she sank her claws into both his forearms, her weight crashing into him and slamming him into the ground. She ripped her hands back hard, refusing to let go of his wrists until she had cleared them out of her way, effectively disarming his guard. He bucked hard to throw her off balance, rolling to the side and grabbing the front of her green hoodie.
His vision swam and he felt his whole body suddenly drop communication with his brain. Everything suddenly felt weak and feeble. He couldn’t hold his grip. The Hunter brought up one leg and kicked him hard in the stomach, sending him backwards. She leaped after him immediately, and he brought up his own leg, catching her by the chest and continuing her momentum to send her flying over him entirely. He rolled over, getting to his feet as quickly as his knees – which felt like jelly – would allow.
She was running at him when he turned around, and he didn’t need to think to react. He swung hard and fast with his dominant arm and punched her square in the temple. There was a sickening crack that sounded through the streets, and pain tore through his hand and up his arm. The Hunter hit the ground heavily, instantly killed.
He turned away from the corpse and took a few shaky steps before pausing. He felt like his legs were going to give out at any moment. His head hurt, his body felt hot and cold at the same time, his joints felt weak and his bones felt fragile. His hand was throbbing harshly, angry with him for using it to break bone so barbarically.
His eyes slid over the pavement, falling on a bloody mess of a body. Slowly, uncertainly, he started towards it. Nausea was filling his gut with every step, and it wasn’t long before he was standing besides his mother. She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She just lay there, still, unmoving, covered in blood and deep wounds. Eyes wide and unseeing (staring at him), lips parted and stained with blood (accusing him).
The pain he had been in mere moments ago melted away, replaced by tingling numbness that spread through every nerve in body. His legs buckled and he collapsed to his knees, unable to tear his eyes away from the body before him. It didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt period. He couldn’t believe that his mom was really… that she was really…
He sucked in a breath as a tremor moved through him. He could hardly breathe. A startling, agonizing horror at what had happened tore into him like a hungry wolf. Shock twisted through him like a knife and stole his breath away, and all at once he couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t feel, he couldn’t anything.
His eyes filled with tears that spilled down his cheeks unabashedly. He couldn’t tear his gaze away from the body. He couldn’t stop eying every individual wound. He couldn’t stop looking into her inert eyes, eyes that stared at him, eyes that accused him. He couldn’t stop thinking that he should’ve been able to do something. That he could’ve done something.
It should’ve been me.
The thought hit him like a ton of bricks and he didn’t argue with it. It was the truth. It should’ve been him. He couldn’t imagine the pain it would’ve put Nick and Ellis through, but Dal shouldn’t have survived. If his mom had to die, he should’ve died with her. He should have just let himself be killed. He should have broken free of that stupid Smoker’s tongue and saved his mom. He didn’t know why he hadn’t been able to summon more strength. He was practically a superhuman at this point. Why hadn’t he done anything? Why was he so useless? He couldn’t do anything right. He was always getting in the way, always causing trouble.
“No one’s ever gonna love you more than me! I’m sure of it!” Mom cooed, holding him tightly and rocking him back and forth. Dallas grinned, hugging her back with joy in his eyes and love in his heart. Mom loved him so much, and he loved her so much.
“Mama, I wuv you too!” He replied, much louder and more enthusiastically. He spread his arms out as far as he could, “Di-is much!”
She laughed, kissing his face all over, “I wuv you sho much, Dal!”
Dal took in a shaky breath and choked on it, immediately raising his hands to cover his nose and muffle the sound of his sobs. He had never measured up to what she had wanted him to be. He had never been able to please her. He had never been able to make her happy, to make her smile. He had never been a child that she could be proud of, that she could want, that she could love. He had always been a defect, a failure, an idiot, a delinquent, a disappointment…
It wasn’t like she could’ve had any more children after him. He had taken that from her, too.
He choked on another sob, pressing his hands against his face harder, just like he’d taught himself to do. He didn’t want to leave her here. He didn’t want to abandon her. He couldn’t. He couldn’t just leave her here, alone, left to the elements like the infected that littered the streets. His mom wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t some abandoned creature left to die because of a disease no one understood. She wasn’t some terrible person that deserved the punishment she had gotten. She hadn’t been beyond saving. She hadn’t been too far gone to help. She had been right in front of him, and he hadn’t saved her.
He wouldn’t leave her here. She didn’t deserve that.
I’m so sorry, mom.
“They’ve been gone for a long time,” Nick muttered. He was stationed in the armchair beside the couch. Megan was seated on the couch, Ellis’ feet buried in the cushions behind her. The hick was awake, and looked like he was feeling a little better since Kris had cleaned out his wound, though it was still obvious that he felt terrible.
“I’m sure they’re fine.” Megan replied, not even looking up from the book she was reading. Ellis hummed absently in agreement. Nick frowned, wondering if he was the only one genuinely concerned for the welfare of their absent companions. Well, Dal moreso than Kris. Megan and Ellis seemed to have complete faith in their ability to handle themselves. Nick knew better than to make such assumptions.
He had the same numbers of reasons to imagine they were both dead as he had to imagine they were both fine. It was more than just whether or not he trusted Kris to not kill Dal as soon as they got beyond earshot. Dal was a great attractor of danger, much like Ellis. Dal was also developing a pattern of frequent fevers. If he collapsed while they were out, God only knew if Kris would be able (or willing) to carry him back.
Nick wanted to go out and find them, but he knew it wasn’t a good idea. If Dal had been truly opposed to going out with his mother, he would’ve made some effort to inform Nick. The kid had seemed to be more or less fine with it, actually. Nick sometimes couldn’t read the kid at all. At times, Dal looked terrified of the very air his mother breathed. At other times, he seemed perfectly fine with her presence, if not a bit wary.
He just hoped nothing had happened. He hoped they had just forgotten which direction Elm Street was in, and had been forced to backtrack, thus lengthening the amount of time they were out. He hoped that, if they did encounter danger, nothing terrible happened and they got out of it smoothly. He hoped that Dal hadn’t spiked a fever.
He hoped, on more than one level, that Dal would walk through that door at any given moment.
He jerked and stood up suddenly when the doorknob suddenly turned. The door opened, and Nick’s blood froze at the sight before him. Dal looked at him through hooded eyes, his face flushed and sweaty, one hand digging around in his pocket for something. The kid pulled out a bottle of Penicillin and a bottle of iodine and held them both out to Nick, who took them out of his filthy hands and threw them at Megan.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he breathed. Dal was smeared with blood, his face was cut up, his shoulder and forearms shredded. There were bruises everywhere that there was visible skin. His hands and the knees of his jeans were caked with dirt, as if he’d been digging somewhere. His eyes were rimmed red, evidence that he’d been crying, and Kris was nowhere in sight.
Nick’s stomach plummeted as he realized that Kris was missing, “Dal, where’s Kris?”
As soon as he said her name, he regretted asking. Dal had already been shaking all over, and at the mention of his mother his tremors were exacerbated and the tears started flowing. He sobbed, lifting a hand as if to cover his mouth, but Nick grabbed his bloodied wrist to stop him. Immediately after touching the kid, however, he came to another horrible realization: Dal had a fever.
Dal had a very high fever. He stood up, grabbing one of the boy’s shoulders as he started to sway and pressed a hand to his forehead. It was too hot. Way too hot. And he could feel it getting hotter as he stood there with his palm against it.
Abruptly, Dal’s head dropped forward and his legs buckled, forcing Nick to grab him more securely and hold him upright. “Meg-…” Nick had to stop himself from shrieking for her, knowing full and well that she was standing right next to him. She had grabbed the thermometer off the coffee table, where Kris had forgotten it, and was looking like she wanted to stick it into Dal’s mouth, but Nick shook his head.
“Meg, his fever’s too high. It’s higher than it was before. We don’t have time for that.” He said as urgently as he could, and her eyes widened.
“Upstairs. Strip him to his boxers and put him in the tub. Straight cold water.” He nodded, hefting Dal up as much as he could and dragging him towards the stairs. He was so busy looking up the staircase and trying to figure out how he was going to manage this when the weight was suddenly halved. He looked over, seeing Ellis, face sweaty and a little pale, holding up Dal’s legs.
“Le’s go,” He said quickly. Nick nodded, and they started up the stairs, moving as quickly as they could without risking dropping the kid.
Once in the bathroom, they set Dal down in the tub and turned on the water. Only then did Nick grab his boots and started taking them off, while Ellis practically tore off the kid’s shirt. Megan appeared in the doorway with one of their bags of ice, breathless, eyes wide and bright with worry.
Nick pulled off Dal’s jeans and hurled them into the wall behind him, turning to receive the bag of ice from Megan.
“All of it?”
“All of it. We can get more.” She replied breathlessly. Dal was completely unresponsive in the tub, despite the frigid water and the ice that Nick was in the process of dumping all over him. Megan switched places with Ellis, a cup in her hand, and filled it with some of the ice water. She then dumped the water on Dal’s head, before repeating several times.
“Do we have an ice pack in the freezer, Ellis?” Megan asked quickly. “Can you check? A bag of frozen something will work, too.”
“M’ on it!” And Ellis disappeared, limping as quickly as he could down the halls. Megan pulled out the thermometer again and stuck it in Dal’s mouth.
“If it’s dropping again like last time, we have to get him out of this tub quick.” Megan stated, holding the meter and waiting for it to beep. Nick clenched and unclenched his fists several times. Every muscle in his body was stiff, and his brain was reeling. How long had Dal been walking around with this fever? Had it come on just recently or did he have it before he left?
The thermometer beeped and Megan pulled it out of Dal’s mouth and looked at the number. Nick watched her eyes widen in a mixture of shock and horror, her lips parting slightly before she turned to Dal and pressed a hand to his forehead. She swore out loud as Ellis came limping into the room (he looked like he was limping worse, in fact) with the ice pack. Megan turned around and snatched it out of his hand, startling him slightly.
“What is it?” Nick asked, voice strained. Megan shook her head distractedly, pressing the ice pack to Dal’s forehead while simultaneously pushing down on the kids shoulders to get him further under the water.
“A hundred and six point three.” She finally replied, voice tense, and Nick’s heart dropped into his stomach. “A hundred and seven will kill him.”
“What d’we do?” Ellis asked, face white and drawn with pain. Megan didn’t reply right away, and with every passing second Nick felt like the situation was more and more hopeless. Dal was going to die right in front of him if they couldn’t do anything about the height of his fever. No, that couldn’t happen. There had to be something they could do.
“There’s nothing we can do right now,” Megan finally admitted, easily making Nick feel a thousand times more useless without even thinking of it. “We keep him in this bath until his fever is down to a hundred and one. Until then, it’s just a matter of waiting.”
Nick nodded mutely, his throat drier than a desert. Megan stuck the thermometer back into Dal’s mouth, waiting patiently for it to beep. Anxiety-provoked nausea was starting to fill Nick’s stomach, and he sort of wanted to leave the room and have a nervous breakdown. At the same time, however, he didn’t want to leave Dal’s side until the kid was either all better or dead. And actually, Nick probably wouldn’t leave his side even in either of those situations.
The thermometer beeped and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, looking at Megan hopelessly. It had been ten minutes since they had dumped Dal in the tub, but Nick didn’t know how long it was supposed to take for his fever to start going down. Surely not much longer, right? Megan still looked worried, but she hadn’t started panicking upon seeing the numbers, which could only mean that, at the very least, Dal’s fever hadn’t gotten any higher.
“It’s taking a long time to start going down,” Megan muttered. “It’s only down to a hundred and six even. We shouldn’t leave him in here for more than twenty minutes.”
“What if it isn’t low enough by then?” Nick couldn’t help but ask. Megan looked over at him, furrowing her brow.
“Then I guess we’ll have to throw caution to the winds and leave him in for longer,” Megan replied rather resignedly. Nick didn’t particularly like the sound of that, but Megan knew a lot more about the whole ice-bath business than he did.
He hadn’t been this panicked in his entire life, he was pretty sure. Nick had had guns shoved in his face and he’d had knives sunk into his flesh. He’d been on the run for days straight before he could find a car to escape the area. He’d played Russian Roulette. He’d literally stared death in the face and then slammed the door on it. He’d been in so many tight spots, been through too many close calls.
And yet, despite all his real-world experience, Nick had never been in a position that had frightened him as much as Dal’s current state of health did. His heart wouldn’t settle in his throat, his lungs didn’t want to cooperate with him, his mind was fuzzy and he couldn’t think straight. He was sure if he had any less self-control, he would be shaking all over. His face was probably as white as a sheet at this point, and he hated it.
If Dal was going to worm his way into Nick’s life, the least he could do was make sure he didn’t die.
Dal shifted slightly, making a thin sound of discomfort. Megan pressed a hand to his forehead swiftly, which roused the kid a little more. Dal’s bright green eyes slowly opened, his lips parted as he took in shuddering breaths and started to shiver. Nick looked to Megan, and she held up the thermometer for the kid to see. He nodded blearily and opened his mouth, allowing Megan to stick it under his tongue.
Nick watched as Dal’s arms slowly came up and crossed over his chest. He was definitely freezing, but evidently didn’t have the energy to actually get out of the tub himself. The meter beeped yet again, and Megan pulled it out to inspect it. She looked at Nick, nodding with a relieved smile on her face.
“A hundred and two. We can take him out now, I think.” She said, “I’m gonna run the ice pack downstairs. You two, take him to his room, get him dry and into something warm. It important to make sure he doesn’t get hypothermia.”
Nick nodded in understanding, glancing at Ellis as Megan escaped from the room. The hick walked over, limping much worse than he had been before. Nick pulled the stopper in the tub and grabbed Dal under the arms, while Ellis grabbed him under the knees.
It didn’t take long to get him into bed, and once he was, Nick fell into the chair in the kid’s room and let out a shaky sigh. Ellis looked over at him from where he was standing near the door.
“Ya’ gonna stay in ‘ere?” He asked, and Nick nodded mutely. He couldn’t find words to speak at that moment. Ellis nodded in understanding, and limped out of the room. Nick supposed he probably should’ve taken a look at the guy’s ankle, or at least asked why he was limping so much more, but he couldn’t bring his mind to care much at that point. Ellis’ ankle would recover eventually, whether soon or later was debatable.
Nick leaned forward in his seat, planting his elbows on his knees, and resting his forehead in his hands. His head, which had stopped hurting for a period of time (either that or he had just managed to forget about it), was now killing him. He needed rest, but he was sure he wasn’t going to get any. He couldn’t bring himself to leave Dal alone for that long. Not when the kid’s fever wasn’t gone, not after it had gotten as high as it had.
He couldn’t leave Dal up to chance. He just couldn’t.
He has to get out.
Nick doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know what’s happening. He doesn’t know who it is that needs him. All he knows is that he has to get out of this place. This horribly familiar place. He needs to get outside, he needs to run away, find whatever or whoever it is that’s pulling him along by the heartstrings.
There’s blood. Oozing out of his open mouth as he gasps for air. Father’s foot connects with his side, sending him into the wall. The plaster cracks under his weight. Scott’s laughing in the background. Father’s got that smile on his face, the one he wears when he’s aching to spill more blood. The one he wears when he wants to send Nick to the hospital.
Nick wheezes, clutching at his abdomen and coughing. More blood. He’s probably bleeding internally by now. The fiery burn in his gut is certainly pointing in that direction.
Have to get away. Have to escape. Run. He needs you. Get out there, wake up. End it.
Another solid boot to the side, right where his hand is gripping, and he feels his ribs starting to give under the pressure. He lets out a sharp cry before clamping down on his own voice hard. Don’t scream. Don’t give them that pleasure. And don’t get Father in trouble because you know exactly how that will end.
Father pulls his boot back, and Nick can tell he’s rearing back to kick him again. There’s no other option, he has to go now. He rolls onto his stomach and propels himself forward, lunging out of the way before staggering to his feet. He can hardly find his legs.
Nick hears sirens, and panic sets in. He’s late. He’s late. He’s late. He has to get out of here. He’s late. He’s going to miss it. He’s going to miss him. He can’t let that happen. He feels a hand grabbed his shoulder and a knife appears, a knife that wasn’t there in the original memory, and suddenly he’s older, grown, stronger, better at this than they are. He spins faster than he feels he should be capable of, swinging out with the heavy blade and slashing open his brother’s throat.
He turns back towards the door, only there isn’t a door. There’s a kid there, staring at him. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and dirty jeans, heavy-looking boots. Scarred face. Tired expression. Flashing red and blue lights appear over the kid’s head, and the sirens somehow get even louder. Somethings wrong. Something’s going wrong. He’s going to miss him. He’s going to miss.
Nick extends his arm forward desperately, reaching as far as he could. He was going to miss it. He was going to miss him. He wouldn’t make it. He was too late. Too late. Too late. Too late. Too late. Too late. Too late.
Nick jerked away with a loud, panicked gasp. His eyes were wide and searching around the room for the source of his panic. He didn’t remember what was going on. What had he been late for? What was he searching for? He wheezed out another gasp, clutching at his chest and feeling his heart hammering in his throat.
He sucked in a breath and leaped out of his seat, very nearly falling as his shaking legs almost gave out on him. He caught himself on the bed and rushed to Dal’s side. He couldn’t see anything – it was a lot darker than he remembered it being. He reached over and turned the bedside lamp on, eyes widening and panic spreading through him. Dal’s face was flushed again, and when Nick pressed a hand to his forehead, it was extremely warm. He grabbed the thermometer off the bedside table, where Megan had put it earlier, and stuck it into the kid’s mouth. A minute later, it beeped, and Nick’s blood froze solid – a hundred and six point six.
Nick didn’t hesitate as he pocketed the thermometer, throwing the blankets off of Dal and getting to work pulling his saturated shirt off. He scooped the kid into his arms and strode swiftly into the bathroom, setting him down in the tub and turning the knob to straight cold water.
His heart was still hammering. He could hardly breathe. He ran downstairs and grabbed the last bag of ice and the ice pack out of the freezer. He raced back upstairs and proceeded to dump the contents of the bag into the tub. The tub filled with water quickly as Nick placed the ice pack on Dal’s forehead and held it in place.
This had to stop. Dal needed to get better and he needed to do it quickly. If his fever kept spiking like this, and if it kept getting this high… Nick was going to miss it one of those times, and Dal was just going to bake to death in his bed. If Dal died…
Nick didn’t know what he’d do if Dal died. He couldn’t even think of the possibility. It was too much for him. Dal had to live. He just had to. Nick wanted the kid to stick around after this mess was over. He hadn’t told Dal yet because he had been almost disgusted with himself for having the thought in the first place. But now he wanted Dal to know. He wanted to tell him that he had to stay, even after the infected were cleared out and society resumed its normal pace. Nick would be happy to lie to everyone and say that Dal was his little brother, or even his kid.
He wanted Dal to stick around. So, he couldn’t die. Not yet. Not for a long time. Some people deserved to live a long, happy life, and others didn’t. And if Nick had lived his life for as long as he did, with his reasonable contentment with the style of living he had gotten himself into, but Dal died right now…
No, he couldn’t even begin to think of it.