Chapter 31

"How long you been feeling this way, Tay?" Isaac's soft voice carried an edge of anxiety. "Is that why you were sick? Because you're worried about Zac?" Taylor shook his head, eyes fixed on his sneakers, ears tuned to the scritch of pebbles, dislodged as he walked. "I don't know, I woke up scared. I don't think that's why I got sick though, but..." He stopped, eyes puzzled. "The last couple of times, it almost seemed like I was somewhere else." "How do you mean?" Again the head shake. "I don't know. But I felt like, if I opened my eyes, I'd be someplace else. I could smell things, smoke, and water, and trees... it smelled like camping. Maybe because I was thinking about Zac." He shrugged, and kept walking, guilty pleasure, being outside, walking familiar streets, with his brother beside him. It'd been so long that he'd been cooped up inside. The breeze on his face felt good. If they would just find Zac... Isaac watched his brother absently, lost in his own thoughts. He'd been uneasy about Zac since supper, when he'd asked where he was, and received "Camping out with Jason" for a reply. He had no idea why, but the words had sent a chill up his back. The idea that something was wrong, somewhere, had seeded itself in his head almost immediately. He'd shoved aside his vague uneasiness, telling himself he was being stupid. Zac was fine. Jay was fine. But still... sleep hadn't come easy, and when it had, it'd been filled with unpleasant and disturbing dreams. Dreams of cold, darkness, fear, filled with the sound of his brother's voice calling him, calling Tay. He'd woken up a dozen times, each time more agitated than the last. Finally, voices in the hall had caught his attention. Tay, asking to call Jason's. So he felt it too. That had convinced him. Something was up. He and Taylor both knew it. Now, looking at his brother, walking along next to him, he voiced the thought he'd been keeping to himself. "You know we're not gonna find them there, don't you..." Taylor shot him a glance, then dropped his eyes back to the ground, nodding. "Yeah. I know. So, we're wasting our time, aren't we? And Zac's..." Sighing, he picked up a rock, absently tossing it from hand to hand. "I don't know what to do, Ike, I'm wishing so hard to find them there, camped out in the yard, but here..." He tapped his chest, "Here, I know I'm not going to. You think we should skip it, and just start hunting?" "Hunt where, Tay?" Ike asked him gently. "We better make sure first. We could both just be nuts." Nodding, flinging the little pebble he'd been playing with away, in frustration, Taylor sighed. "I know. I hope we are. Okay. But if they're not there, then what?" "Tay..." Ike's eyes went bleak "we'll know that, very soon."  

Zac's eyes closed. God he was tired. The ground, rough and bumpy, suddenly sinkingly soft, warm. Heat from the fire warmed his face, and the breeze in his hair felt good, peaceful, his room on a summer evening, breeze blowing curtains, brushing against skin. He snuggled deeper into the sleeping bag, hand snaking under the makeshift pillow of Jason's jacket, pleasantly lightheaded. Tense muscles relaxed, and the sounds of the world faded, as sleep pulled him under, and his breathing slowed and evened out. Behind closed lids, eyes moved, and his voice murmured softly, as dreams set in, taking him with them. Jason sat on the other side of the fire, watching his friend sleep. Relief that Zac had finally dozed off, and as peacefully as he had, negated somewhat by the ominous noises he could hear in Zac's breathing. Inhale, liquid and slightly foggy, it made him want to clear his own throat, listening to it. Exhale, high pitched whistles, strange little sounds like no breathing he'd ever heard before. Sighing in frustration, he slid closer, reaching out to gently set the back of his hand to the other boy's flushed cheeks, pulling it back in alarm. Zac's skin was hot enough to nearly burn. He couldn't just let it go, he had to do something. But he looked so peaceful, he couldn't bear to wake him, not knowing how terrible he felt. Shaking his head, he sat back, tears stinging his eyes. Why had he ever made them do this? Calling himself every name he could think of, helpless to come up with a solution, he gave up then, and stretched out again, next to Zac. Maybe this time, they'd be able to sleep through until morning.  

Taylor eyed the yard, devoid of tent, bags, or boys. He wasn't surprised, but his heart had hoped. Sighing bleakly, he turned to his brother. "Now what, Ike? He's not here." Isaac shook his head. "I don't know, Tay, maybe we should walk out into the woods, just in case. They might have hiked out to the clearing." "You want to try to walk out there in the dark? Now? Ike, you know they're not out there, why do you want to keep wasting our time?" He spun on his heel, heading for the back door of the Elliott's house. Isaac, seeing instantly what he was up to, trotted up after him. "Tay, no, you can't wake them up until we know we have to." "Ike!" Taylor shoved off the restraining hand Isaac had extended. "We do know. He's not here, THEY are not here. We both know something's wrong. Now why do you want to keep stalling?" Taylor rubbed his chest absently, coughing lightly. He was beginning to feel a little out of breath. "We have to at least find out if he's with Jason. And to do that, Ike..." He gestured expansively at the back of the house, "we have to wake these people up. Now lets go." Isaac grabbed the back of his shirt. "Tay, stop! Listen to reason. If we wake them up, they'll be all in a panic thinking someone's dead or something, and the guys could just be out in the back woods. We owe it to everyone's peace of mind to make sure." Taylor wrenched away, one hand held warningly. "Don't you grab me again. I DO know, and so do you!" He broke off, coughing. His chest burned now, and he was feeling as if he couldn't get enough air. Isaac slid an arm around him. "See? You see? You need to get home, you're getting sick, you shouldn't even be out here..." Taylor pulled back, struggling to breathe. "I am NOT sick, it's not me, it's Zac! It's him who's sick, and we have to find him." "Tay, you have no way of knowing that." He didn't want to admit that he felt exactly the same thing. It made no sense. There was no way they could know what Zac was feeling. Taylor, however, was having none of it, he knew what he knew. "Ike, I know. I can feel it." He turned again to the door, and Ike just stood, unexplained fury suddenly flooding him. "What are you, anyway?! The psychic friends network?! Just stop it! You're just trying to freak me out! There is NO WAY you could know anything about where Zac is! Or how he is, or anything at all!" Taylor turned back to him, unperturbed. "You might want to stop yelling, our you'll wake them all up on your own." He reached out, and rapped loudly on the door, glancing back at his brother. Ike was scared. He knew it. He was too. But he had to find out, he had to know. Stepping back, he watched as lights blinked on, inside the house.    

Jason pulled his tee shirt out of the stream, and wrung it out, hoping it wasn't too cold. Trotting back to the fire, he crouched next to Zac, giving him a gentle shake. "Zacko, sit up some, now. Come on..." Zac cracked an eye open, gazed bleakly at his friend, and let his eyes shut again. He wasn't sitting up. He was dying, he knew he was. It felt like his lungs were filled with gravel, and every breath burned like fire. He was exhausted, and terrified that he'd simply become too tired to continue the struggle to breathe. Nausea ran up and down his throat, and his stomach had started to hurt. Whatever this was, it was getting worse instead of better, and he was scared. Shivering suddenly, he opened his eyes to see Jason unzipping the sleeping bag. He reached weakly to pull it shut, the night air was cold, too cold. Jason stopped his hand gently. "Zac, you're way too hot, you need to cool down. "No, Jay..." Zac winced. His throat felt like someone was striking matches on it. "Jay, I'm cold..." Jason nodded. "I know. But it's 'cause you have a really bad fever." He put on a stern face, and shook his finger in Zac's face. "Don't make me fight with you about this. The condition you're in, I'll take y'easy." Zac smiled faintly, and pulled his hand back, letting Jason continue his ministrations. "Here," Jay handed Zac the wet tee shirt. "Rub this on your face." Zac did as he was told, sighing a little. It felt good. His face was burning. "Zac, I really need you to sit up." "What for?" "So you can get your shirt off. You need to cool off. Don't make me toss you in the stream." "Zac's eyebrows raised at that. He felt a little better with the wet cloth against his head, a little clearer. "Jay, I'd have to hurt you." He put the cloth down, and started to sit up, whimpering a little, as aching muscles screamed, grabbing for Jason's hand. "Oh, Jay, help..." Jason pulled him up, and moved to sit behind him, supporting him. "Zacko, you are in bad shape. Can you get your shirt off?" "I don't know. I don't think so. Jay, I feel like I'm gonna die..." Jason sighed. He was afraid of just that, but he wasn't about to tell Zac. "Aw, don't be a baby, you're gonna be fine. It's just the flu or something. You have really crappy timing, though." "Me? You're the one that wanted to ride the train. If it weren't for you, we'd be in your back woods." Jason glanced at him, taking in the flushed, sweating face, and fever bright eyes. The banter in his words dried up, then, and he nodded, speaking softly. "Yeah, Zac, I know, and I've never been more sorry about anything in my life. Come on, get your arms up..." He helped Zac out of as many of his clothes as possible, anxiety going up as his friend winced with every movement, stacked them up under the top of the sleeping bag, and gestured to Zac to lie back down. "Maybe you'll breathe better with your head up like that. I don't know, that's what my mom does, anyway." He reached out and took his tee shirt back. "I'm gonna go soak this down again. Gimmi yours, too. I'll be right back. " Zac nodded, and handed him the other shirt. His eyes closed and he felt himself drifting. "Zac. Hey. Zac, wake up."

Zac's eyes opened. Everything was black, and he couldn't hear the fire. What was going on? "Zachary!" The voice , too loud, stabbed into his head, knifelike. "Geez, could you quiet down? I have a headache." "Oh. Sorry." The voice softened a little. "Zac, where are you?" "Huh?" He was a little more awake now, looking around. It sounded like Tay, but there was nobody here. Not even Jason. And where was the fire? The voice came out of the darkness again. "Zachary. Where are you? We can't find you, Zac, tell me where you are" Zac shook his head. "Where are you?? I can't see you." He felt a touch then, on his arm, and all but leaped out of his skin. Gasping, struggling to slow his breathing, he looked at his arm, saw a hand, followed the hand up an arm, to a shoulder, to a face. Taylor. How could Tay be here? "Tay? Am I dreaming?" Taylor smiled. "Maybe. I don't know. But I need to know where you are." Zac clutched his brothers hand. "I don't know what to do. I'm sick, Tay..." He felt his brother's arms slide around him, pulling him close, and he rested his head gratefully on his shoulder. "I know, Zac, I know you are. It's gonna be okay, but I need to know where you are." Zac sighed, "I don't know, we jumped the train. I don't know where we are." He shivered a little, and Taylor's arms tightened around him. "What'd you do that for, Zac?" "I don't know. I wanna go home, Tay. I'm scared." He felt his brother's hand, warm and soothing, stroking his hair. "I know, Zac. It's gonna be okay." He relaxed into him, startling suddenly when he felt him begin to grow insubstantial, and whispy. "Tay? Tay, please don't leave!" One last gentle touch on his arm, and his brother was gone like mist. Fear flooding him, alone in the dark, he felt himself starting to cry. Almost immediately arms were around him again, and the dark was replaced by the glow of the fire, silence by the sharp crackle of flames. He looked up into worried brown eyes. Jason. "Jay..." His throat felt clogged, and he cleared it, wincing in pain, turning away to spit out the mouthful of stuff he'd brought up. "Jay, I'm going insane. I was talking to my brother." Jason shook his head. "It's the fever Zac. You're not crazy. Try to go back to sleep." "Don't go anywhere, Jay, okay? Don't leave me alone..." Jason shook his head. "No way, Zacko, won't do it. Now go back to sleep." Zac settled back down again, hanging on to his friends hand. Gazing into the fire, watching the flames licking at the branches, he pulled his brother's face into his mind, refusing to let it go. "Tay..." His thought carried the force of a prayer, "Tay, you got to find us. Please..." The thought became a chant, that eventually followed him down into sleep.

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Chapter 32

Sandra Elliott hung up the phone, glancing uneasily into the kitchen, where the two boys sat. She felt slightly guilty, having called their folks, almost as if she were tattling. Odd feeling. Sighing, she joined them at the table. "Boys, I called your dad, he's on his way over to get you." Taylor looked up into her eyes, his stare unnerving. "Did you go see if Jay was here?" She nodded. "Yes, and you were right. He's gone. I asked Dave, he said he saw them sneaking away, after supper. So we know they're together. He's getting dressed now, he's going to hike out to the clearing, to see if they're out there." Taylor took a shaky breath, then, and she saw relief on his face. "He's not alone. Thank God, he's not alone. But they're in trouble, you have to believe me, they're in serious trouble." She nodded. She did believe him. As soon as she'd opened her kitchen door to them, she'd known something was very wrong. Something dark and brooding had settled into her heart, something that told her that one of her children was in danger, and alone. Sighing again, she tapped on the table, frustrated. How had it come to be, that her 12 year old son, and his 12 year old friend, were God knew where, in the middle of the night? She suspected she knew. Her own closed mindedness. Her own fears and insecurities. If she'd only swallowed her fear, ignored the gossip, and just let the boys be together. They'd have felt no need to sneak away, if she'd simply given permission. "Boys, this is my fault. I'm the one that told them they couldn't do this. If I'd been a little less dense, they'd be right out back." Taylor shook his head, a bitter smile on his lips. "How were you dense? You were right, I wouldn't want my kid around me, either..." His bitter tone tore at her heart, as she took another long look at him.

Drawn and pale, eyes smudged with black circles visible even in the dim light. The sparkle and gleam in those eyes, gone, replaced by dull dread. "Oh, dear God, the poor kid..." The words flitted through her mind, as her eyes took him in... Too thin. Too limp. Beaten and defeated, he had the air of someone who'd fought long and hard, and in the end won only by default. She didn't know what had happened to him, what had made him do the things she'd heard he'd done, but he was still just Taylor, the same Taylor who'd spent hours and days parked in her kitchen, planning to take over the world with her sons. A boy she knew as well as she knew her own children. There had never been any malice in Taylor, never any dishonesty, and she could see that there was none now. Whatever had happened to him, out there in that crazy world he'd fallen into, it was support he needed, not condemnation. He'd been hurt, badly hurt, it was in his eyes. Fear for him, she felt in abundance. Fear of him disappeared as rapidly as mist on a hot day.


Before she could stop herself, she'd leaned forward, pulling first Isaac into a quick embrace, then gently taking hold of Taylor. He tensed, for just a moment, eyes fearful, but a second later let himself be pulled into her hug, resting his head for just a second on her shoulder. Something in him, something that had been wound painfully tight, loosened a notch then, and he felt himself beginning to breath easier. There was nothing to fear here. Gently, Sandra pushed him away from her, one hand under his chin, making him look into her eyes. "Taylor, I've known you since the day you were born. You grew up with my kids, you and Davie have been together as long as you've been alive. Of all of the people in this town, I should have known enough to avoid making a judgement about you." Isaac shook his head. "You can't help what you hear. It sounds pretty horrifying." She released Taylor's face, then, pleased to note that he didn't drop his eyes, but continued to make contact. "It is, Ike, but it's also about one of our own, and I think that there are a lot of us who need to wake up. You, your family, you're part of all of us, and we've always taken care of our own. When all of this happened, we should have pulled in to help, not backed away and locked our doors." Taylor swallowed hard, absurdly close to tears, and looked down, rubbing furiously at his eyes. He was finding anger much easier to deal with, lately, than understanding. He looked up at her again, gaze direct. "Why did you then? Why did everyone just slam their doors in our faces? And why Zac? He didn't do anything..." She nodded. "I don't know, Tay. I guess, the stories we were hearing, coupled with you all being gone, out on the road, in the Music Business, the whole rock band thing, I guess we all thought it was inevitable that you'd go bad. After all, you left us." She smiled gently, chiding herself for her jealousy. "So when all this happened, when we heard about you, well, I guess we all just leaped to conclusions. And the fact that none of us can even get near you, now, doesn't help." He sighed, unable to think of anything to say that would mean anything. The sigh became a cough, that rapidly escalated into a racking attack. Shoving his chair out, he stumbled to the back door, and let himself out onto the back porch. Scowling, Isaac followed, watching his brother gagging and spitting over the railing. He looked down at Sandra, as she came to stand beside him, her face concerned. She glanced a question at him, and he shrugged. He had no idea what was wrong with Taylor, but he knew it wasn't what it seemed. Taylor thought it was Zac. Crazy as that was, Ike very nearly understood that. He felt some of it too. He snapped back from what was quickly becoming a daydream, in time to see Sandra step to Taylor, behind him, and reach out to touch his shoulder. Tensing, knowing what was coming, reflex took over, and he shouted out his brother's name.

Taylor gasped in air, gratefully. The attack had lasted so long he'd been afraid he'd never catch his breath again. As his breathing began to slow, and his stomach to settle to the point where he was sure he wasn't going to be sick, he leaned, limp and exhausted against the rail. His mind had drifted outward a little, when the touch came on his arm. Panic moved in instantly, and he jumped back, the sound from his throat animal and threatened, as his fist came up and out.
"Taylor!!!".


His brother's shout brought him up short, and his fist dropped, as he saw what he'd been about to do. Eyes huge, he stared at Sandra, face draining of color. "Oh, no, oh I'm sorry..." His eyes filled up, then, and he started to shake, knowing what it must have seemed. Isaac stepped in close to him, slipping an arm around him. "I'm sorry, he's just jumpy... you can't really make any sudden moves at him. We should have told you. I'm really sorry... we better go..." She shook her head. "No, no it's alright. You both come back inside. You're not walking anywhere at this hour, your dad's on his way. I should have known better than to sneak up behind him and scare him half to death." She smiled softly, taking Taylor's hand. "Come on back in. It's okay. No harm done." He looked at her, fear and guilt fading to something like relief, and moved ahead of her, back into the house, stopping suddenly, face to face with a tall, gangly, dark haired boy, with an expression vacillating between concern, and glee. David. Breaking into a grin in spite of himself, Taylor suddenly found himself in an embrace. Laughing, fruitlessly struggling to get free, he managed to choke out "David, cut it out! I can't breathe!" Also laughing, the other boy let him go, grinning hugely. "God, you look gross, do you know that? I'm so glad to see you..." Taylor shrugged, "I know. I missed you too. Things went kinda nuts, though..." He sighed then, happiness over seeing his friend dimmed somewhat by circumstance. Dave nodded. "I know. You can tell me..." His expression said what he really meant, "You are GOING to tell me... All about it when I get back from the great Zac and Jay hunt. You want to come out with us, see if we can find those two?" Isaac stepped in, then. "Tay, would you mind too much, staying here? I... it just makes me..." Taylor waved him off. "I'm too tired to hike out there now, anyway. You guys go. But hurry. And they're not there anyway." The other two exchanged glances, as they let themselves out, heading into the woods.

Taylor lay, dozing, on the living room couch, as the voices from the kitchen drifted in on him. Just a wash of sound, that didn't make much sense. They wanted to go find Zac. He hadn't been out in the back woods. Good. Go find him. Someone go find him. Someone else saying it was silly. Zac would be home by morning, the boys were fine, they shouldn't have gone without permission, but that didn't mean anything was wrong. Was that his mother? When had she arrived? No. Go find him. He's not okay. Too sleepy to make his thoughts heard, he smiled faintly as he felt a light blanket thrown over him. Nice. Nice people here. David. So good to see him, why hadn't he seen him before now? His thoughts drifted on, and the scent of growing things came to him again. Slowly, easily, sleep took over, and he slipped into dreams.

Light, pale and cold, washed over his face, breaking the light sleep he'd finally achieved. Opening gritty eyes, wincing as the light stabbed into them, he glanced around. Still in the woods. At least it was light. Cold though. Shivering lightly, he tugged on the edge of the sleeping bag, trapped under Jason's sleeping form. Scowling, he pulled a little harder, getting no results at all. Weak, he fell back, too tired to continue. It was just as well, he had to get up anyway. He sat up, head and neck screaming, and slowly made his way up to his knees. His shivering became sweating, as things began to spin, and nausea began to back up in his throat. Realizing that there was no way he was getting up on his own, he lay back down, knowing he'd have to wake his friend, to help him. Swallowing gingerly around the pain in his throat, he gently nudged Jason. "Hey..." His voice was barely there, and though it hurt, he tried to speak louder. "Jay, wake up..." His clogged throat closed, starting him coughing, pain flooding his throat, chest, and head. Struggling to sit up again, hoping he'd be able to breathe better, feeling the nausea wash over him again. "Jay..." He choked out the words. "Jay, help me!" Jay slept on, exhaustion having taken him down far too deeply to hear anything. Zac struggled out of the sleeping bag, sliding out, rather than trying to get up, still hacking painfully, knowing that it was a matter of seconds before the coughing made him sick. He managed to crawl a few feet away, before the nausea flooded him, and vomiting started again. Too much pain now, he collapsed onto his side, still retching. "God..." The prayer in his mind held no drama, only sincere wish "Don't do this, just kill me now..." Beside him, Jason slept on, oblivious.

"Jay, you have to get him home. He's really sick, it's not just the flu, you have to get him out of there." Jason stared at the ground, feeling guilty. He knew. He looked up at Taylor, who sat next to him, scowling. "I don't know where we are, though, Tay. We could just follow the tracks back, but he'll never make it." "Then get on up to the road, and flag somebody down. Go find a phone and call someone. But you can't just sit there." "I don't want to leave him alone, though. What if he dies?" Taylor sighed. "Jay, he just might, if you don't do something." He glanced behind him, maybe seeing something in the darkness that Jason couldn't. "Which way was the train headed, Jay? When you jumped it?" "West, out of town." Taylor nodded, still gazing behind him in the darkness. "You better wake up now. I know you're tired, but..." He gestured behind him, raised his eyebrows at Jason, and tried to smile. "People are coming, but... don't just sit there, Jay. Don't let him go." Jason looked down, hoping he'd be able to do what he'd been asked. When he looked up again, Taylor was gone, darkness was gone, and Zac was on the ground, gasping for air.

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Chapter 33

CC eyed the television apprehensively. He wasn't sure what was coming, but he knew it wasn't going to do much for his peace of mind. The call from Dan had really unnerved him. "Ceec..." Dan's voice had crackled over cell phone static. "Get the TV on, and take a look. Looks like Taylor's family has some more trouble. This time it's the little one. You should just take them all and move them right on in. Safer for them." There hadn't been much after that, Danny had only caught the tale end of the mention, on the early news, and had no idea what it was all about. He was on his way to bed, unwilling to talk. CC knew better than to push him. Danny tired was the most unpleasant experience going. He'd said goodnight, and switched on the TV, resigned to sitting up all night. Taylor and his family had quickly become the bane of his existence, problems without solutions, mysteries with no clues... Sighing, he pulled out Taylor's files again, starting them for the hundredth time. He was missing something, there was something that tied it all together, if only he could spot it. He slammed the book shut suddenly. With the Hanson file came a chain smoking marathon. His lungs just couldn't take it. Shaking his head, he reached for the phone. Amanda might just know what was going on now, she stayed pretty up on things.

Amanda wiped her hands off, the paint clinging stubbornly under her nails. Damn stuff, she'd never switch again, she hated this stuff. The ringing phone suddenly made her hang her head, with a chuckle... 'Oh great.'. The thought was tinged with sarcasm. 'phone. wonderful. wouldn't you know, nobody ever wants to talk to me, but that I have paint all over my hands.'. Sighing, she palmed the phone up, hoping she didn't end up with an earful of paint. "Yeah, hello?" The exasperation in her voice earned a chuckle from the party on the other end. "Mandy? Caught you painting? It's Ceec..." She grinned, inconvenience forgiven. "Hey Ceec. It's okay. What's up?" "Well... have you had the news on today?" His voice sounded strained, and she frowned. "Yeah CC, I have, what's wrong?" "Did you happen to see a Hanson kid on there?" She laughed, then. "Oh, that. Yeah, I did. Weird, isn't it? That they put it on the news?" His voice came back, frustrated. "I don't know what "that" is, Mandy. Dan just called and told me they had trouble with Zac. That it was on the news. I..." She cut in, wedging the phone between her ear and her shoulder, while she soaked her hands in turpentine. "It was nothing, Ceec. I guess Zac and another kid took off tonight, snuck off really, and I guess the family is afraid they're lost." "Took off?" His voice was alarmed. "As in, ran away?!" She shook her head, unmindful of the fact that he couldn't see her. "No, CC, as in, went camping. They apparently were told that they couldn't go, and decided to go ahead anyway. For whatever reason, the police are looking for them, and they asked people to keep an eye out. Sounded to me like the kids just disobeyed. Not that they suspect any foul play or anything. Actually..." She glanced up at the clock. "It should run again in about ten minutes. I'll put it on, and we can watch it together, if you're as nervous as you sound." "Did it really sound to you as if it were nothing?" "Yeah, CC, but I was painting, so I might have missed something." He sighed then. "No, Mandy, I'll let you go. I'll watch it though. I wish I'd never met these kids." Frowning sympathetically, she rinsed and dried her hands, and moved to switch on the TV. "How's it going with them Ceec? Any progress at all?" "No. Oh, things look better, but that kid's still trapped in something, he's still withdrawn, he's just not right, and I'm damned if I'm any closer to finding out why. Hell of it is, I don't think HE knows. If he did, I think he'd be the first one to say it. Whatever, I'll let you get cleaned up." "Yeah, well, call back if you need to, Ceec. I'm up late." He laughed a little at that. "Yeah honey, I know you are. See you later." She hung up, smiling. He got so hung up on people. Thank God. If he didn't, she'd probably still be all strung out and homeless. Curling up comfortably, she flipped to local news, and settled back.

"Oh my God." Amanda, catching what she'd missed the first time, turned, wide eyed, snatched up the phone, and dialed CC. One ring, two, three... "Come on, come on..." Her voice was strained. Where was he? Seven, eight, nine... She was about to hang up, when a breathless CC finally picked up. "Yeah, hello?! What is it?" His tone tipped her off. "You saw, didn't you? My God, CC, those kids were gone all last night, all day today, and they're still out there, and it's 11:30 at night! We have to do something." He barked the reply at her. "Then hang up the damned phone, I was on my way out the door, to pick you up, when you called! I'll be there in fifteen. Bye." The line went dead. Stunned, fear charged adrenaline racing in her veins, Amanda hung up the receiver and headed off to get dressed.


"Aw Zac, come on, you can make it. The roads not far, I know it's not." Zac shook his head, panting. "Jay, I can't, I got to stop." He sank down onto the ground, soaked hair hanging in his face. His lungs felt full of broken glass, every breath screaming agony. It hurt so much to move, if he could just lie down, just for a few minutes...

Jason was ready to start ripping his own hair out. He'd convinced Zac, this morning, to try to hike up the road, but it just wasn't working. He had no idea in which direction home lay, tried to follow the path of least resistance, and had to face the fact... they were lost. Added to that was the fact that Zac could barely move. He could only walk a few steps at a time, stopping every few minutes to sit down and rest. Leaning heavily on Jay for every step, unable to catch his breath, or worse, coughing until his lips went bluish. He was sweating buckets, but every sip of water he took came right back up. Nobody's fool, Jason knew how dangerous that was. If the fever kept on, and he kept sweating, unable to drink anything, he was going to end up in big trouble. In the last few hours, he'd taken to suddenly stopping and lying down, not falling asleep as much as just zoning out, eyes half open, body limp, unresponsive. After half an hour or so, he'd always come around again, but Jason was scared. They had to get him home, and they had to do it fast. No cars along this road all day, and now it was night again. Where could they be? Why were there no people? No houses, no cars, no anybody. And where was the town? This road must lead somewhere. Sighing, as he saw his friend starting to slip into semi-conciousness again, he reached down and pulled him to his feet. "Zachary, come on. Just walk. We don't have any more time." Zac flung an arm around him, nodding. "I know. I know. It's dark again. We've been walking all day? How come I don't remember?" Jason shot him a worried glance. "I don't know, Zacko, 'cause I sure remember every minute. Maybe if we could go more than ten steps without you sitting down..." "I'm sorry. I won't sit down again. Just don't make me jump that train." Jason's brow knit. "What train, Zac?" He kept walking, literally dragging his friend along. "That one that's coming." Sighing, he hugged Zac a little, pulling him closer. "Don't worry, Zac, I'm not gonna make you jump the train. I promise. Just try to keep walking." Nodding, Zac plodded on, the world swimming in and out of focus, consciousness a pinpoint behind his eyes.

"No! I can't! Leave me alone!" Taylor's shout rang throughout the house, as he slammed into the living room, away from Tiffany. Slamming his glass down on the table, he stomped across the room. Why didn't they understand? He wanted to go find Zac, he DID! But he couldn't. He couldn't get past those people out there. Why didn't they just do what he said? Everyone was out looking, and nobody was going where he told them to go! Frustrated beyond endurance, he picked up the crystal vase from the mantel, flinging it without thought across the room, into the wall. The tinkling crash less than satisfying, he grabbed the water glass he'd just set down, sending it after the vase, quickly followed by every other breakable he could get his hands on. He turned, swinging, when arms grabbed him from behind. "Damn it Taylor!!" Tiffany ducked his flying fist, and shoved him hard, against the wall. "Will you stop it! You're being an idiot! Don't you dare to try to hit me again, I'll take your head off. Now calm down." Breathing hard, teeth bared, he glared at her, barely in control, struggling to take hold of his temper. He pushed her roughly away, and threw himself down on the couch. "Tiffany, you just don't get it! Don't you think I'd be out there, if I could?! He's my brother!" She shook her head. "Then why aren't you? What's your problem that you can't go help, you can't stay alone, so I can go help... you're so damned useless!" "No I'm not! Tiffany you don't understand!" His anger flared again, mostly at himself. He was useless. There was no good reason for his inability to leave the house, no good reason for his absolute terror of being in the house alone. Biting his lip, almost hard enough to bleed, he fought down the urge to start throwing things again, jumping when the doorbell suddenly rang. Tiffany, noting his reaction, sneered. "You see? Your own doorbell, and you act like it's some sort of invasion force..." Unable to meet her eyes, he dropped his head into his hands. "Tiffy, just get the door." "You should get it. You're a big boy now, you can answer your own door." The bell chimed again, and what little control he had began to slip. "Tiffany! Just get the oddamned door!!" He shoved her rudely off the couch, and curled himself up into the corner of it. "Just find out who it is! Just get OUT of my face!!" Tired of hearing him yell at her, she went to the door, wondering just how much longer she'd be able to put up with him.

"Zac?! Aw, Zac, please, don't do this. Come on, please..." Jason was approaching panic. Things had gone from bad to worse in nearly a heartbeat. He'd thought things were improving, he and Zac had managed to pick up a little speed, Zac actually walking on his own, and not stopping every couple of minutes. A glow on the horizon spoke "town" to him, and he'd been feeling hopeful. Then Zac had paused, hand on Jason's shoulder. "Jay, slow up. I feel really weird." Jason had looked at him, alarmed at the slurred sound of his words. "What's up, Zac, you need to sit down for a minute?" Zac had nodded, but continued to stand there, eyes blank. His eyes were flickering, making Jay wonder if he could see. "Zacko, what's up? Go ahead and sit down, if you need to." Zac had looked at him then, and his face had been frighteningly wild. He'd looked ready to bolt, yet when he spoke, his voice was vague and distant. "Jay, I'm gonna be sick, I think..." Jason had nodded. "That's okay. Come on and sit down." He'd taken his friends arm, and started to lead him a little off the road, when Zac had suddenly collapsed, bonelessly, with no warning. "Aw, Zac..." Jay had knelt down, intending to help him back up, and noticed that Zac wasn't simply lying there. His entire body was trembling faintly, and as he watched, the trembling had grown stronger, and Zac's breathing had become noisy and irregular. Weird. "Oh, no..." Cold, dreamy fear had flooded him then, the realization that this was beyond anything he knew how to deal with. Some sort of convulsion, from the fever, he'd heard that could happen, that must be what this was. Remembering only that he shouldn't touch him, for fear of hurting him, he had simply watched, crying, praying with all his soul, that his friend didn't die. Now, a few minutes later, whatever it was had stopped, and Zac was simply lying there, eyes partly open, bloody spit running down his chin. Panic came now, because though he was breathing, he wasn't moving. "Zac... please..." He shook him, harder than he intended, desperate to get a response. He was edging on hysteria, when lights suddenly spilled over him, and he looked up to see a car pulling over, close enough to spray gravel into his face.

.

Chapter 34

"David, pull over for a minute."
Isaac's voice was odd, and David pulled over immediately, looking over at him with concern. "What is it, Ike, you okay?" Isaac's eyes had gone distant, and bleak. "I don't know. I feel a little weird. I just want to get out for a minute." Dave nodded, and shut the engine off. God knew he was feeling plenty weird himself. They'd been out for close to fifteen hours, hunting all over east of Tulsa, following the track lines. So far they'd hiked into at least a hundred clearings and up a hundred paths, with no sign of the boys. He watched Isaac wander off to the edge of the woods, and sit down, back against a tree. He was worried to death, he could see it in his face. Sighing, he got out of the car, and walked over to Isaac, and his tree. "Mind if I join you?" Isaac shook his head. "No, but it might get unpleasant, I'm trying to figure out if I'm about to be sick or not." Shaking his head, Dave sat down next to him. "Don't worry about it. If you do get sick, just don't aim at me." He settled himself against the tree. "You okay? You want to go home?" Another head shake. "No. I want to find my brother. I just feel really WEIRD though. My head feels weird." "Weird how?" Isaac looked baffled. "I don't know. Just... strange. Things keep going in and out of focus, blurry, kind of. Things sound a little funny. But it feels weird INSIDE. Inside my head. I don't know how to describe it. I'm probably just beyond tired." David looked up at him curiously. "Look at me for a minute." Isaac obliged, and David's face became puzzled. "No wonder you can't see. Your eyes are flickerin' back and forth like crazy. Ike, your eyeballs are shaking, you really need some sleep." Isaac smiled faintly. "I guess I do. But I can't go home, Dave, not until someone finds them." "Yeah." Dave sighed, and stretched his legs. "I know. My brother's out there too. Damn kid, he has to have the train thing. Tell you the truth, I'm kinda surprised Zac did it. Long I've known 'em, Zac's always said no. If I remember right, he's always thought Jay was loopy for doing it." Ike nodded. "And Jay's always avoided it with Zac. He just never did it with Zac around. The whole thing's weird. But, it sounds really crazy, but I think Tay's right. I think Zac IS sick, and I think they're not back because they're in big trouble." "Yeah. I think he's right too. Ike..." He hesitated, not sure how to ask what was on his mind. "Ike, what IS wrong with Tay? Why's he so... I don't know. You know what I mean though." Isaac nodded. "Yeah, I know. To be honest, it would take way too much effort to tell you right now. But let me get about 20 hours sleep, and I'll tell you whatever you want to know. It was bad, though. He just got so far away from us..." His voice drifted, and Dave could see the pain in his eyes. "Oh, man, I'm sorry. I don't mean to bring all kinds of bad stuff back." "It's okay." He sighed, swallowing hard. "Dave, I really don't feel good." "You know, I can see that. It's okay. Sit here as long as you need to. You want a drink or something? I got some Naya in the car." A short nod was his reply, and he got up, briefly touching his friends hand. "I'll be right back." Routing around in the car, Dave felt himself beginning to despair. This was bad. Something really must have happened to the kids, or they'd have been back. Jay would have called, even if Zac was as badly off as Tay and Ike seemed to think. Especially if Zac was sick. He couldn't see his brother just doing nothing. Sighing, trying to get a more positive attitude up, for Ike's sake, he brought him the water, wordless.


"Man, he's really sick"
"Yeah, I had noticed that. Nice observation, most people who're passed out on the side of the road, are not too healthy."
Jason was exasperated. Someone had finally come along, and it was a kid not much older than Taylor, and drunk as a lord, from the smell of him. He watched as the kid knelt next to Zac, peered into his eyes, felt his forehead. The boy glanced up, Jason's sarcasm flying over his head. "Dude, what're you gonna do? You can't just let him lay here." Sighing, resisting the urge to just punch the kid out, and steal his car, Jason knelt down next to him. "I was thinking you could give us a ride into town. Maybe to the hospital." The boy's eyes widened, and he jumped up onto his feet. No! No, no, no, no way man, I can't drive you to town, I can barely keep it on the road, I'm all fucked up!. I get caught, I lose my license, I go to jail, I go back to rehab, no way!" Jason's temper slipped another notch. "You're already driving! What's the difference?!" "I'm just driving home! It's just a little way! I can't go into town, that's it." He glanced again at Zac, who's breathing had started to sound noisy. "Man, you should sit him up, he's not breathing too good." "No kidding." Jason slid around behind Zac, and pulled him up enough that Zac's head was up a little. "I can't sit here like this with him all night. He's really, really sick, you can't just leave us here." "I got to, man, no choice. I can't bring you home with me, there's all kinds of crazy shit going on there. My brother's friends and a lot of stuff you don't want to see." He kept his eyes glued to Zac. The kid did look really sick. He really couldn't leave them here. What could he do? Damn it. Why'd he gone out and done this? He needed to be able to think. Squatting on his heels, he struggled to make his mind work.


Jason could feel Zac's whole body shaking with every breath. He was losing ground fast, and this kid was no help at all. Frustration had begun the shift to panic again, when Zac's limp form suddenly went rigid. Jumping, he looked down, horrified, as another set of spasms began. The other boy jumped up, indecision suddenly gone, shocked into some semblance of sobriety. "Holy mother of God, he's having a fucking seizure!" Jason screamed back in his face "I know! Why do you think he was passed out in the road! Now help us!!" Nodding shortly, the boy ran to his car. "Just sit there! Don't move him, not until it stops! I'm just making room in the back for him. I know what I'm gonna do. I know what I'm gonna do..." It became a chant, as he frantically worked to clear some space. He knew how to help, he knew who could help. Running back to the two boys, he sat down, waiting with Jason, until Zac had relaxed again. "Okay. I'm taking you to my house. I don't give a fuck what they say. I'll take him. Go get in the front. " "Don't drop him!" "I'm not gonna drop him! " He scooped up a now limp Zac, more or less effortlessly, and laid him on the back seat, nodding at Jason's suggestion, "Better strap him in, so he doesn't fall off." He buckled all three belts around the unconscious boy, slammed the door, and jumped into the drivers seat. "Thanks for ruining my buzz you guys." He pulled out onto the road, more than careful. He had to get this kid some help, and for all his shocked alertness, it was still pretty hard to drive. Thankfully, home was less than two miles away, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he finally sighted his own driveway. "Look. I'm gonna bring him inside. Just stay with me, and don't talk to anyone." Jason nodded, biting back the comment that rose to his lips. No sense being snotty to someone who, no matter how messed up, was at least trying to help them. He watched intently as the boy unbuckled Zac, grimacing as he touched him. "God, he's soaked from head to foot. What' wrong with him? Do you know?" He picked him up, kicking the car door closed, and headed for the front steps of an old farmhouse. "No." Jason panted, trying to keep up. "He was fine when we left, he just got really sick last night." "Last night? You've been out all that time with him like this?" He kicked at the front door. "Come on you guys, open the door now!! NOW!!!" His shout roused Zac, who started to struggle a little. The boy gripped him tighter. "No, ssshhh, don't move. It's okay." He gave the door another kick, and it was suddenly wrenched open, but a scruffy looking man holding a pipe. "Brian, man, what're you... you can't bring them kids..." The boy, Brian, shoved his way through, "Shut up! Get off the phone!" He shouted over to a girl, sprawled on the floor, phone at her ear. "Get off the phone now, your call just ended! Tim, go get some towels, and get 'em wet. Go now! Don't stand there like an idiot!" He set Zac down on a futon, and turned to Jason. "Listen man, sit here with him. I'm gonna call a friend of mine, he'll come out and get you. See if you can cool him down. Man, I wish I could think." Jason, who thought Brian was thinking a lot better than he had been, only nodded, accepting the wet towels wordlessly, and laying them gently over his friend.

CC drove, frustrated, back out of town. He didn't need this right now. Brian's frantic call, "CC, I got a kid here, I think he's dyin' man, and I can't call the EMT's or the cops, 'cause, well... Tim y'know... you gotta help me." had set his teeth on edge. Another out for Brian, he'd heard it in his voice, and probably another OD. Why they didn't just tell Tim, with his drugs and his women and his stolen goods, to stay the hell out, was beyond him. Ah well. He'd go out, evaluate the situation, get the OD whatever help he could, or call the police, set Brian up for some more intervention, and get out of there, and back to the Hanson's. He'd had to leave Amanda at the door, but he wanted to be there. Eyeing the cell phone, he briefly considered throwing it out the window. If his clients couldn't call him on the road, perhaps he'd manage, just a few times, to make it from point A to point B, without being re-routed. "Six steps more," He thought ruefully, "and I would've been inside, and never heard the blasted thing." Sighing, he set his sights to the road ahead, eyes unconsciously cruising the sides of the road, looking for a familiar blond head.

Taylor's pleasure at Amanda's presence, and his contentment in her embrace suddenly halted, as the sickening sensation of his skin crawling suddenly flooded him. Grimacing, backing away, he brushed frantically at his face, arms, hands, as the prickling, burning, itching set in deep. "Oh, God, what is this?!" His voice carried his distress clearly. "God, something's crawling on me!" His nails dug into his arms, as he scratched at them, attempting to eliminate the sensation. Eyes wide, looking to the girls in confused horror, he felt himself starting to cry. "God, help me! What is this?" Amanda was at his side in an instant. "What is it, does it hurt?" He nodded, frantically, edging on hysteria. "It burns! Things are crawling on me! Biting me! It's Zac, it's Zac, we have to find him!" Choking on a sob, he ran into the kitchen, running the water on full, and shoving his hands and arms under it, rubbing the water into his face as hard as he could. "Oh, it won't come off, something's biting him!" "Taylor!". Amanda's voice was firm. "Taylor there's nothing on you! There's nothing biting anyone!" " Yes there is!" His voice carried no hint of rationality. "They're on him! They're..." He froze then, eyes flickering madly, breathing erratic and choppy. Frozen to the spot, fists clenching and unclenching spasmodically, his eyes glazed over, and Amanda saw silvery drool slip down his chin. "Oh, my..." Her voice carried mild surprise. "Tiffany, has this ever happened before?" Tiffany's head shake was timid. "Nooo. What do we do?" "Wait with him. He's staying on his feet, at least." She stepped behind him, wanting to be available if he should fall, and immediately regretted her action. Taylor's eyes suddenly cleared, as the color drained from his face. Burning pain flooded his stomach and chest, as nausea washed over him in waves. Spinning around, he collided with Amanda, hard enough to knock her into the counter, stumbling, almost falling. Tiffany caught him, his weight almost enough to take her down with him, caught her balance, and led him into the small bathroom, off the kitchen. In the quiet room, his head cleared a little, and he looked up at her, eyes bleak, as he fell against the wall, sliding down to the floor. "Oh, Tiffy, get out, I'm gonna be sick." She nodded. "I know. I can see it. I'm not leaving." Swallowing, fighting it, he looked into her eyes. "It's not me, Tiffy. It's not me. Someone's gotta find him." She nodded. "I know."

"How you doing'? You feelin' better?" Isaac heard David's quiet, worried voice, but answering was still a little beyond him. Every few minutes, tears he thought finally under control, welled up again, words becoming impossible. He didn't know what was wrong with him. Everything had gone crazy so quickly. At least he was over the nausea. It had hit him like a brick, almost as soon as they'd started riding again, so suddenly, and so strongly that he hadn't even been able to speak, managing only to rather blindly hit out at David, and gesture vaguely out the door. Every other ounce of energy had been spent not throwing up in the car. He'd more or less fallen out the door, David the only thing keeping him on his feet. He'd been scared, the sickness so violent it had blacked out his vision. David's touch, and his voice, had kept him grounded, prevented panic, but he was trembling when it finally let up. Stumbling, barely able to stand, he'd literally fallen into David, then, something edging on hysteria taking over. Tears had begun, painful and embarrassing. He hated to cry, and he hated people to see him cry. Beyond his control, it had gone on and on, his friend's arms around him, soft voice in his ear. His mind had filled with images that made no sense, smells of cigarettes and alcohol, other pungent, sharp edged odors he couldn't identify, loud voices and music. Heat. Wetness. What on earth was going on? It had felt like hours, before the attack had ended, and he'd managed to get himself under some sort of shaky control, although the reality, he found, had only been minutes.
Now, back in the car, hearing the whisper of the breeze through the open window, he heard his friend's question, couldn't answer it. Couldn't really look him in the eye. Leaning against the side of the window, catching the freshness of the night air, he felt David's hand on his, and smiled. Good friend. He was glad he wasn't alone. Eyes slipped closed, and he felt himself drifting. So tired, it felt nice, nice to just drift. Something crawled across his hand then, and he brushed at it absently, then again, looking down at the sensation he suddenly had, of things crawling around on him. Faint, but annoying, it brought him to full alertness again, and he shoved David's hand away from him. It was making it worse, his skin felt too hot. "Dave, could you not touch me?
I just feel like things are crawling on me, it hurts kind of, I don't know. Just don't touch me..." David jerked his hand back, alarmed. "Crawling on you! Isaac... that's it." He swung the car in a U turn, and gunned the gas. "Search is over, I'm taking you home" Ike's head jerked up, tears forgotten, and his eyes flashed. "No! I'm not going home until we find him!" "We are not GONNA find him, and you are sick, bud. You're going home. That's it." "I am not sick!" "Oh sure..." Dave snorted, derisively. "You throw your guts up, sit there and cry for half an hour, and now you have things crawling on you? And you're just fine, right? No way. You're going home." "Nothing's crawling on me! David, you can't turn around!" David pulled the car over, slamming on the brakes. "Ike." Both hands took hold of his friend's face. "Fact. We aren't gonna find him this way. We won't. Whether you're sick, or just tired and freaked out like I am, it doesn't matter. You're all done. You've had it, you've hit your limit, and so have I! Now, I'm goin' home, and you are comin' with me! This is not the way to find them!" He let him go then, blinking back his own tears. "Maybe someone at home has them." Isaac shook his head. "No, I'd know. But you're right. This isn't getting us anywhere." Laughing a little, he scratched at his arm. "This is really freaky, my skin's crawling..." Eyeing him nervously, David pulled back onto the road, and sped up.


"Get 'em off me!!! Get 'em off!!! " Zac's screams drowned out the music pumping from the stereo. Jay threw himself across his friend, struggling to keep him on the futon, as the other boy, wild eyed and frantic, dug and clawed at his face and arms, fighting to get up. "Zac there's nothing there! There's nothing there, it's okay!" Zac didn't appear to hear him, eyes bugging out of his head, guttural groans came from his throat, as he desperately tried to dislodge the creatures he felt crawling on him. "Get'em off me, they bite, it hurts!!!" One giant lunge, and Jay was on the floor, scrambling to his feet as Zac launched himself off his resting place, tearing at his clothes, incoherent cries replacing words. "Easy does it, big guy, lets find out what's going on here." A booming voice cut through Zac's screams and he backpedaled to get away. "No, no, no!" He ran then, unable to see, unable to think, blind panic taking over. There were things on him, things biting him. Things were booming and rolling in his head. What was happening? Strong arms suddenly had him, and his feet left the floor. Feeling himself caught, and falling, he screamed, inflamed throat finally giving up, throwing him into a coughing fit. Consciousness retreated to a pinpoint, as the arms carried him into the other room.

Taylor gazed dully at his brother, as he let himself in. No Zac. He'd known nobody had found him, but his heart had leaped at the sound of the door, regardless. "Nothing, huh Ike?" Isaac shook his head. "No. No sign of either of them." He nodded at Amanda, vaguely recognizing her, and not really caring who he was. "I'm gonna go take a shower. Maybe when I come out, we could go check out where you were telling us to go?" His voice didn't hold much hope, and Taylor strongly doubted his own ability to go anywhere, but he nodded, and tried to smile. "Yeah, we can try. You okay? You look lousy." Ike shook his head. "No, I feel like hell. I'll be out in a minute. Are mom and dad back yet?" "No, they called, they're on their way. No sign of them on their end, either." "Oh." He disappeared down the hall, David watching. "Man, he got really sick out there. Really sick." Amanda nodded, and pointed at Taylor, who'd spaced off, and was staring intently at the ceiling. "So did he. He was hallucinating or something, he said things were..." "Crawling on him?!" David's voice was sharp. Surprised, Amanda nodded. "Yeah, he said things were crawling and biting him." "So did Ike. This is so fucking weird, what is all this???" Taylor looked down then, and his eyes had a vagueness the other two found unsettling. "What it is, is Zac." His gaze turned upward again. "We gotta find him soon, you guys. He's so faint now..." Amanda slapped his arm lightly. "Snap out of it, spaceboy. What're you trying to freak us out for?" Taylor smiled a little, and squeezed her hand. "I'm not trying to freak anybody out." He got up then, strange small smile still lingering on his lips. "Yell when Ike comes out, I have to go lie down or something..." He wandered, eyes still glazed and dreamy, out of the room, and they heard his steps on the stairs. Eyeing each other nervously, David and Amanda settled in to wait.

.

Chapter 35

Zac was sure he was dying. He'd coughed until he couldn't catch his breath, choking and gagging, struggling to breathe. He'd finally managed to get some air in, and the gagging had turned to retching. He felt as if his entire body were turning inside out. Nausea, unrelieved though he was vomiting, washed over him, wave after wave. His head buzzed sickeningly. Unable to breathe, he began to panic, struggling to get away, from what he didn't know. He had to breathe...

"Take it easy, big guy, you're gonna be fine." The voice was friendly, reassuring. The hands, holding him firmly, were gentle. "You just calm right down, you're gonna be fine. It's just an upset stomach, that's all it is, you're gonna be fine". The words repeated, over and over, their calm tone taking the edge off. Gradually, the attack faded, leaving him winded and gasping, dripping sweat, feeling too weak and tired to breathe. "Looks like a bad fever, you've been out a long time, haven't you?" The voice washed over him like warm water, meaning escaping, tone soothing. Panic eased, and tense muscles relaxed into strong arms. This wasn't so bad. This was okay. Was this dying? If it was, it felt nice. Sighing, he sank deeper. His vision had blurred, reducing images to hazy, multicolored mist, and he stopped the struggle to keep his eyes open, letting heavy lids fall. "Oh, no, no. Wake on up now, my friend. Let's stay alert." The arms holding him so close, so comfortably, suddenly pushed him away, forcing him to sit upright. Forcing his eyes open, he focused blearily on an unfamiliar face. "Lemme sleep, okay? S' lemme sleep". His speech was slurred, the effort of forming words making him shudder. His head felt as if it weighed a ton. "Please lemme lay down, I can't..." His head fell back then, a little, and he struggled to hold it upright.
Shaking his head, the man holding him frowned. Poor kid couldn't even sit up. Situating him against his shoulder, he thought hard.
This kid needed more than the quick dunking in the tub he had intended to give him. The boy was really sick. He needed a hospital. Sighing, he glanced out the bathroom door. It was chaos out there, too many people, too many chemicals. To many things going on that couldn't be seen. There was no way he could call an ambulance for the boy, not with all that was going on out there. CC was supposed to be on his way, but he doubted the kid could wait that long. "Okay big guy, you're coming with me. We'll get you feeling better again in no time." He forced a tone of confidence he didn't really feel. "What's your name, can you tell me that?" He shook the boy gently, as he picked him back up. "C'mon, don't you want to tell me your handle? I need something to call you." He surveyed the room for a moment, gaze switching from the drugged out party, to the glazed over and unresponsive eyes of the boy in his arms. Mouth set in a grim line, he situated him a little more comfortably against his shoulder, grimacing at the wet, sticky clothes, and the smell that was coming off him. There was just no choice, he had to get him out of here. "Brian." His voice cut through the din. "I'm taking him to the ER. Get that other kid out of here, have him call a ride, send him with CC, whatever. "He stopped short, feeling the boy in his arms beginning to tighten up, lax muscles suddenly tight. Realizing what was happening, he set him down gently, one had resting on his chest, watching as tightness gave way to violent shaking, rolled back eyes and noisy, uneven breathing. Mouth in a grim line, he watched bloody foam form at the boys mouth, lips turning bluish. "He did that before." Brian's voice, soft in his ear. "What is it?" The man shook his head. "I'm not a doctor. Probably the fever." His quiet tone serious, he turned his gaze to the rest of the house. "I want them out of here. Get that other kid out of here, and call the cops." He nodded as he felt Zac begin to relax again, and his breathing slowed and evened out. He picked him back up, again unable to repress the grimace at the mess that covered him. "God, why didn't you just bring him to the hospital to begin with, Brian?!" He fished his keys from his pocket, and shifted the boy in his arms to a workable position. "Who is he, do you know?" Brian shook his head. "No, you can ask his friend though." The man glanced at the other boy. "I don't have time for this. You!" Jason looked up, nerves firing. "Yes sir?" "What's his name?" Jason swallowed, adrenaline rushing his system. "Zac. Where are you taking him?!" The man ignored his question. "Call someone to come get you. Or are you sick too?" The boy shook his head, obviously to intimidated to speak. "Okay. Call a ride." Without another word, the man strode from the house Zac limp in his arms.


"Are you okay?"
Tiffany's worried voice cut through the fog in Isaac's head, and he looked up into her eyes. Shaking his head, he spat into the bowl, and climbed to his feet, reaching past her for a water glass. She watched him, concerned. He'd been fine, stepping into the hallway, shaking out shower damp hair, when all of the color had suddenly drained from his face, and he'd spun back into the bathroom, barely in time. Now, seemingly over it, he still looked shaky. "Ike, are you okay? You never get sick like that." He shook his head, reaching for his toothbrush. "I know. That's the second time tonight. I don't know what it is."
"It's not just you, if that matters." Amanda's voice floated in from the hall. "Same thing just happened to Taylor, same time as near as I can tell." Frowning, Ike glanced at her reflection in the mirror. "Is he okay?" She nodded. "Yeah, he's about like you. He keeps saying it's not him. That it's Zac." Isaac was silent for a few moments, as he finished brushing his teeth, rinsed out the sink, and put things away. Sighing, finally, he turned, looking at both of them. "Maybe it is. I don't think it's me. I don't feel sick. It just hits out of nowhere. I don't see how that could be, though." He stepped past them, out into the hall. "Are my mom and dad home yet?" "No, you're dad called though, they're on their way." "Yeah, I know. You already said." He hung onto the wall, as he made his way downstairs, suddenly too weak and shaky to stand on his own. He rounded the corner, coming face to face with his brother, who stood leaning against David, face pale, most of his weight held by his friend. "Ike..." His voice was a groan. "Ike, he's....uah, I can't think. My head's full of shit..." He clung to David, eyes flickering madly.


Isaac, who didn't feel much better, could only nod. "I know. I know, me too. Sit down." He fell into a waiting chair, and put his head down onto the table. "I feel like I'm dying. God, you guys, what're we gonna do?" He felt a hand grip his, and looked across the table at Taylor, who'd fallen into his own seat. The eyes looking back at him were bleak, the hopeless stare of someone who believes there's no longer any reason. "I don't know Ike. I don't know what else we can do. Say a prayer?"

He jumped a little as Taylor's hand, still gently resting atop his, was joined by two more. Tiffany and Amanda. Sighing, he looked into each set of eyes, finally nodding. At this point, prayer was all they had left.

Zac stared in the dark, as the voices and images of the people he loved faded away. He'd heard them talking, seen them looking, knew they were coming for him, but now, now he just couldn't find them. "Please don't leave me!" The feeling was loud, his voice a whisper in his own mind. "Please, don't leave me here alone!" He felt tears stinging his eyes, as he watched them disappear. "Tay! Mom, please, don't leave me! Ike! Jay, I'm sorry!" Words gave way to sobs, as the dark closed in around him.

The man rested his hand gently on the boys head. "Sshh, big guy, you're okay. Nobody's leaving you." The words, suddenly nearly shouted, had scared him. The desolation in the boy's voice sent a chill down his back. Now, hearing him calling for people, the calls giving way to hopeless tears, he felt his own heart breaking. "Sssh. They're not leaving you... you're okay..." His words were unheard, he knew, but he had to say something. Gently stroking the matted hair, he prayed, for the first time in years, a place in him as rusty and unused as the swingset in his backyard, suddenly creaking into motion. "Please..." His heart send a message he only dimly believed anyone could here. "Let me be in time. Don't let this little boy die..."
He drove on, one hand on the wheel, one hand brushing grief stricken tears from an unknown child's face.


Diana watched her boys sleep.
Whatever had been happening to them, appeared to have ended. She'd walked in to find them sitting, hand in hand, around the table, gazing blankly into space. Her questioning eyes had caught Taylor's attention, and he'd shoved his chair back, come over to her and thrown his arms around her. Head on her shoulder, he'd cried then, harder than she'd ever known him to. It had taken what felt like forever for him to calm down enough to make words. He'd stumbled over them, not really knowing what he was saying, not really caring. "He's gone, mom, he's gone, I can't feel him anymore. We tried to ask for help, there' s nobody there, how can you pray to no one?" She'd held him tight, not even trying to answer, and as she held him, sobbing into her shoulder, she'd felt his strength returning. Felt him holding his own weight, felt him standing firm. When he'd finally pulled away, and looked into her eyes, there was no trace of illness. Only bone deep weariness, and grief. Shaking her head, not knowing what to say, she'd moved to the living room, curling into the corner of the couch. A moment later her sons had been beside her. Pallor gone, weakness vanished, they both looked fine. Strangely enough, this didn't make her happy. It struck fear deep into her soul, and something in her began to tremble.
Now, watching them sleep, exhaustion having overridden anxiety, she sent her own prayers to the heavens, feeling much the way her sons had, that there was simply nobody listening.