“So, I’m thinkin’ we oughta talk to Dal about Nick n’ Kris.” Ellis said once he had situated himself on Megan’s bed. She walked over to join him, crossing her legs on her pillow and leaning against the wall.
“I think so, too,” the redhead replied, running her fingers through her hair. “He’s suffered a couple of fairly significant losses in the past few days. But I think he’s also really denying to himself that anything’s wrong. I mean, you saw the way he walked out on our conversation yesterday.”
Ellis nodded solemnly, “I sure ‘ope it won’ be super hard to get ‘im to talk to us.”
Megan fell silent as she considered his words. Dal might very well be hard to talk to. The way he had so suddenly walked out on Ellis and Megan’s talk yesterday was proof enough. He was likely trying to smother his feelings by not thinking about the things that had happened, the losses he’d sustained. But that wasn’t healthy, and Megan knew that.
“Who d’ya’ think oughta talk to ‘im? Me ‘r you? Nick’s obviously outta the question.” Ellis asked her after a long lapse in their conversation, “I dunno, I ain’t good at this sorta thing.”
Megan nodded slowly, thoughtfully, “That’s a good question. I mean, obviously I’m the one with more experience in the field, but you’re closer to Dal than I am.”
Ellis frowned, “I don’ think I’m that much closer, actually.”
“You are,” Megan told him. “Dal and I haven’t had any form of a conversation to date. I asked him if he was okay yesterday and he got kind of upset, but that’s the closest so far.”
Ellis bobbed his head in understanding, “So, ya’ think I should talk to ‘im?”
The redhead tilted her head back and forth, crossing her arms in thought. She wasn’t sure. Like she had already said, Ellis was closer to Dal than she was. But at the same time, Ellis seemed uncomfortable with the idea of confronting the boy about his emotional denial. The young man might not be able to stomach upsetting Dal for the greater good.
It wasn’t healthy to bottle up strong feelings the way Dal was. Those emotions would eventually fill up the bottle and burst out in some kind of way, and the way it came out would almost definitely be destructive in some kind of way. She didn’t want Dal to go through that kind of destructive emotional breakdown. She didn’t like seeing people suffer, and she especially didn’t like seeing people she cared about suffer. She may not have known Dal very well, but she did still care for him.
“I don’t know, Ellis,” Megan finally said, scratching the back of her neck, “I think it’d be a good place to start. If he won’t talk to you, we can either confront him again together, or I can go in solo and give it a shot.”
Ellis sighed, looking unhappy, “I hope ‘e’ll talk to us.”
“Me too,” Megan returned. She wondered faintly if there was going to come a point when all of them were in emotionally sound places. If she was honest with herself, the answer to that question was probably “no.” Nick and Dal were fairly damaged people. They both needed years of therapy, though she was sure Nick would never accept something like that. He didn’t come across as being particularly happy with his lifestyle, but she also could tell that he was wedded to it. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who was interested in changing himself for his or anyone else’s benefit.
And never changing might not bother Nick, but it made the outlook on the rest of his life rather bleak. He’d be hateful and angry and alone for the rest of his life at the rate he was going, and that wasn’t really okay with Megan. She didn’t want to go out of her way to try and change someone who would likely lash out at her attempts prior to walking out the door and never coming back, but, at the same time, she didn’t like to think that Nick was just doomed to a life of solitude.
She wondered if it would be possible to get through to him on that level. If she could talk to him about Dal and get him to feel some remorse. If she could persuade him that he could fix what he’d broken if he was willing to put forth the effort and take responsibility. It was entirely possible that Dal would forgive Nick in a heartbeat, just because he had been so dependent on the man. If he wanted to, Nick could get away with his latest mistake without any repercussions.
Of course, that thought made her wonder why he hadn’t yet. Had he not realized it? Or was he genuinely just done with Dal? He’d certainly seemed like it when they’d been fighting the previous morning. If that was the case, though, chances were high that Nick wasn’t going to learn a thing.
“Ellis,” she said slowly, and the man looked over at her again. “Do you know why Dal latched onto Nick the way he did?”
Ellis blinked, looking surprised for a moment. Then, he replied, “Nah, I ain’t got a clue. I guess Dal was alone for a real long time before he found Nick. Nick said they hadn’t got off to a good foot right at first, but I don’ really know when the magic moment was. Probably if Nick ‘adn’t been concussed an unarmed, ‘e would’a killed Dal right when ‘e saw ‘im.”
Megan blanched, “Really? You think he would have killed him?”
Ellis nodded, looking significantly less horrified at the prospect than Megan felt, “Oh, yea, that’s how it’s been. Shoot first, don’ bother askin’ any questions. Even if Dal’d saved ‘im, Nick would’a seen ‘im as a Hunter first. I mean, when he was wearin’ that hoodie, Coach n’ Rochelle immediately saw ‘im as jus’ a Hunter, even though ‘e led us to Nick and everythin’. And they wanted t’ kill him, too.”
“What about you?” She wanted to know immediately, “Did you also want to kill him?”
Ellis laughed at that, “Nah, man, I was prob’ly the only one o’ us who didn’t wanna kill Dal at any point. I mean, ‘e wasn’t dangerous, ‘e didn’t try killin’ us, so I didn’ see a problem.” He paused, suddenly looking sullen, “Though, no one listened t’ me, so I didn’ really get a say.”
Megan nodded slowly, “You know, you told me all about the adventure you guys had, but you didn’t tell me what happened to Coach and Rochelle.
At her question, Ellis’ entire demeanor changed. She almost immediately regretted asking. Perhaps that was too much. She could never seem to tell what would cross boundaries until she was actually over said boundaries. Megan was about to retract her question, to apologize for asking, when Ellis let out a heavy sigh, looking forlorn.
“They left.” He finally said, “Remember when we told ya’ that Nick killed ‘is brother?”
She nodded jerkily, almost afraid to learn whatever it was that Ellis was going to tell her. He turned his attention to a thread attached to the blankets they were sitting on, frowning deeply.
“Well, Nick didn’ just kill ‘im. He shot ‘im in the knees and then got a horde comin’, and left ‘im for dead.” Megan’s eyes widened a fraction. She hadn’t heard this part of the story. “Coach n’ Rochelle couldn’ deal with it. They said… they said that Nick n’ Dal were just two tickin’ time bombs and then they actually had the nerve t’ ask me if I’d come with ’em while they ditched ’em.”
Megan’s mouth was dry. “Why… why did Nick kill his brother, again?”
Ellis looked at her as he said, “‘e attacked Dal. Tore out three o’ his teeth with pliers.”
The horror she had started to feel towards Nick mercilessly, brutally killing his brother was gone in an instant. Scott had certainly been a psychopath – she had gotten that impression from Nick’s retelling of his past. But she hadn’t really thought that the guy was that kind of psycho. She hadn’t thought he had been really the kind of person who would watch and laugh as his alcoholic father beat on his little brother. She definitely couldn’t have imagined that he had been the kind of guy to take full advantage of the infection for his own sick amusement.
When Nick had told her that Scott had attacked Dal, she had assumed that the boy had likely fought back. But if he had tore out three of Dal’s teeth, that meant the boy hadn’t fought back. Or hadn’t been able to fight back, because there was no way you could tear out teeth with pliers while someone was swinging at your head, especially with Dal’s level of strength.
“And what, Coach and Rochelle didn’t think what Scott had done was a huge deal?” She asked heatedly. Ellis smiled at her a little sadly as she was crossing her arms and scowling at the bed between them.
“They didn’ really think o’ Dal as human.” Ellis quietly replied, “To them, Dal was a jus’ a monster. I don’ even know how they could look at another person and see ’em like that. I couldn’, that’s for sure. It don’ matter if they’ve got this stupid disease ‘r not. They’re still people.”
Megan fell silent, feeling somewhat depressed and still a bit mad. She hoped she never met Coach and Rochelle. She’d probably have a lot to say to them. The fact that they had put the life of an actual psychopath over the lives of Nick and Dal – even if the former was a prick – was disgusting to her. It was inexcusable.
She wondered if Nick had dealt with a lot of that. If he was relatively used to people looking at him and what he did to keep himself alive and saw nothing but a dangerous criminal. What Nick had done was completely understandable in her eyes. He had been protecting Dal. Perhaps his modus operandi had been way over the top, but if she considered Scott’s long history with Nick, what kind of person he obviously was, and how many victim’s he’d likely claimed… the electric chair wouldn’t have been enough to blot out his sins. Perhaps Nick’s method had been entirely justified, even as extreme as it had been.
A lot of Nick’s actions were inexcusable. Some of them likely bordered on cruel and evil. Some of them probably toed the line before abusive. Sometimes, Nick was just generically awful. But Megan was sure he had never done anything without a good reason for it. Even if that reason was beyond the understanding of everyone around him. Even if that reason was based on inaccurate information. Even if it was a terrible reason.
He always had a reason for the things he did and the things he didn’t do. She was sure of it.
So, why hadn’t he apologized to Dal yet? What was his reason for that?
The house was quiet. It was always fairly quiet, but today it seemed quieter for some reason. Maybe he was imagining it. Maybe it wasn’t really that quiet. Maybe he was just projecting the quietness in his head onto the rest of the house.
Though, the inside of his head was anything but quiet.
Dal sighed, turning his wrist back and forth, back and forth. Megan always explained to him what the exercises he did would do for his recovery. The wrist-twisting was for his rotator cuff. She had him starting small, apparently. Eventually he’d be twisting his entire arm back and forth for as long as he could hold it up. At the moment, his shoulders were still pretty weak, though, so she also had him doing shoulder rolls.
Megan had been steadily increasing his regimen. He was doing six different exercises – wrist-twists, shoulder rolls, ankle flexes, finger tapping (still), and what he had fondly christened “tongue exercises.” He would do each of them for ten minutes, and then return to the start of the list and do them again for another ten minutes each. He had only gotten to three rounds so far. By the fourth round, he’d start feeling pain all over, so he just stopped at three. Megan had told him to let her know when he was able to do five rounds at ten minutes each. She’d been pretty impressed when he’d told her that he’d been able to do two full rounds from the start.
She’d told him it could be several months before he was really seeing improvement, but he was beginning to think that maybe she had exaggerated so he wouldn’t be disappointed. At the rate he was going, he felt that perhaps he’d be talking within a few weeks, maybe a couple of months. That was an excellent motivator, if he had to say so himself.
He shifted where he sat, in the farthest corner from the door to his bedroom, and was about to move onto his shoulder rolls when he heard a knock on his door frame. He looked up from his lap, finding Ellis standing there. The guy smiled at him, and Dal returned the gesture. According to Megan, the atrophied muscle in his face had recovered significantly since he’d started eating again, so his smiles looked like real smiles. He hadn’t realized that they hadn’t in the first place, but whatever.
Though that did explain those strange looks he’d received from Nick for those several hours after they’d first met, but before they’d found the rest of the party.
The mental mention of Nick made his heart stutter, and he immediately refocused his attention on Ellis, who was in the process of crossing his room. He watched carefully as Ellis slid the speech board off his nightstand and graciously received it from him. The guy sat down next to him (Nick would’ve sat on the bed), and turned until he could more easily look Dal in the eye.
“How’re ya’ doin’, Dal?” He asked, and Dal was immediately suspicious. He had a feeling Ellis had an ulterior motive. Nick would’ve just come right out and said it, without wasting time on asking questions about Dal’s well-being – unless Dal’s well-being was relevant to the conversation, of course.
“I’m fine.” He replied on the board. Ellis looked like he believed him about as much as Dal believed himself. For a moment, Dal thought that maybe Ellis wasn’t going to comment on the teen’s honest state of being. That perhaps the guy was just going to glaze over it like he had the last time they’d talked and discuss something unimportant.
Not that Dal could think of anything unimportant for them to talk about. At least, nothing that couldn’t have waited until dinner.
“Man, I’m so bad at this. Aw, hell, I guess I’ll jus’ come right out n’ say it.” Ellis returned, chuckling awkwardly, “I’m a lil’ worried, ’cause ya’ haven’t really dealt with th’ stuff from yer mom and Nick yet.”
Dal’s thoughts came to a screeching halt, rather like a car that was braking before it drove off a cliff. The problem was that his brakes didn’t actually stop him from heading over the cliff. Instead, he pitched over the edge and plummeted into the quarry. All at once, everything he had been cleverly not thinking about rushed to the forefront of his mind, alongside a very loud, panicked repetition of “no!”
His mom, who had died because he hadn’t been strong enough (hadn’t tried hard enough). Nick, who he had only ever caused trouble (only ever caused anyone trouble). His mom, who he had never been there for (he had never stopped to think that maybe his pining had made her life harder). Nick, who had done so much for him (he hadn’t done anything in return).
“I’m fine,” He hastily typed, swallowing around the nausea that was starting to build up in his stomach. “Really. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Ellis looked at him incredulously, “Dal, how can ya’ look me in the eye and tell me that. Your mom was killed right in front o’ ya’. Nick coulda stabbed ya’ n’ it’d have hurt less. You told me that much yourself.”
Nick, who didn’t want him around anymore (that’s not his fault, it’s not like he’s the only one who’s ever wanted me gone there must be something wrong with me there just has to be eventually everyone will want me to go away that’s just how it always is because something is wrong with me). His mother, who he had buried out of respect despite how he wasn’t really sorry that she was dead (how could I not care that she’s gone she’s my mom what kind of defective product am I it’s no wonder she wanted me gone she must’ve been able to see that I was just a little monster that I would never really care for her and love her like a son should she was right she must’ve always been right I must not have really loved her).
He wished he could look Ellis in the eye and honestly tell him that nothing was wrong. That he was dealing with it. That he wasn’t trying as hard as he could to avoid thinking about Nick and his mom because he couldn’t handle it. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to handle it.
(Nick could probably handle this. Pretty much anyone could, I’ll bet.)
“Dal, I’ve lost people too,” Ellis was saying, “I know ‘ow much it hurts, but that’s why ya’ gotta talk it out wit’ someone. I’m here ’cause I want ya’ t’ feel better, ya’ get me? I did tell ya’ I’d be around.”
Without pausing to think about it, Dal shoved the speech board off his lap and to the side farther from Ellis. He wrapped his arms around his waist, hunching over his crossed legs. His hair fell into his face, obscuring Ellis from his vision. His eyes were filling with tears at surprising speeds. He didn’t want to talk. He wanted to forget. He wanted it to go away and never bother him again. He had been doing just fine until Ellis came in, helpfulness blazing.
“Dal,” Ellis said softly, his voice sounding rather sad, “Ya’ can’t just pretend it didn’ happen and think it’ll-…”
Dal didn’t hear the rest of it, because he clamped his hands over his ears, shaking his head rapidly. He swallowed hard, feeling like he was getting close to becoming sick. Ellis was still talking to him, but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to hear it. He refused to hear it. He didn’t care if Ellis was just trying to be helpful and compassionate and all that nonsense.
(Nick wouldn’t make me talk about it. Nick wouldn’t force the issue. Nick would leave me alone. He’d let me have my lie. He’d know that I’d come to him when I wanted to talk, if I ever got to that point. He’d just be present for my meltdown.)
I miss him.
He felt Ellis’ hand touch his shoulder and he jerked away violently. He didn’t want Ellis’ comfort. He didn’t want his sympathy. He didn’t want his help or his compassion or his naive optimism or his annoying voice or his irritating need to make Dal “feel better.” He didn’t want this stupid hick with his righteous “let me help” bullshit. He didn’t need help. He didn’t want help.
He wanted that self-centered jerk with his temper and his pessimism and his irritating need to fight with everyone about everything when he was in a foul mood. He wanted Nick, with his immorality and his capacity to understand that sometimes people just needed to be left alone.
He wanted to apologize for getting sick, even though he knew logically that it was Nick who ought to be apologizing. He knew that he couldn’t have helped getting sick. He knew that Nick was in the wrong for turning into a right bastard for something that Dal couldn’t have helped. He knew that Nick had no right hating him for that. He knew all of that, but it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because he was sorry that he got sick. He was sorry that he had made Nick worry so much. He knew that the man didn’t handle being made to worry very well. He knew that Nick got irrationally, unreasonably stressed out when he was worried. He knew that Nick worried more than he ought to about Dal, even though he shouldn’t. Even though Dal wasn’t really worth worrying about.
Don’t think about this.
His mother had been right all along. He wasn’t worth the trouble. He wasn’t worth anything. He didn’t deserve what Nick had given him. He didn’t know why he had thought Nick would just stick around with the likes of him forever. He didn’t know why he thought Nick had really, truly meant it when he said that Dal could stay permanently. Nick hadn’t known that he was such a messed up mistake of a human being at the time.
Dal should never have let him make that mistake.
Please stop thinking about it. You’re only making it worse.
Ellis had disclosed his incredible failure to Megan long before dinner came and went. She had reassured him that she had figured it might be fairly difficult to get Dal to open up. After all, he seemed to have developed a pretty good system of not thinking about it. That hadn’t really made Ellis feel much better, though, since he felt like he’d upset the kid for basically no reason.
He hadn’t realized how strongly Dal had been censoring his thoughts. He certainly hadn’t expected the kid to shut down the way he had and outright refuse to talk to him. He had no idea what was supposed to happen now. Megan had told him she’d give it some thought, but he didn’t really know how long that was supposed to take. Maybe Dal would still be upset with him when she decided to try going in for the kill again.
He hoped the kid wasn’t going to hold a grudge. He’d hate himself forever if he convinced Dal to hate him within forty-eight hours of befriending him.
Ellis sighed at the ceiling. Megan had gone upstairs to bring Nick his dinner, since he hadn’t come down to eat with the rest of them. She was entertaining the idea that he was refusing to eat with them because the awkwardness would be too much for him. She obviously didn’t know how awkward things had gotten between Nick and Coach post-arguments.
He looked over at the stairwell from his where he lay on the couch when he heard footsteps, and sure enough, Megan came down the stairs a second later. He noted curiously that she still held Nick’s plate in one hand, and that she looked to be very deep in thought. She walked into the kitchen, and he heard the sounds of her opening and closing the microwave. Nick was sleeping then? Or had he just outright refused dinner? He might’ve been nauseous. Pain always used to make Dave nauseous.
Megan returned to the living room, sitting down in the armchair and looking over at Ellis. There was a pause that filled the room like the suspense before the big jump-scare in a movie, and after a moment of assessing the silence, Ellis began to feel that it was a heavy quiet that had filled the air.
“Ellis, what was Nick like? Before I met you guys?” Megan finally asked. Ellis stared at her. Nick, prior to meeting Megan? Why would she want to know that? It wasn’t like Ellis had known Nick for a particularly long time. The guy had always been a self-centered jerk, from day one. He’d told Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis that he’d ditch first chance he got. He’d flirted shamelessly with Rochelle, his temper had been easily triggered by Ellis, he’d gotten off the wrong foot with Coach almost immediately, and he’d always told them that if one of them dropped, he would not be slowing down to help them.
So, before Ellis answered her question, he wanted to know, “Why d’ya’ wanna know, Meg?”
The woman shrugged, “I dunno, I thought maybe you knew a different side to him or something. I didn’t… I mean, he’s sleeping right now. I’ve never seen him sleep before.” She started to ramble, gesturing about, “He looked so relaxed and… younger. So much younger. I didn’t realized he was that stressed out all the time. Is he always that stressed? I… I didn’t realize…”
Megan trailed off into silence, her hands falling limply into her lap. She stared at the floor for a few minutes before looking up at him. Ellis let silence grow between them for a few minutes as he thought about her question. To be be perfectly honest with her…
“Honestly,” Ellis finally said, frowning apologetically. “He’s pretty much always been th’ same. When we all first met, he was a huge jerk. A lot more’n ‘e is now. Then ‘e met Dal and… well, he didn’t get any nicer, but ‘is focus changed. He stopped bein’ such a jerk t’ me and turned all ‘is attention to Coach and Ro instead.” He paused, thoughtful.
Actually, there had been a very brief point when Nick had seemed more relaxed than Ellis had ever seen him. Not as relaxed as he probably looked when he slept, but significantly more calm that usual. Ellis hadn’t thought of it until just this moment, but after Nick had killed Scott, and after Coach and Rochelle had left, Nick had been… really, really calm. He’d been even-tempered for the first time in a while.
“After Ro and Coach split,” Ellis slowly continued. “Nick was… actually, ‘e was a lot different than he had been. He’d seemed sorta out of it, but ‘e’d been pretty calm. I figured it was ’cause the source of ‘is anger was finally gone ‘r somethin’.”
Megan was watching him, looking moderately upset. Not like she was about to cry or anything, but she looked very unhappy to hear that news. She didn’t know a lot about Nick, and it seemed that the more she heard about what kind of enigma he was, the more she wanted to know about him.
A lot about Nick didn’t make much sense to Ellis. He didn’t understand why Nick was the way he was, he didn’t understand why Nick did the things he did. On occasion, he could understand a specific action – such as Nick killing Scott – but he couldn’t understand Nick. And he supposed Megan was in much the same boat. The largest difference being that Megan seemed rather determined to really understand the conman.
She’d been digging and digging and digging in an effort to uncover the Truth Behind Nick, but from where Ellis sat, it seemed like the hole wasn’t getting any deeper.
“I think I was wrong,” Megan suddenly said, drawing Ellis’ attention once again. He looked at her curiously, waiting for the punchline. When she looked up and saw that his eyes were on her, she continued, “I think… I actually am mad at Nick for killing Jacob.”
If Ellis had been Nick, he would’ve laughed and then said in the most sarcastic possible voice, “No, really?”
Instead, he bobbed his head at her in agreement, “I figured that out when you two were fightin’ over dinner.” He replied calmly. She looked downcast to hear it. Megan had probably thought she knew herself extremely well until now. “Naw, Meg, don’ be like that. How could you ‘ave known? S’not like you’ve ever been in this kinda situation before. You got every right t’ not have a clue what’s goin’ on with yourself.”
Slowly, she nodded, but didn’t say anything at first. Ellis was beginning to wonder if she even believed what he was saying to her when she finally said, “I’m such a control freak, I thought I had really mastered myself over the years. Apparently not.”
“S’not such a bad thing,” Ellis said quietly. “If ya’ have that good control over yourself, ya’ must bottle up a lot. Weren’t we just talkin’ t’day about how bad that is for people?”
He smiled at her and she managed to return the look, though her smile was almost painful to look at. She diverted her attention to the floor, evidently lost in thought. Dal came out of the kitchen, his eyes landing on the two of them. Ellis waved, which earned him a curt nod before the kid disappeared upstairs. He was definitely still on Dal’s naughty list.
“Do you think he regrets it?” Megan asked, looking up again, “Killing Jacob, I mean.”
Ellis stared at her for a long moment, wondering why she wanted to know. Would it help her forgive him? He couldn’t imagine why. He wouldn’t lie to her to make her feel better about Nick’s character, either. Ellis had never been good at lying, anyway. He’d been raised to be honest and considerate. If he lied, he knew his mom would be turning over in her grave.
“No,” he finally answered. “Nick’d never regret doin’ anythin’ he had to do.”
Megan nodded mutely. “Okay.” She mumbled softly. There was a beat before she slowly stood up, “I’ll… I’ll try to talk to him tomorrow. I’ve been meaning to but… I don’t know, I guess I’ve been a big chicken in disguise this whole time.”
Ellis smiled at her half-hearted quip as she continued, “Do you have any advice for talking to him?”
“If ‘e doesn’t wanna talk,” Ellis advised, “‘e won’t. He might try t’ start a fight t’ make ya’ go away. If ‘e does that, go away. Don’ let him bait ya’ into a fight, ’cause that’ll get ya’ nowhere fast.”
Megan smiled at him in appreciation, “Thanks, Ellis. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded with a grin, watching her ascend the stairs. He hoped she’d be able to get her talk with Nick. He hoped that she’d keep it strictly about Jacob and not try to force Nick to have a change of heart regarding Dal. He hoped she wouldn’t try to “fix” him. He knew that Nick wouldn’t handle any of those scenarios well. If she tried anything like that, there would be a huge fight that Nick would probably never get over.
He hoped she wouldn’t try it, but he couldn’t say for sure that she wouldn’t. Megan had admitted she was a control freak. She might very well try to fix Nick, but she wouldn’t succeed. She would make him hate her. She would put Nick in another bad mood that would last days (or weeks). He would try to chase her out of his life permanently. Megan couldn’t convince Nick to become a better person. No one could convince Nick to become a better person.
Or rather, as his mom always used to say: “Nobody can make anybody do anything.”