Chapter 36 

Just taking a moment to say "Thanks!!" to Karen, for all of her time and patience and muscle, lugging around the six hundred pounds of medical books, to help me with this, and the next few chapters. For explaining their meanings to me endlessly, and never telling me to buzz off!!

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"Hey. Wake up." Something shaking him. "Hey. Come on, you have to wake up." Jason cracked sleep crusted eyes onto an unfamiliar face. When had he fallen asleep? Where was Zac?

"Are you okay? You kinda passed out on us."

The face and voice seemed concerned. Who was this? Where was he? Puzzled, he sat up, slowly, muscles aching. He let his eyes, gritty and stinging, rove around the room. Why couldn't he remember anything? The face in front of him smiled. "You have no idea what's going on, do you? You must have been really tired. We tried to wake you up so you could call a ride, but you didn't even move." Jason's head stubbornly refused to clear, and he scowled. "I don't know what you're talking about. Where am I? Where's Zac?" The only thought he could connect on. Zac. Had to get Zac home... "Oh, what is going on?!" He felt himself beginning to tear up, and bit his lip. The boy next to him smiled again, and patted his shoulder reassuringly. "It's okay. You just wake up for a minute. It'll all come back to you. You must have been dead tired, you slept through an episode of "Cops", right here in the living room! What's your name, anyway?" Jason blinked up at him. He knew this kid. If only his mind would unfog. "Uh, Jason. I can't remember anything." The boy nodded, smile vaguely sarcastic. "That should be me, not remembering anything. Don't you remember though? I picked you and your friend up, on the side of the road." Jason chewed on it for a moment. He did remember something. Dark, cold, gravel digging into his knees... suddenly, a flash of memory, and it all came back. Eyes huge, he clutched the other boy's hand, panicky. "Zac! Where's Zac! Oh, God, why did you let me go to sleep?!" He jumped to his feet, swaying suddenly as black spots filled his vision. Arms were around him in an instant. "Now that wasn't too bright. You're pretty done in, why don't you just sit down? "Jason blinked, waited for his eyes to clear, and pulled away from the boy. "Why am I still here? Someone took Zac. When did he take him? God, I have to call my mom!" "Calm down. I know, we wanted you to do that last night, but you passed right out. Phone's right there." "Hold up a minute." The voice that came across the room was cautious. "I don't know that that's the best idea. We don't want a lot of people driving out here. Brian, why don't you just drive him home? Where do you live, son?" Jason looked up, and up, into the eyes of the biggest man he'd ever seen. "T-Tulsa..." His voice broke, awe stealing his words. "I live in Tulsa." The man frowned. "Long way from home, aren't you? What were you doing out on the road last night, way out here?" Jason couldn't seem to blink, and his eyes began to water. "We went camping..." His voice faded away, in wonder. This man must be at least 8 feet tall. "Gosh but you’re tall!" The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and he blushed, dropping his eyes. "I'm sorry." The man chuckled. "I expect I am. Seems an odd place to go camping, especially with one of you so sick. You weren't running away, by any chance, were you?" Jason shook his head frantically. "No! No sir, no, we were just going camping. We... jumped the train, it was my fault, and we got lost. We were trying to get home. Where's Zac? Is he okay?" The man frowned, then. "I don't know anything about your friend. Why don't you let Brian here take you home." "But... aren't you the one who..." Jason's words were cut off as the man abruptly stood, and strode from the room.

"No, wait!" Jason turned, desperate, to Brian. "Make him come back! Go get him! What happened to Zac?" Brian shook his head. "I don't know. He came back here without him about five hours ago. He won't talk about it. I better just take you home." "Five hours!!" Brian nodded. "Yeah, you've been out a long time. Come on. I'll take you home." "Where did he take Zac?!" Brian shrugged. "I don't know, to the hospital." "But..." Brian spun on him then, face intense, almost angry. "Look. Jason, there's a lot going on here that you don't know about. The less questions you ask, the better. I'm sure your friend is fine, my dad took him to the ER, they'll take good care of him there, but we really need to get you home." Jason nodded, not understanding, but too tired and confused to do much but go along with it. "He's really at the hospital?" "He's really at the hospital." He stood up, still shaky. "How far is it back to Tulsa?"

Brian snorted. "Almost two hours. You guys really hiked it. No wonder you're tired." Jason grimaced. "That'd be why I feel like I got hit by a truck. Can I use your bathroom before we go?" Brian nodded, and pointed in the general direction of the back of the house. "Over there. Hurry up, okay?" Jason shrugged, and limped off toward the door. These people were just too weird.

Thomas sat out on his back steps, waiting for his little houseguest to leave. He wished he'd been able to tell the boy something. There just wasn't anything to tell. And he had to get gone from here, this was no place for the kid to be. Well, he'd go home, and he'd be fine. The boy in the hospital though...

Sighing, he dropped his head in his hands. He felt terrible, having left the poor little guy. But there had just been too many questions he couldn't answer. Thinking back, the scene at the hospital played out in his mind.

He'd pulled in just in time for another one of those fever fits to start, and had had all he could do to carry the child through the doors. Thank God, someone had come over instantly, and taken the boy from him. He'd turned, ready to leave immediately, when the seizure had ended, and the boy had started to cry. Not the heartbroken sobbing he'd done in the car, not even really crying, just a keening wail that had sent chills down his back. A sound so mournful, so hopeless... he couldn't just leave him. Turning quickly, he'd followed the medical staff into the room, quickly insinuating himself into the mass. They'd taken little notice of him, as he stood, holding the boy's hand, wishing he could offer some sort of reassurance. He'd crouched down there, face on an even keel with the child, and talked to him, keeping his voice friendly. The boy's eyes had locked with his, glazed and wild, but somehow seeing him. "It's okay, big guy, they're gonna fix you up, you're gonna be fine." He'd kept the steady patter going, and the boy's eyes had never left his, while around them rang a steady stream of urgencies. Isolated words, disjointed and unreal, had floated by him. "Febrile" "Seizure," it had all rung in his head with the chaos of a battlefield. He'd been ignored by all but the boy, as the child’s clothes were stripped off, and he got a good look at the terrible struggle the boy was having to breathe. "Dehydration" "104, get that IV going!" "No air entry" He'd watched, horrified, as the child’s entire body convulsed with the effort of drawing just one breath. So many people, so many voices, the boy clutching his hand hard enough to be painful. More words, frightening in their urgency "Inspirations" "Crackles" " Pulse is thready" and the most frightening, the sudden voice barking "Get him in there, get him in there now!" He'd been roughly pulled away from the boy, hands torn apart, watching as the child was quickly taken from the room, God knew where. Turning to go, then, he'd bumped headlong into a woman, holding a clipboard. "You brought him in?" He'd nodded. "Yes." "What's his name. Are you the father?" He'd shaken his head. "I don't know, his first name is Zac, I'm not his father." Her face had taken on a puzzled, and then suspicious look. "He's a friend of my sons." The lie had come easily. "He was staying with us, he got sick..." She'd nodded, accepting that. "What's his full name please, are his parents on their way?" "They're out of town. What's wrong with him?" She'd frowned sympathetically. "I'm sure they'll take fine care of him. Why don't you come over here, and you can give me some information. "He'd gazed at her blankly then. He had no idea who the boy was. What could he possibly tell her? How much trouble could he be in, bringing an unknown child here? Too much too hide, he had too much to hide. He couldn't talk to these people. Now, thinking back, he realized he could have simply told her that yes, the boy's parents were en route, and satisfied her. At the time, though, the stress of the situation had rendered him blank, and instead of answering her, he'd spun on his heel, and very nearly run, out of the building and back to his car.

He'd arrived home to find the party had been cleared out. His relief at this was nullified somewhat by his discovery that the other little boy was still here, sound asleep, exhaustion so deep nothing would rouse him. He'd spent a long time just staring at him, his guilt at leaving the other boy multiplying with every moment. The rest of the night had been spent, staring at the phone, wondering if he should call. Wondering if he should call SOMEONE. But who? Obviously the boy was some mother's son, and people must be worried about him. The kids both had the look of hard travel, and even the boy sleeping here, while not ill, was completely done in. He should call the police. No. No he couldn't. Not after all that had happened here tonight. He had no idea what might still be on the premises. No, he didn't want to call the police. He couldn't explain why this kid was here, or explain why he'd abandoned Zac at the ER. He suspected there was some sort of trouble in that. He couldn't do anything, just get the kid out of here. Zac was in the hospital, he was taken care of. The boy still here would be gone soon enough. CC Evans had come and gone, told by Brian that the person in need of his attention, had already been taken to the hospital. Best to just let things quiet down, and go back to normal. As normal as they ever were. That left him here, out on the back step, chain-smoking, thinking too much, and riddled with guilt. He sighed, as he watched Brian, and the other little boy, backing down the drive. Good. He was on his way.

He dropped his head in his hands again. God help him, he just couldn't shake the guilt he felt, over leaving Zac alone there. He turned his gaze heavenward. "Well..." He addressed the clouds, softly "I hope you know what you're doing. That little boy had just better pull through, if you know what's good for you."

Sighing, Thomas lit himself the last smoke in the pack, and followed his thoughts inward.

God it was loud in here.

Taylor watched, annoyed and unexpectedly sleepy, as chaos ruled. People on the phone, people at the door, police, reporters, friends. The helpful and the curious, the kind and the hateful. Too many. Just too many. Dreamy drowsiness stole over him, bizarre and incapacitating. Why couldn't he stay awake? It was just so weird. One minute he felt fine, the next consciousness was swimming away from him. Shaking his head, he turned to look at CC, who was watching the insanity with mild eyed fascination. Catching Taylor’s eye, CC smiled. "It's quite something, in it?" Taylor grimaced, fighting the drowsiness washing over him again, and sighed. "Ceec, none of these people cared what happened before, what are they all doing here now? They're not helping..." "Oh, Taylor, nosiness is one of the great driving forces in human nature. They are here..." His voice was tinged with wry humor. "To gawk." Taylor snorted, disgusted. "They could be out helping find him. Standing around here isn't doing anyone any good. "He shook his head, hard, and dug at his eyes. "I can't stay awake. God... I want to be doing something! Why am I just sitting here?!" "What is it you want to be doing?"

The humor had disappeared from CC's voice. Something in Taylor’s countenance was disturbing him. The way his eyes kept drifting up in his head, it almost looked as if he were losing consciousness every few minutes. "I don't know, I just feel so bad sitting here..." He stopped, fighting another wave of sleepiness. "I feel like I'm just gonna pass out, and I don't know why, it feels like my brain is trying to run out on my body." He smiled faintly, knowing how he must sound. "Nap attacks or something, Ceec." CC's brow knit. "How do you feel? Just sleepy?" "No..." Taylor paused, trying to find a good description. "It's more like... I get really really sleepy, all of a sudden, my head gets all swimmy, my heart starts beating real fast, I get all shaky, and then it's gone. It feels really really weird." CC nodded, and slid closer to him, gently capturing the boy's wrist in his fingers. A few seconds later he felt it, the sudden acceleration of his pulse, just a few seconds long. Glancing up, he saw blue eyes drifting upward, forcibly pulled back down, as Taylor shook himself, fighting to stay awake. He let the boy go, and sighed. "That's stress, doing that, Taylor. It's just an anxiety reaction. It actually happens to a lot of people in extreme situations." "Stress? So what do I do about it?" "Well, you could go lie down, see if you can sleep." Taylor scowled at him, a deep crease forming between his brows. "I am not gonna go sleep while my little brother is out there dying somewhere. Which one of us is supposed to be nuts here?" "Well, why don't you just remove yourself for a little while? Go read, or write in that journal you're always buried in. Just go, get away from it for a little while." Sighing, thinking that there was no way he'd ever be able to concentrate on anything, Taylor shoved his chair out. "I'm gonna try it only because you haven't steered me wrong yet, but I'm telling you, I'm not gonna be any good for anything." "You don't have to be, just get yourself out of the middle of it for a few." Nodding, Taylor reached down and lightly brushed his friend's shoulder. "Ceec, don't take off, kay?" "No worries, I'm here for as long as it takes." Faint smile then, and a nearly inaudible "Thanks..." and Taylor slipped from the room, his departure noted by none but CC.

"No, Tay. Not that one. Look." Taylor smiled at his brother, as the little boy corrected him yet again. He was so out of it he couldn't even figure out Lego's, but still, surprisingly, he was a lot more relaxed. Mackie's cheerful chatter, and the rather mindless task of snapping the blocks together, had dulled the anxiety he'd been feeling. He had actually felt himself calming down. Now, as he saw what he'd been about to do, his gentle smile became a laugh. "Oh, ugh, Mac, I guess that wouldn't have worked, would it? Here..." He shoved the blocks over to the little boy. "You go ahead and do it. I'll just watch." Mackie nodded, absorbed. "You can..." He pointed to the huge pile of multisided, many colored bricks, "...unmix those." "Unmix them?" "Yeah... you know. Put the colors together for me." "Oh, lazy, aren't you?" "No... but you can be my..." he paused, unable to think of the word he wanted. "You can just do that for me." Taylor smiled again. "Assistant, Mac?" A vague nod, "Yeah, that. Go ahead..." Shaking his head, still smiling, Taylor set about doing as his brother had asked, marveling at how absorbing the task was. "Geez, Mac, maybe I should go into factory work, just keep putting the pieces where they go..." "Hmmm..." was the absent response, prompting another chuckle. The kid was just too into this stuff. The smile lingering on his lips, he continued sorting the blocks, his mind, for once, quiet, ignoring the continuous rumble of voices from the next room.

Diana walked by the room, glancing in, surprised to see Taylor. "Oh, how sweet..." The thought drifted through here mind. It had been an age since she'd see Taylor have anything to do with anyone, and Mackie really needed someone to keep him company right now. So, she thought, did Taylor. Smiling, she'd begun to step away, when her eye lit on the camera on the hall table. "Oh..." Quietly she picked it up. This was one of those fleeting moments she didn't like to let go. Stepping into the doorway, she didn't speak, simply pointed the camera at the two boys, and pressed the button. The flash went off, startling them into looking up, and she saw, in that split second, Taylor's small smile slip into caution and suspicion. He blinked, trying to focus flash blinded eyes, and she laughed. "Oh, sweetie I'm sorry, I should have warned you. But you just looked so sweet..." He nodded, but the look of unease on his face seemed to set. "It's okay. You just blinded me a little bit." He turned back to what he had been doing, but now his heart was racing, and that dark, dreamy drowsiness began to creep over him again. Damn it. He sighed, frustrated. He'd been feeling so much better... His thoughts were interrupted when the corner of his vision caught motion, and he looked up, into the lens of the camera again. Almost before he could register what he was seeing, something deep inside, something animal and instinctive took over, and he was on his feet and across the room, away from the camera, away from the person behind it. "NO, don’t! Don't. Just put it away, just get away from me!!!" Diana jumped, dropping the camera, moving quickly to her son, who stood, breathing hard and shaking, in the corner of the room. "Baby, what is it? What's wrong?" Her voice, sympathetic and concerned, only seemed to make it worse, and his strained words became shouts. "Don't touch me, get away from me!!!" He shrank away from her, pulling himself against the wall, as her hands reached for him. Puzzled, she stepped back, and he bolted by her, to collide with CC, who, hearing the shouts, had come to find out what was wrong. "Whoa, hold on now..." His voice was calm, hands firm, as he caught the boy running by, and held him gently in place. "What's going on?" Taylor’s eyes, wild and incoherent, stared blankly, and his breath rasped in and out in harsh gasps. "Let me go! Let me..." He stopped suddenly, staring at nothing, and CC glanced at Diana. "What..." "I don't know." Her voice was helpless, as she held Mackie, who, frightened by his brother's outburst, clung to her fiercely. "I took their picture, and he just went crazy." "Taylor!" CC's voice was loud, and direct. "Taylor, look at me." The blank blue eyes flitted up to his, then away. "Taylor!" He gave him a little shake, not liking for one moment the vague look in his eyes. "What CC, what, cut it out!" Taylor pulled away, blankness replaced by irritation. "What happened, why were you yelling at her like that?" Taylor glanced at his mother, and then at the camera on the floor, and CC saw him pale a little. "I don't know, I don't know, I'm sorry, just don't take my picture anymore." He shoved past CC, puzzled himself as to what had just happened. Why had he gone off like that? "God..." His whisper went unheard to all but himself. "I really am crazy..." He clung to the wall, legs shaking too much for him to dare let go, and went back into the kitchen, dropping into a chair at the table, and laying his head in his hands. He looked up once, when CC sat down, then wearily closed his eyes, and put his head down onto folded arms. He just couldn't take it anymore.

CC was worried. Badly worried. He had no idea what had just happened, although the sensation of a little voice behind his mind wouldn’t let him go. He had the feeling he was just missing something, if only he knew what it was. Whatever it was, he had to do something about Taylor. The kid looked about to blow. He was under a lot more pressure than he could hold up under. "Taylor..." "Hmm?" Taylor didn't look at him, instead focusing intently on the pattern on the table cloth, tracing it with the pad of one finger. "Get your shoes on. You need to get out of here." Taylor shook his head, face still impassive, gaze still focused on the table. "No, no no Ceec, I can't leave. Not until they find him." "Yes you can, and you will. Now go get your shoes on." "CC!" His voice was a growl now. "I am not gonna leave! Don't you understand?" "I understand that this is beginning to cave you in. You won't be any use to anyone if you fall apart. I’m not asking you to go to the Andes and stay for a month, I'm telling you to get your shoes, and we're gonna drive around the block or something, until you get yourself together." "I'm together." "Right. Get your shoes." Taylor sighed, finally looking up, and CC saw tears in his eyes. "I really want to get out of here Ceec, but what if something happens?" Sympathy flooded CC then, looking down into Taylor’s eyes. This poor kid had had more than his share of tough breaks. This was beyond unfair. He leaned down and hugged him, quickly. "Tay, I'll take the cell phone with me. If anyone finds out anything, they can call pronto." "We'll come right back?" "Without question. Trust me. You need to get away from here." Sighing, Taylor dragged himself from the table. "Okay. But you promised." He headed upstairs, and CC let his gaze shift out toward the front door. So many people, what a zoo it was. He could see Walker, on the phone, had he put that phone down in the last several hours? CC didn’t think so. Diana, where was she? Somewhere with the little ones? No, there were some of them, running in and out between peoples legs. He smiled slightly, at that. Children could find a game anywhere. There was Diana, talking to the police. Perfect, that should add to her stress. He reflected on the remarkable incompetence of the police department so far. They were treating it like the whim of hysterical, overprotective parents. The boys had taken camping gear, and hit the road. They'd be back. There was no reason to think anyone was in trouble. Well... CC understood their point, but he also understood following your gut. And his gut told him they needed to find those kids, fast. He was gently shaken from his reverie by a light touch on his head. Pulling away slightly, he looked back at Taylor. Unlike him to be touchy. "Things okay? You ready?" "Yeah." Taylor’s voice was weary. "As ready as I'll ever be." Sighing, he stood up, fishing for his keys. "Okay." CC had a hard time keeping the dubious tone at bay. "Lets go." They'd gone as far as the back steps, when Diana stopped them.

"It's okay, you're gonna be fine, big guy." That voice. Thank God. Too bright, too loud, pulling, tugging, what was going on? Zac's world was confusion. Heat, and cold, and pain, people at him. "Stop it, stop it, I'm dizzy," the thought never left his mind. So many voices, all talking at once, he couldn't understand any of them. Panic started to crest, and then that voice. Strong and low and soothing, familiar. Struggling against lights that hurt his eyes, and never ending crashing noise, ripping his head apart, he located the voice and turned his eyes to the man's face, right there, gray eyes capturing his. He let those eyes hold him, as his mind focused on the voice. What was he saying? No matter, didn't matter, it was just there. Warm, flowing over him, counteracting the surrounding insanity. Why were they all yelling? It hurt his head, didn't they know how much it hurt? God, it hurt to breathe. "Little stick now, hon" What? What? Who was that? Something jabbed his arm, nothing compared to the enormous pain in his chest, but the man's grip on his hand tightened. What was he saying? He squeezed the man's hand, wanting to ask him to stay, words beyond his grasp. Things seemed to be jumping around, flashes of vision and understanding. God, what was going on? Cold. So cold, what were they doing? He pulled a little on the man's hand, wanting to bring him closer, startled suddenly by a bright flash of light, and sudden, gripping pain everywhere. Pain, screaming pain, no breath, God he couldn't breathe! Voices suddenly raised and shouting, the man's hand ripped away from his, as the world suddenly lurched in his sights. The figure of the man, tiny, swallowed in blackness, gone, along with the rest of his world.

"No, no way, I'm not doing that. NO." Taylor was emphatic. "I'm going with CC, and that's all. I'm not going to have anything to do with this." Diana's lips were tight. This was no time for him to be obstinate. "Taylor, we're all..." "NO!" He pulled away from the hand she'd set on his shoulder. "I can't deal with that, and I'm not going to!" He backed away, staring at her for a moment, as if wondering if he were going to be allowed to get away with talking to her that way, and then quickly slipped out. A few second later they heard the slam of CC's car door. Helpless, Diana turned to CC, who only shook his head. "Press conference is pretty stressful, Diana. If he's not up to it, I wouldn't push it. I'm amazed he's even willing to leave the house." "It's not really a press conference, just a statement." "Is it really necessary that he be here?" She hesitated, and he pressed on. "Why would it be? The only one who really needs to be there is Walker. Don't push him, not now. He's on very thin ice." She sighed, shooting an annoyed glance after her son. "WHY, Ceec, is he on such thin ice? What exactly are we doing wrong, still?" Shaking her head, she didn't give him time to answer. "We've done everything in our power, and he still acts as if he'll come undone at any moment. It's, very frankly, getting on my nerves. I really think that with all that's going on now, Taylor needs to get his act together, and stop acting so ridiculous." He studied her quizzically. "Do you really think that? Do you think it's in his control?" She shook her head. "I don't know what to think. I just don't know. He just about had a psychotic attack over having his picture taken, he's spent the entire last 24 hours insisting he can’t leave the house and now he's running out the door... I don't know. Just get him out of here, the less I have to look at him right now, the better." Sighing, feeling badly for all of them, CC gave her hand a brief squeeze, and let himself out. Something she'd said was starting those unsettling little bells in his mind again. "Psychotic attack over having his picture taken... can't leave the house, running out the door..." Oh where was it?! It was right there, what wasn't he seeing?! Shaking his head, annoyed with himself, he opened the drivers door and looked at the boy already in the passenger seat. His face was tight, pale, and his eyes were frightened. "Tay, you alright?" The boy nodded, shortly. "Yeah, lets just get out of here." Nodding, CC turned the key.

.

Chapter 37

"Didn't I just leave this place?" Karen's thought was ruefully amused. She spent more time here at the hospital than she did at home, lately. God knew, she needed the extra money, and they surely needed the extra hands, but darn it, she was tired. Still, it was hard to say no, and they'd sounded pretty frantic when they'd called her. As she headed for her floor, she reflected on her schedule. "All day, and then back for a full night. I sure hope I don't fall asleep on rounds." Smiling to herself, knowing she'd do no such thing, she swung into the breakroom, grabbing herself a coffee, hoping she'd actually have time to drink it for a change. They had a private they needed help with. It was a rarity in these days of short staffing, to spare a pair of hands for a private. Curiosity peaked, she sipped her coffee, and headed for the desk.

Tracy, the night charge nurse in the pediatric ICU greeted Karen, as she arrived, carrying her coffee. "Morning, Karen. We're so glad you were able to come in and do this private for the day shift. They're swamped. Like that's anything new. 'Course by the time we get back in tonight, all will be quiet. Doesn't it figure?" She smiled at Karen, and picked up a chart. "Here's what we've got for you. You ready?" Karen nodded, slightly more focused on her coffee than on Tracy. "Patient is a young male, we're unsure of his age..." Karen's attention was suddenly sharply directed. Unsure of his age? "...but figure he's about 12 or 13. All we know name-wise is Zac. He was brought in, and literally left at the door, by an unknown adult male. On..." "Left at the door?" Karen interrupted, surprised. "What do you mean, left at the door?" "I mean, he was dropped off in the ED, and the man who left him took off before he told anyone a damned thing." Karen scowled thoughtfully and waved her pen in the direction of Tracy's chart. "Continue." Tracy's eyebrows went up, and she grinned. You had to love Karen. "Thanks. I think I will. On arrival, he was running a temp of 104, and was seizing sporadically. Air entry was non-existent in both lower lobes, with expiratory wheezes and crackles heard in the upper lobes. Admission diagnosis is pneumonia. He wasn't able to take a breath without working hard at it, poor kid. He was obviously in a lot of pain. He had vomited before arrival, but hasn't since. He was dehydrated, his skin turgor was poor, his eyes sunken and dull. His level of consciousness hasn't changed since admission; he's non-verbal, responsive only to pain. He hasn't opened his eyes since the start of the last seizure, at about 4 AM. Poor kid... looks like he's been dragged through a bush backwards. We haven't been able to get him cleaned up at all, and he's a mess. We just got him about an hour ago, we've had him on the cooling pads; his temp's come down to 102. He'll likely be down to about 100 in another couple of hours. He's been catheterized, his output has only been 100 cc since 0430. His IV is running at 100, and he's received Penicillin and Codeine. Check the drug sheet for time of last dose, ok? We gave him Tylenol PR, and he's due at 0900 for another. The emergency MD gave him some Thorazine, but we haven't repeated it. He hasn't been shivering, but we have the order if you need it. ECG hasn't shown any blips, thank God. Just keep on eye on his rhythms, and pulse rate. Respirations are still high, but that won't change, not until he coughs some of that crud up out of his lower lobes. Cough is still dry and non-productive, and obviously hurts. That's the only time we see a change in facial expression... poor little sweetie. O2 is running at 2 1pm. Um... what else?" Karen sipped her coffee, scribbling notes as she listened to Tracy's rambling report. "Hmmm," she spoke without looking up., "I'm glad he's stable now, he was one sick puppy. How's his blood work look?" "WBC's elevated." She nodded, "Like that's a surprise. You don't know anything more about him? No age, no name, no family?" "No, not a thing." "And nobody's looking for a lost kid?" "Nope, not that we know of." "Well." She scanned the chart briefly, as she thought about the day ahead, mentally planning her tasks. "I think that's about it, I'll get over to..." She glanced back down at the file "Zac?" "Yep, Zac." "How'd you find that out?" " Man that dumped him down there. He evidentially blurted out 'his names Zac', and ran off." "Oh. Well, I'll get down there and take a look at him. See you tonight, Tracy. Bring some of that coffee cake in, ok?" Tracy laughed, "You can have all the coffee cake you want, Karen. You'll need it. I don't know how you do it, hon... working a day shift, sleeping for a few hours, and coming back in for a 12 hour night. I wish I was young again. Thanks again for helping them out, they'll have 3 fresh post-ops by noon, and with those 2 babies with croup, they have their hands full. Make sure they appreciate you, ok?" Karen laughed, "They have no choice but to appreciate me, if they know what's good for them." As she headed to Zac's bed, she thought about Tracy's comment. "I wish I was as young as Tracy thinks I am... I'm gonna feel every one of my 39 years, and then some, by tomorrow morning."

Quietly, she approached the bed holding the sick youngster. Arms folded, she stood for a moment, taking him in. Yep. He sure did look like he'd been pulled through a bush backward. What was that, pine needles in his hair? What had this kid been doing? Sighing, she turned her attention to the machines surrounding his bed. Everything looked okay, and the drug sheets gave her two hours before any meds were due. "Good", she thought, "Enough time to clean him up a bit. Kid looks like he's been living outdoors for a week!" She gathered her supplies, and got a basin of lukewarm water, wondering all the while who he was, and why nobody was here with him. Didn't he have a family? Was he a runaway? Shaking her head, she set her supplies down, speaking softly. "Zac, my names Karen. I'm just going to wash you up a little bit. "Gently she cleaned his face, wincing to herself as she found, and cleaned, a multitude of small superficial scratches , scrapes and bruises. His hands were just as bad, and she found herself becoming annoyed as she removed a few small splinters. "Darn emergency staff... you'd think they could spare a few minutes to make him a little more comfortable." As soon as she thought it, she caught herself, and mentally apologized to the busy emerg nurses. From the look of him, they'd had plenty to worry about besides some dirt and a couple of splinters. "I have plenty of time to do it now" she thought. As she worked, she talked softly to Zac, about the weather, the vacation she had just finished, her family, even asking him about his family, though she knew he wouldn't answer. She firmly believed in the power of speech, and knew that he heard her, on some level. She chatted quietly, wishing she knew more about him, grateful that she wasn't the type to ever be at a loss for words. "Hon, what on earth have you been doing? Digging ditches?" she chided him gently as she changed the water in the basin for the third time, marveling at the amount of dirt in it. Still, though he looked like he'd been living hard, she could tell he was well cared for. He was by no means underweight, and he had none of the look of neglect she'd unfortunately come to recognize. She finished up the bedbath, and set to work gently removing the pine needles from the child's long hair. "You could sure use a shampoo, sweetie, but I think we'll worry about that later." She changed his hospital gown for a fresh one, wishing, not for the first time, that they had something more appropriate for the older pediatric patients. Somehow, she just knew that this young man would not appreciate the 101 Dalmatians meandering across his gown. She turned him onto his side slightly, warming some lotion in her hands, and gently rubbed his back. The excess lotion she used on his arms and legs, thinking that while he probably didn't much need the lotion, the touch was good for him. She wished he were a little more responsive. During the whole procedure, he had barely moved, except to cough a few times, weakly, and obviously painfully, the effort making him wince. She stepped back, finished with her ministrations, eyeing him critically. "Well", she thought, "He looks more comfortable now, anyway..." She checked the machinery surrounding the now clean boy, gave him the medications he needed, and settled into the rocker beside his bed, to do her charting.

"You doing okay, Taylor?" CC glanced at the boy next to him. He'd said not a word, and had remained completely expressionless as they drove from the house. CC'd expected him to at least comment on the lack of press standing around, but there hadn't been a peep out of him. Now, several miles and half a dozen songs on the radio later, that stony faced silence began to unnerve him. As had Taylor's lack of response. "Taylor." His voice rose a notch. "Would you answer me please? Are you okay?" Taylor sighed, then, tearing his gaze from the hypnotic peace of the passing roadside. "I don't know Ceec. Just drive." "What's on your mind?" "You leaving me alone." Surprised at the rudeness, CC's eyes flew to his companion. "That was pretty uncalled for, Tay. Really..." Taylor sighed, but shook his head, offering no apology... "Ceec, I don't want to talk." He turned his attention back out the window, and CC, knowing he'd been dismissed, reached down, and turned up the radio.

A mumble from the bed brought Karen's attention from the care plan she was writing, back to her charge. His brow was knit, face scrunched into a frown. Smiling slightly, she set down her pen, and moved closer to the bed, reaching out to gently brush an errant lock of hair from his face. "It's alright, Zac..." Her voice was just above a whisper. She gently lifted the O2 mask from his face, frowning at the red imprint it had left. "Everything's okay." Her soft voice and gentle touch smoothed the furrowed brow, and he turned his face toward her slightly, pressing his face against her hand. She heard a gentle whimper then, and the word "mom" riding on a breath. "Oh, sweetie, it's alright." She noted that his skin against her hand was cooler, and eyed the temperature readout. 100 degrees. Much better. Time perhaps to stop the cooling pads. She hoped so, she hated the things. Part of her always longed to throw a blanket over them, and cozy them in. Add to that the condensation that always kept the sheets they were lying on slightly damp, and you had a sum total of utter discomfort. Still, they served their purpose. Better to be chilly and damp, than seizing and hallucinating. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she loosened the elastic and replaced the mask, gently stroked his hair, noting again the way he turned toward her hand. The boy seemed hungry for contact. Smiling, she obliged him for a few minutes, stroking his hair, and holding his hand, squeezing it softly. "It's okay Zac..." Her voice was a murmur." You're gonna be fine sweetie, you'll wake up soon..." As her touch increased, tensed muscles relaxed and his frown gave way to peacefulness. Satisfied that he was sleeping easily again, she noted the temp reduction on his chart, and headed down the hall to report to the charge nurse.

Taylor shivered, and hugged his arms around himself. Cold in here, did Ceec have the AC on? Nope, no AC. Damn it was cold. Life just got better and better. Sighing, he turned back out the window, but for some reason, the glazed oblivion he'd enjoyed wouldn't come to him. His mind was working now. He wished it would stop, with every thinking moment adrenaline flooded him, a tingly, high, sickening sensation he'd have cheerfully slit his own throat to end. He'd had about enough. Thoughts of suicide had never entered his head before, and he was mildly alarmed to find them there now. Surely he'd never do something like that. That didn't mean he wouldn't hurt someone else though. Look at what had happened with his mother today. He'd been so close. And Sandra Elliot. He'd almost hit her. And Danny. And then of course Zac. Poor Zac. Sighing, Taylor looked over at CC. He knew why CC was here, he had no illusions of friendship, or any genuine affection, he knew. CC was paid to be there. CC was paid to pick his brain, and find out what was wrong with him. And because they paid him, he, Taylor, was supposed to trust him. HA! You couldn't trust anyone. Especially people who were in it for the money. How many times had he been left to the attentions of people he was supposed to be able to trust? And how many betrayals? Even his friends wanted nothing to do with him, how could they expect him to trust some guy that was just here because it paid his mortgage? Even his parents couldn't be trusted. His mind threw him back into memory, his body, pain numbed and exhausted, lying on the stairs, blood running from his scalp where she'd ripped his hair from his head, her voice, screaming at him to get out. His dad, breaking his hands, slamming them into the counter. NO! That was a dream! A dream, God help him, he didn't even know what was real anymore. A hand on his neck, something cold, sticky, and then the hand in his hair. Twisted, firm, he couldn't get away, breath in his ear. "You're so much more... photogenic than your brothers. Come with me... trust me" No, that hadn't happened! God, he was losing his mind!

CC heard a gasp from the seat next to him, and a whimper. His glance took in Taylor, hands pressed against his eyes. Such utter distress CC had never seen on any face. Quickly, he pulled the car over, and turned to look at the boy, careful to avoid physical contact. Whatever was going on here, he wasn't going to assume touch was safe. "Tay, what is it?" Taylor ignored him, hands moving from his face to his hair, fingers twining into it. "Taylor..." CC gently reached for one of the boy's hands. "Tay, don't do that. Tell me what's happening." Taylor ripped his hand away, avoiding CC's grasp, pulling out a fair amount of his own hair, in the process. CC winced, seeing blood begin to flow, but noted that the pain seemed to have snapped him back to some sort of reality. Staring in horror at the handful of hair he held, Taylor quickly shook it out of his hand, onto the floor, and turned, finally toward CC. "Ceec, I'm scared." His voice was soft, the words drifting out on a breath. CC nodded. "I can see that. Can you tell me what you're scared of?" Taylor's eyes filled with tears then, tears he seemed unaware of. "I'm gonna hurt someone, hurt myself. I don't know, I don't..." His voice broke, and CC had all he could do not to just pull the boy in close and hug him. "Tay, why do you think that?" Taylor shook his head. "You don't care, why should I tell you? You're here because they're paying you, you don't care any more than the rest of them do" CC's eyes widened at that. Taylor didn't know? Laughing suddenly, almost bitterly, CC broke his own rule and reached out, taking the boy's head in his hands, turning his face toward himself. "Taylor." His raised voice and firm touch, rather than panicking the boy, seemed to freeze him, and CC went on. "I am not getting one red cent for this. Where did you ever get the idea that I'm being paid? I, Taylor, am off the clock." He let him go then, and reached into his pocket for a smoke.

Taylor's mind was shrieking at him, senseless, mindless babble that wouldn't stop. He'd lost all sense of reality, of time, of what was relevant and what wasn't. The cigarette. No, that was wrong. "You're not supposed to smoke around us." CC, laughing, showing teeth. "Ask me..." Flick of the lighter, flame, smoke "...if I care." Why was he doing this? Why was he sneering like that? "I'm sorry, why are you mad at me?" "I'm not mad at you." Yes he was, they all were. It hadn't been his fault, so they'd told him not to go off alone, so what? He'd been right outside the trailer, it wasn't like he'd gone anywhere. Was it his fault it had happened? He'd been minding his own business, why were they all still so mad about it?! "CC, it wasn't my fault!" His shout startled CC, who hadn't been sneering, had simply been smoking his cigarette and waiting for Taylor to sort himself out. "What wasn't your fault, Tay?" Taylor shook his head. His shout had startled him, too, and the sea of sound in his head had started to fade a little. What had he been thinking? He didn't know. He shook his head. "Can't remember." His voice was deep, guttural, and CC's eyes widened. "I really think it's time to get you home, my friend." He kept his tone mild, but inside he felt anything but. Whatever was in there, whatever had been snowballing on this kid for the last year, was right there. He didn't want him trapped in a car when it finally hit. "No, no not yet. CC..." Taylor paused, taking a breath. "CC, I'm really scared. I don't know what's going on. I..." He stopped again, words backing up in his throat. "I'm afraid I'm gonna hurt someone, you saw..." CC nodded. "Yes I did. Do you mind if we drive though?" "I don't wanna go home" He was calming visibly and CC began to feel a little more flexible. "No, I understand. But I'd like to keep moving." Taylor nodded, and CC went on. "What happened today, then, Taylor. What made you freak out on your mom like that?" The boy shook his head. "I don't know. I almost know, but..." He sighed then, and slumped down in his seat. "I just lost it hard, just now, didn't I?" CC smiled a little. "Yes you did. Any idea why?" "Because I'm crazy?" Taylor's smile was faint, but it was there. Shaking his head, CC made a face at the boy, and flicked the cigarette out the window.

"Ha! I knew I'd find something." Karen's voice was triumphant. "What'd you find?" Karen waved a gown in Doreen's face. "This. Something other than the 101 damned Dalmatians!" "Well, it's Mickey Mouse, it's not a whole lot better," Doreen grinned. Karen eyed it for a moment, then waved Doreen away. "It's better. If I were him, I'd be completely mortified to wake up and find myself clothed in puppies." Doreen chuckled and followed Karen back to Zac's bed. " How's he been doing?" Karen smiled at her, and gently brushed Zac's hair back out of his face. "He's doing better. Temps holding steady at 100 degrees, DC'd the cooling pads, the ECG, the Tylenol PR. His LOC is up a little, he's dreaming, moving around. Looks pretty good." She absently flung Zac's chart at her co-worker, and pulled out a basin, quickly assembling the makings of a bed bath. "What're you doing?" Karen smiled gently. "He's damp and chilly, the bed's all wet from the pads." Doreen chuckled again. Karen must be reveling in this, the time to really take care of him, and pay attention to the little things. A luxury for both nurse, and patient. She watched as Karen expertly washed him up, and replaced the hated Dalmations gown with Mickey. Karen was a good nurse, her touch was gentle, and efficient. 'She'd be one I'd want taking care of me', the older woman thought, watching as Karen started to turn the boy onto his side, to pull the sheet from beneath him. "Why don't you sit him up?" Karen stopped, eyeing her. "What?" "Get him off his back for a minute. Be good for his breathing." "Dori, he's asleep." "You don't need to wake him up, here..." She stepped into Karen's space. "Just sit right down there and pick him up. I'll do this. Be good for him to change positions and you're dying to hug him, I can see it in your eyes, "mom"." "Oh stop." "Just sit down there on the end of the bed." Karen did as Dori suggested. A nurse of the "old school" Dori was known for dismissing modern techniques and using what she called the "tried and true". 'Get him off his back' was definitely among her old school teachings. Smiling slightly, Karen slipped the O2 mask over his head, reached under the boy's arms, and pulled him up against her. For just a moment, his eyelids fluttered, and she caught a flash of brown eyes. A soft mumble, and his arm went around her neck, head resting against her shoulder. "There's a nice response, there." Doreen's face was triumphant, as she quickly pushed the damp sheet toward Karen. Karen smiled, and closed her eyes for a moment, content to let Doreen handle the mechanics of changing the bed, enjoying the feel of the child she held in her arms. Again the thought occurred to her. Who was he? Why had nobody been here? Why had nobody called? 'He's so responsive to touch' she thought, gently rubbing his back. 'He's certainly no stranger to physical affection, he's so obviously well cared for, someone, somewhere, must be frantic over this boy. Where in hell are they?' Sighing, she looked back at Doreen, who, finished with her end of the bed, was standing there grinning. "Okay mom, as soon as you're ready to give him up, lets lie him back down here and do that end, unless of course you think you want to try picking him right up out of bed." Karen laughed softly, used to Dori's teasing. "I am NOT that bad, thank you very much. And I think he's a little bit big to sit in my lap. OH, hold on Dori!" "Hmmm?" Karen laughed a little. "We're not thinking, don't make up the bed, those pads need to come off first." Doreen made a face. "You're right. Are you okay with him like that, while I go get Larry? I'm not about to lift those things." "I'm fine." Doreen winked, and flew off down the hall, leaving Karen perched on the end of the bed. Almost without thinking, she began to sing, softly, barely above a whisper. For a moment, the arm around her neck tightened slightly, as he shifted a little. Good, he was definitely hearing her, and responding. She smiled then, continuing her soft song, until Dori came back into the room with Larry. He and Doreen both smiled at the scene before them, and Larry approached quietly. "Sorry Karen, I hate to take him from you, but you'll have to get off the bed." She smiled, and shot a questioning look at Doreen. "Okay boss, how's the best way to go about this?" At Doreen's pause, Larry stepped in, and wordlessly scooped the child out of her lap. "Karen, sit down there." He gestured with his chin at the rocker. Laughing a little, she did as she'd been told, and Larry, rather unceremoniously, plopped the boy into her lap. "Here you go, you just hang onto him for a few minutes. He's not too big is he?" Laughing softly, she nodded. "He most certainly IS too big, he's nearly as tall as I am!" "Can you hold on to him okay?" She nodded. "I can hold onto him just fine, just watch that line please." Larry nodded pleasantly, whistling softly as he stripped the unnecessary equipment from the bed. Doreen waited, fresh linen in hand. "What's that you were saying about him being too big to sit in your lap?" "Very funny." She shifted her weight a little. Zac was by no means a small boy, and her arm was already going to sleep. Finally feeling as if she could maintain her grip, she settled back, her new view on him allowing her to find and remove a few more dried leaves from his hair. She was very surprised when, a moment later, the blond head resting on her shoulder pulled back, and she found herself staring into sleepy brown eyes. He looked at her for a moment, swallowing, wincing as if it hurt him, and finally ventured a few words. "Who're you?" His voice was raspy, barely there, but still, he was awake. "I'm Karen, sweetie, who're you?" He looked at her for a moment longer, solemn and sleepy, then settled against her again, head on her shoulder. His mumbled "I'm Zac." was a breathy whisper, already drifting down into sleep. Eyes wide, she glanced at Doreen, who was smiling as she made the bed. Larry flashed her a thumbs up, and reached down to take him from her. "Sorry buddy, but I'm going to have to disturb you one more time." He picked up the sleeping child, smiling as the eyes blinked open once more and a small sound of protest escaped his lips. He set him gently on the bed, and turned, bowing comically at the two nurses. "Ladies, it's been a pleasure." He carried the equipment out of the room, and they heard his whistle fade down the hall. Karen and Doreen settled Zac again, smiling as he mumbled at the disturbance, and turned onto his side. Quickly checking the IV line, making sure it was free of tangles, Karen moved to help Doreen finish the bed. "You make beds top to bottom, instead of side to side, Doreen, is that old school?" Doreen laughed. "Nope, I just don't like doing it the other way." She gathered up the old linens and left the room, nodding absently at Karen's "Thanks." A few moments later she came back in, bearing a sheet and a light flannel blanket. "Here you go. He cleans up nice, doesn't he? Nice looking little boy. Could use a haircut though." Karen grinned, "Not so little, thanks very much." Doreen's laugh followed her as she left.

"You'll be alright?" Taylor nodded. "Yeah, but you won't be." "Why's that?" CC's voice was puzzled. Taylor smiled and pointed to the cash in CC's hand. "Those things will kill ya. You're better off just getting back in the car, and forgetting about 'em." CC snorted. "You..." He shut the door behind him and leaned in the window. "Are so obviously not a smoker. You sure you don't want to come in?" "I'm sure, just hurry up." Sighing, CC held up a hand. "Five minutes. Come get me if you get too stressed." "Yeah, go, go!" Taylor turned the radio up, and settled back. He was scared, but it felt safe here with CC. He wasn't sure why. Despite the nasty things he'd said, he knew, just knew, inside where it counted, that CC really did care. He had a friend here, and one who could help, if he only knew how to let him. CC had told him, time and time again, that he wasn't crazy. That whatever it was that he couldn't remember, would come out, and then they would deal with it. It was so hard now, though. Even the flashes were gone. He was just as glad, that had been dammed scary. Thinking back sent chills down his spine, and he looked out at the sunshine, suddenly needing to be in it. He was scared again, remembering how he'd thought about killing himself, and wondering if there was any chance that he would actually do such a thing. 'So out of control, this is so bad...' The thought floated through his mind as he stepped from the car into the warmth and light. Stretching, he leaned back against the car, shutting his eyes and letting the warmth bathe his face. Red glow behind his eyelids, so long since he'd seen that. Had it really been so long since he'd been in the sun? Felt nice. Maybe there really was a reason to go on. "Excuse me!" He jumped, startled from his reverie by the bright, perky voice. "Uh, yeah?" His eyes rested on the form of a young girl. Great. She smiled nervously, and giggled. "Um, are you Taylor?" His eyes darted to the doorway of the store. Where was CC? "Yeah, yeah I am." He moved to get back into the car, but the girl stopped him, reaching out to touch his hand. "I'm Elly, I wondered..." She stopped, taken aback as he yanked his hand away from hers. "I'm sorry." She glanced nervously into his face, and he shook his head. "It's okay. I'm sorry, I'm just... I don't like to be touched too much. I know, not good..." He laughed a little, but it sounded forced, even to his own ears. She smiled again. "Well, I'm a really big fan, and I wondered if you'd mind signing an autograph?" Sighing, he nodded, knowing he had to, but wishing more than anything that the girl would just go away, that CC would come out, that anything would happen to get her away from him. His nerves were starting to fire up, and he seriously doubted his ability to hold it together. He scribbled his name onto the paper she'd handed him, and handed it back silently, ignoring the bright chatter she was directing at him. Where in hell was CC? Sighing, smiling blankly at her, he reached for the car door, when a sudden flash blinded him. Spinning back to face her, his hand flashed out before his mind registered what he was seeing, sending the camera flying from her hand, to crash down onto the pavement. Before she could react his hand had gripped her wrist, hard, small bones grinding together. Her cry of pain escaped him, as his vision clouded, the girl, the parking lot, the car, replaced suddenly by another scene. Flashes in his mind, as he gripped her wrist, too fast to focus on, shadows, laughter, Zac dancing in the sun, trailer, cameras, CAMERAS! Yanking hard on her hand, his voice raised to a shout "Get it away from me! Do you understand?! Get it away from me!" "TAYLOR!" The voice startled him into releasing his grip. "Taylor, get in the car!" CC's voice was loud, but it held no anger. "Get in the car, NOW!" He took the boy by the shoulders, and shoved him, none too gently into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him. He turned to the girl, who stood in stunned silence. "Are you alright? What happened?" As the shaken girl tried to tell him, his attention wavered between the two kids. Taylor was shaking, he could see it from out here, and the girl wasn't much better off. Well, Taylor was in the car, he was fine. He turned his full attention to the girl, examining her wrist. "You'll have quite a bruise there, he just grabbed you?" She nodded, eyeing the car suspiciously. "Do you know why? What were you doing?" "I, I took his picture, and he just freaked out! God, I never... He just knocked my camera right out of my hand!" CC held up a hand, stopping her. "Was he okay until you took out the camera? Did he give you a hard time? Was he rude or anything?" She shook her head. "No, he signed an autograph, he just..." Tears started in her eyes then, and CC slipped an arm around her shoulders. "What's your name?" She sniffed, and wiped her eyes. "Elly." "Elly, I want you to write down your name, and your phone number. I think that we should talk. But I need to take him home. Elly..." He stopped, his gaze going again to Taylor, brooding in the car. "He's been sick. He didn't mean this." She nodded, not sure what to think, and CC smiled gently at her. "We'll pay for the camera. I'll be getting in touch with your parents, alright?" She nodded, anxious now only to get away. She handed him her name and number, written on the back of the autograph she'd asked for, and took off, nearly running. CC watched her go, then climbed into the car with Taylor.

.

Chapter 38

"This is my house." Jason's soft voice startled Brian, who'd nearly forgotten the boy was in the car. All he'd needed was Jay's address, to find the house. He knew Tulsa. Missed it. Sighing, he nodded and pulled over. "Nice house. Nice neighborhood. And you ran away from this? What're your parents creeps or something?" Jason shook his head, puzzled. "We didn't run away. We went camping." Brian grinned. "Oh yeah, camping. Right." "What, you don't believe me?" "Well..." Brian's eyes held an amused gleam. "To be totally honest, um… nope." Jason shrugged, dismissing him. What did it matter? "Kid, you going in?" "Huh? Oh..." He started from the car, stopped, looked back in. "Will you tell me where Zac is? Please? I have to tell his mom and dad." "My dad took him to the hospital." "Yeah, but which hospital?" Brian shook his head. "I don't know which town he drove into. I have no idea." Jason's voice raised with that. "You have to tell me! He was so sick, they need to be able to get to him!" Brian shook his head again, unperturbed. "Kid, I don't know. I'd tell you if I knew, but I have no idea where he took him. Don't worry though, whichever hospital it is will call his parents. I think they have to do that before they can even take his temperature anyway." Jason eyed him doubtfully. "Really?" Brian nodded, anxious now to be away. "I'm sure of it. Now go on in and tell mommy and daddy you're home. I'll see you later." He started backing the car out, watching the boy jump back. He was feeling hostile, jealous even. Look at this place, and the kid runs away. Didn't know how lucky he was. Thinking he'd give anything to be in the kid's shoes, he pointed the car back toward home.

Jason went in quietly. He was in so much trouble, he knew. The last time he'd done this, he'd been gone for three days, and pretty much been told that if it happened again, there was no punishment other than death suitable for making them worry like that. "Mom?" Nothing. Not up yet? Well, it was still pretty early. Maybe they weren't as upset as he'd thought. No, that didn't make sense. They hadn't even known he was going, and it had been two nights. They had to be mad. "Mom?!" Still nothing. Silence. How weird. His eyes swam a little, and he reached for the edge of the desk. Dizzy. "God I'm still so tired." He waited a moment until the room stopped spinning, and stumbled over to the couch. He knew he should find his mom. He knew he should call Zac's parents. But he just needed to close his eyes for a second. Just a second, so that they'd stop burning, and then he'd call. He sat for a few minutes, head spinning, waiting as the vertigo deepened and he began to feel slightly motion sick. Wondering if he was coming down with whatever Zac had had, or if he was going to throw up or what, thinking he should be near the bathroom just in case, he sighed and stumbled upstairs, phone call forgotten. In his exhaustion he never even saw the note next to the phone, his own name glaring out in large red letters. Never saw the flashing of the answering machine that signaled a message. His pounding heart and spinning head drove all thoughts of phone calls and worried parents from his mind. Bypassing the bathroom, the nausea too faint to worry him particularly, he all but fell into his room, collapsing onto the bed. He knew he needed a shower. He knew he needed to tell someone he was home. He would. In just a moment, as soon as the dizziness went away. In just a minute. He'd get right up. Within seconds, Jason Elliot was fast asleep, safe inside his own room, while beyond the doors, the search went on.

"God that hurts!" Zac's eyes opened as a sudden coughing spell tore through his chest. Wincing, at both the pain and the terrible taste in his mouth, he turned over a little, looking for someplace to spit out the mouthful of stuff he'd brought up. "God this is gross..." The thought flitted through his head, in and out, gone almost before he recognized it. Finding no place to spit, and forgetting for the moment that that was what he was looking for, he swallowed, grimacing, and looked around him. He wasn't connecting and he knew it, nothing he saw seemed to be related to anything. White ceiling, something on it, something bright. Soft hissing, cool air on his face. Aching, burning in his chest. Something in his face, he could see it, feel it, what was it? He brought his hand up, intention to touch the object on his face diverted by the sight of his hand. Tape, tubing, what? What was stuck in his hand? He knew what it was. He knew he did. Couldn't think of it. Didn't matter. His other hand came up, and touched the object on his face. Mask? Suddenly feeling it was stifling him, he pulled it off, something instinctive making him take a deep breath as it left his face. The breath became another bout of coughing. He had to sit up. He grabbed onto the bedrails and hauled himself up, hand aching fiercely. Why did his hand hurt? Bad idea, as soon as he was upright a monstrous bolt of pain slammed through his head and his stomach turned over, nausea sweeping through him, making him whimper. "Here, that's alright, let go of the rail. Let go of the rail." The voice was firm, and arms just as firm as the tone went around him then, and he let it go, hands moving to his chest, as if somehow that would stop the pain. The coughing went on and on, and he'd begun to feel himself graying out, when it finally ended. "Here, spit that out. That's good, you want to clear that out." He did as he was told, and looked up, panting slightly, into the face of a stranger. Who was she? Where was the other one? Hadn't someone been here? Someone... the thought drifted away, and he let himself be settled back against the pillow. The woman in the room pushed a button and the head of his bed raised, startling him at first and then suddenly making a connection. Hospital bed. Hospital? "I'm in a hospital?" He croaked out the words, throat sore, but she understood him. "Yes you are. Hush for just a minute now..." She smiled, but there was no real feeling in it. He watched, face serious, as her fingers grazed his wrist. "Taking my pulse..." He looked around a little more. Row of beds, most of them empty. Desk in the corner. Did hospitals always put the nurses in the rooms? He didn't think so. Never seen that happen before. Feeling more alert, he looked back at what she was doing. Checking his blood pressure. She didn't have to make it so tight did she? Wincing and frowning at her, he waited for some sign that she could speak. Nope, not yet, she pulled the covers back slightly, and moved aside the hospital gown he now realized he was wearing. Confused, wondering why he was here, he watched her place her stethoscope in her ears, and set the bell on his chest. Cold! "Hey!" He pulled back a little, his raised voice bringing on another spate of coughing. "That's cold..." She smiled tightly. "Sorry." She warmed it in her hand for a moment, repeated her instructions, "Sshh now, for a minute..." Listened, noted, and moved on to his hand. Frowning, she examined what he now saw was a needle, connected to tubing that ran up the side of the bed. IV feed. He knew what that was. He'd had that before. Visions of another hospital darkened his thoughts for a moment. Sighing, he looked at her again, watching her working busily around his bed, wishing she'd say something, anything. Someone had been talking to him. He remembered a voice, low, sweet, and musical. Soothing, almost like his mom's. He'd felt safe, hearing that voice. Who had it been? "Probably a dream..." He hadn't meant to speak aloud, and when the woman's eyes shot to him, he felt absurdly as if he'd misbehaved. "What's that?" He shook his head, and dropped his eyes. Nodding, the woman reached beside him, picked up the mask he'd flung there, and slipped it over his head again, settling it in place, and giving him a no nonsense look. "You leave that on now." He nodded, almost afraid, and watched as she took the clipboard she'd been busily scribbling on, flew to the nurses station, handed it the woman behind the desk, and dashed to someone in another bed. "Wow..." Zac's whisper was impressed. "She moves fast." He laid back again, sleepy despite the fact that he'd just awakened. He felt pretty lousy actually, and he seemed to be too connected to things to actually get comfortable. He knew now that the thing on his face was oxygen. Good, he felt pretty out of breath, he wasn't about to argue. Still, it felt like it was smothering him. Just having something over his face like that. "In my way..." Sighing, he looked at his hand. It ached terribly. He'd had IV's in before and they hadn't hurt. Why did this one? He tried to turn over and something jabbed him, under his arm. Reaching over he felt something taped there. God only knew what that was. Every time he shifted, something else tugged at him. Eyeing the side of the bed, he could see tubing snaking out from under the covers. Very much afraid he knew where the other end of that was connected, he shut his eyes, feeling tears start. He fought them off, not wanting to be laying here crying. This just sucked, he felt awful and he had things stuck in him where things just shouldn't be stuck. Top it off he was freezing to death, his chest ached, and there wasn't a familiar face in sight. Where was everyone? Where was his mom? Jason! Where was Jason? How had he ended up here? Unsure who, if anyone, he should ask, he opted to keep quiet, watching people bustle around, finishing paperwork, checking dials and gauges, adjusting beds, a million little tasks. While it was faintly interesting, it didn't do much to make him feel any better. Confused, and lonely, wondering why his mom wasn't here, missing the voice of his friend, whoever she had been, he felt himself starting to cry again. Unable to help it, he curled up onto his side, hoping nobody would notice him. Trying to be quiet, brushing tears away as unobtrusively as possible, he never heard anyone approach the bed. He nearly jumped out of his skin when the friendly voice spoke in his ear. "Now, now, all that's going to do is stuff up your nose on top of everything else. Turn over here." The voice was friendly, but brooked no argument. He turned over, looking up into the sympathetic face of the nurse who had been standing behind the desk.

CC's head buzzed. He had it. He knew he had it, the suspicion that had been growing in him had just been confirmed, as far as he was concerned. He ticked the selling points off in his head, as he drove. Obviously something had happened to set off stress severe enough to be medicated. Nobody knew what it was, but there had to be something. Over the months, even with medication, symptoms of stress got worse, leading to drug abuse, violence, and attempted suicide. After intervention, there was no real improvement. Sure he was clean, but he was housebound. The stress was still there, despite being back in his home environment. The violent outbursts continued, alternating with periods of withdrawal, depression, and elation. He'd run away. Obviously something was not only still going on, but getting worse. Obvious attempts to "act normal" failed, frustrating him. He didn't sleep. He couldn't keep food down. He didn't see his friends, or associate with his family. He had nightmares. Occasionally he'd break down, and become emotional with a family member, but those emotional outbursts didn't seem to affect anything, and he never felt any better for them.

As far as anyone knew, random events seemed to trigger outbursts, but CC had just felt the puzzle piece he'd been searching for click in. He glanced at Taylor, who was sitting, hands clasped between his knees, head down. He hadn't spoken a word. CC hesitated. He wanted to try to get the boy to talk, but he didn't want to have to deal with an explosion in the car. Turning back to the road, he ticked off the clues. Taylor reportedly had a serious reaction to being looked at in public. He couldn't stand to go out of the house during the day, and outings were tense, and usually ended with him being sick somewhere. He would only go outside at night, and then only out back. He had no problem with people coming over, or coming in, and talked to them readily, but wouldn't allow himself to be seen out front, or go anywhere the media could see him. He'd refused to leave the house even to look for Zac, and he'd been desperate to look for Zac, and CC now realized that there had been a load of press at the end of the drive. He'd come along willingly now, an oddity that had puzzled him until he realized that the press was not there. The impending press conference/statement had called them all back to their various home bases to prepare. As soon as they were gone, Taylor was more than willing to get in the car and go. How had he missed this? It was so clear. Twice now, he'd seen cameras cause violence. With Diana, earlier, and poor Elly just a few minutes ago. Taylor's outburst earlier in the car had been accompanied by various mutterings about being photogenic, and he'd noticed the boy rubbing rather frantically at the back of his neck, as if trying to dislodge something. Thinking back, he'd realized that Danny's fight with Taylor, or more properly speaking, Taylor's attack on Dan, had been prompted by touch, as reported by Dan. Isaac had reported to him that Taylor had "gone off on" Sandra Elliott as well. Isaac said she'd "come up behind him, she wanted to make him feel better. She put her hand on his neck and he almost punched her lights out." CC was pretty sure he had the whole situation pieced together pretty well. Taylor was not touch aversive. He sought out physical contact from his family members constantly, and had even done so with CC. CC had seen him being very physical with his friend Tiffany, and with Amanda. He'd hugged the other Elliott boy, whatever his name was, and it had caused him no problem. But what if it were a certain type of touch? One that brought back a memory? The neck rubbing, almost an automatism during that outburst, that was the clue. Sighing, CC made his decision. "Taylor." Taylor turned his face away. "Leave me alone, CC." "Tay, I'm not gonna leave you alone. You hurt that little girl, do you realize that?" "I didn't mean to." "Whether you meant to or not, you did." Taylor sighed, the tightness in his skull intensifying. He knew he'd hurt her. He hadn't meant to. He hadn't actually been... seeing... her. Shaking his head, feeling his heart start to pound, he shifted in his seat, turning to look at CC. "Ceec, can you tell me if I'm crazy? I mean, for real. Are you..." He stopped, unsure of the word he wanted. "Am I qualified, Tay?" Taylor nodded, eyes on the floor. "Yeah, I'm qualified. Got my P.H.D. I'll show it to you sometime. But Taylor, you're not crazy." "I just don't know what's happening to me. I don't know... I keep hearing things, seeing things, remembering things, but they aren't real Ceec. They can't be!" CC heard the boy's breathing speed up, and had to remind himself to keep his hands off. "Why don't you tell me what it is you think you're remembering, Tay." Taylor tapped the dash, agitated. "That's just it Ceec, I don't know what it is. It's all in flashes." "Well..." CC paused, swallowing. He wasn't sure the car was the best place for this. "When we get back to your house, why don't we sit down somewhere, and I'll tell you what I think." "About what?" "About what you're remembering." "How can you have any thoughts about it?" CC sighed. "Because I think I know what happened." "Well..." Taylor stopped and reached for the window crank. He'd been cold. Suddenly he was roasting. He rested his head on his arms, letting the wind blow through his hair. "If you think you know, why make me wait until I get home?" CC remained silent, digesting the question, wondering how to answer it. Taylor laughed, humorlessly, and turned back toward his friend. "You're afraid I'll freak out in the car, and jump out or something, or run us off the road, right?" CC, knowing there was no point in lying, nodded. "Yeah buddy, I'm afraid that's exactly what will happen. So why don't you just relax, and shut up, and enjoy the ride. We'll be back soon enough." Taylor eyed the man for a few minutes. CC didn't look afraid. Serious, but not afraid. Something about that was a comfort to him. Nodding, he rested his head back on his arms. He could wait.

"Think you're alright now?" Doreen's voice was sympathetic, but no nonsense. He'd turned over, taken one look at her face, and gone completely to pieces. He'd rejected any physical comfort from her, so there hadn't been much for it but to sit with him, until he'd cried it out. Now, though, she could see the hysteria was gone, his tears having tapered off into intermittent, hitching sobs. He was sick, and he was tired, but he was back in control. She handed him a tissue so he could blow his nose, and sat down in the rocker. "Mind if we talk for a few minutes?" He shook his head, unable to meet her eyes. He felt foolish, crying like that. Wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his gown, he tried to regain a little composure. He didn't even really know what was wrong with him, just that one look at the woman's kind face, and he'd lost it. Hadn't helped his headache, either. Her comment to him had been on the money, all it had done for him was stuff up his nose. Great. Sniffling, he looked up at her, embarrassed by the fuss he'd made. "I don't want to talk. My throat hurts." More than hurt, it felt like it was on fire, and there was a taste in his mouth that was making him vaguely nauseous. "Could I have a drink?" She nodded, faintly exasperated. The cranky look on his face boded ill for any sort of reasonable communication. Well, he felt pretty cruddy, and he'd been through a lot. He was a big kid, and probably humiliated about crying in front of her. She supposed he was entitled to a bit of ill temper. She started out of the room to get him his water, a sudden idea halting her in her tracks. "Zac..." "Huh?" "Want a Popsicle instead?" She was pleased to see his eyes take on a little gleam at the offer. "Yeah, okay." She smiled, and the wicked thought, "Wait till he sees he's wearing giant mice on his PJ's..." floated through her mind. This kid was going to be a tough sell, and she was glad she was on her way off shift.

"CC, would you pull over?" Taylor's voice was soft, and held no urgency. Just a weariness beyond his years. "Sure, what for?" "I just need to stop riding for a little while." CC's glance took in the pale face, whitish lips. "You feeling sick?" Taylor nodded slightly. "Just a little, but it'll go away if we can stop for a few minutes." CC thought about it. The boy seemed calm, and his pallor seemed to verify what he was saying. "Okay, but just for a few minutes. I've got some coke in the back, think one of those would help?" "Might. Stop though, okay?" "Mmmhmmm." CC pulled over, and watched as the boy got out, making his way slowly up the embankment, to sit in the shade. Looked like a good idea and any errant breezes would be easier to catch up there. He shut off the car, pocketed the keys, separated two cans of coke from the six-pack in the back, and followed him, wondering if he was being huckstered. He strongly suspected that this was a stall tactic, to avoid getting home anytime soon. He crouched down next to Taylor, eyeing the ground suspiciously. Taylor accepted the coke he was handed, popping the tab, and laughing a little at CC's canvassing of the area. "Ceec, I don't think anything's going to open up and swallow you. Just sit down." CC shot him a sour look. "If you don't mind, I'd like to make sure I'm not sitting on anything hungry." "Hungry?" CC nodded. "Few summers ago, I went hiking with some friends. You like to hike?" Taylor nodded, eyes amused. "Well, we stopped to rest, in a place a lot like this. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Thing was..." CC stopped, smiling ruefully, as he sat, tentatively, next to Taylor. "Thing was?" Taylor prompted him, genuinely curious. He'd never heard Ceec talk about himself, or anything he'd done, before. "Let me tell my own story, if you don't mind?" CC popped the tab on his coke, helped himself to a drink, and leaned back against a tree. "Always look where you're sitting, Tay. Seriously. I'd been there no more than ten minutes, when something sort of stabbed my leg. Little bug. I smacked it, y'know?" Taylor nodded, fascinated. "Happened again, then again, then suddenly there were a thousand little hot needles stabbing me all over. Hurt like a bastard." Taylor's eyes widened a little at that. "Geez, Ceec, what'd you sit in?" CC looked at him solemnly. "Fire ants." "Fire ants! CC, for heaven sake! Those things will EAT you!" "I know. There I was, hopping around, stripping clothes off, be damned to the people watching." "Stripping clothes off?" "Yeah. Yelling, jumping, slapping myself black and blue and dropping clothes as fast as possible, while I headed for the creek. By the time I got there I was naked as a jaybird, and completely covered with red ants." It was all too much for Taylor. The image of CC, imperturbable, sensible, unshakable CC, running through the woods naked, screaming and slapping himself in front of God knew how many people, was one he just couldn't handle. He burst into laughter, laughter that became more and more uncontrollable as the image in his mind intensified. Not many minutes had passed before he was doubled over, tears streaming from his eyes, as he gasped for breath. "Oh god, C..." He tried to stop laughing and failed. "I can just see you..." His hysterics accelerated with every glance in the man's direction. CC watched, vaguely annoyed that his story of pain and humiliation was causing such mirth. "Laugh yourself sick why don't you?" "Oh God..." Taylor wiped his streaming eyes, and struggled to get himself under control. "I'm sorry. Oh God I'm sorry..." He swallowed, pulled himself together, and made the fatal mistake of looking back at CC. CC sighed, as Taylor went off again. He hadn't really meant it to be this funny. He'd never seen it as humorous, the sting of hundreds of fire ants having leached the humor from it rather nicely. Still, the laughter was contagious, and he found himself chuckling. He supposed it had been quite a picture. At least the kid was laughing. God knew it had been a while. Smiling, he leaned back, sneaking a quick glance at the ground for any suspicious wildlife. He closed his eyes, listening as Taylor fought to stop laughing, minutes of relative calm suddenly interrupted with bursts of giggles. He'd almost dozed off, when he felt a hand on his arm, and heard Taylor's voice, now quiet and thoughtful. "Ceec, listen." He opened his eyes, and saw, for the first time since he'd met him, a completely relaxed Taylor. His eyes were calm, and his face easy. There was no tension in him, anywhere. "What Tay?" He spoke softly, not wanting to break the mood. Taylor smiled, and shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know what I want to say." They looked at each other for a few moments, blue eyes meeting brown, and then suddenly, impulsively, Taylor leaned in and put his arms around the man, hugging him tightly. CC smiled, touched, and hugged him back. He understood. Taylor pulled away then, and settled into the crook of CC's arm, leaning back. Something in him had opened, something that said it was okay to trust this man. CC had given him something. He didn't know what it was, exactly, and he didn't quite understand why he felt the sudden rush of affection for him. But he knew it was real, and he knew now that this man was really his friend. Whatever caution, whatever suspicion he'd had had dropped away, and for the first time in months, a fragile peace had settled into his soul. He knew it wouldn't last. This was the eye of the storm, at best. This calm would shatter, and it would happen soon. But for now, it was here, and he would keep it as long as he could. The man and the boy sat together, each gathering strength in his own quiet way. The breeze blew, cool and fresh in their faces, and they waited. They didn't, after all was said and done, have anyplace to be.

"Well, you're back. You made it." Doreen smiled at Karen, as she passed her on her way through the lobby. Karen smiled, and yawned behind her hand. "I made it, but it's going to be awfully hard not to snooze through my lunch break." Doreen nodded sympathetically. She'd pulled plenty of doubles herself. "Well, it's slow up there now, so it won't be a hard night." "Well that's good. How's Zac?" She hadn't been going to ask, but she found she couldn't wait until she got upstairs. Her rest had been uneasy, thinking about the little lost boy, who was so sick, up on the unit. Doreen grinned, and shook her head. "He's awake. He'll keep you busy, I'm sure." Karen felt something loosen up then, and realized how worried she'd been. Doreen, seeing the relief in her eyes, smiled gently. "You can relax, your little one's doing fine. You're a good nurse Karen, you care. Have a good night now." She left before Karen could reply, leaving her to make her way to the unit, a little bit lighter, and a lot more thoughtful.

"Well... that's pretty much it." Karen looked toward Zac's bed, where he lay, curled on his side, back to them. "He's awake, and he's grumpy." Karen fingered the chart in her hand, as she listened to Christine's brief report. "He woke up, Doreen tried to talk to him, but she didn't get too far. He was very upset, but wouldn't let her near him. Won't tell us how he's feeling. Won't pay us any mind at all. She did try to sweet talk him with a popsicle..." Chris smiled gently at the memory. "He took the Popsicle. Of course, it was the wrong flavor, and we had to change it. Then he said it made his stomach hurt, and we had to wait for twenty minutes while he decided whether or not to throw up." Seeing Karen's brow furrow, she chuckled. "He decided NOT to. But the whole Popsicle incident seems to have soured him on us. As soon as you're all a bit more organized, he's going down on the floor. He doesn't need to be up here anymore. It's all in the chart." She nodded brightly at Tracey. "You're actually overstaffed tonight. Isn't that a luxury. Oh! I almost forgot. We still need a phone number, but we did get a last name." "Oh, what is it?" Chris nodded toward the chart. "It's in there." She turned then, to Tracey and continued talking. Karen tuned them out, and quietly carried Zac's chart over to the chair by his bed. Eyes closed, breathing even. He may have been awake earlier, he certainly seemed to be asleep now. Smiling, she sat, and opened the chart. Yep, right there. Zachary Hanson. Well, at least they'd gotten that much out of him. It was a start, anyway.

Zac's sleep was light, and the soft rustle of paper brought him up out of it. Who was here? His mom maybe? He turned over, hope high in him, and felt his heart sink at another strange face. Where was his mom? Why wasn't she here? Sighing, he looked at the person in the chair. She looked familiar. Did he know her? Karen heard his sigh and looked up into a pair of suspicious brown eyes. Well, she supposed she'd be pretty wary in his shoes, as well. Smiling, she closed the chart, and set it aside.

"Well Zachary Hanson, you decided to wake up." Her voice was warm, and musical, and his eyes widened. He knew that voice. "I didn't decide, I just did it. You were here before." She nodded, surprised. "Yes, I was here all day. How do you know that?" He sat up, coughing a little, and wincing. "I heard you. I thought I dreamed you." He stared into her eyes. Had he seen her? Had he talked to her? He almost thought he had. No matter, she was the one. She was the voice he'd been looking for, the one who'd been with him. He almost knew her name... She saw the chocolate eyes go far away, and the brows meet in the center of his forehead. What was he thinking? "Zac?" He held up a finger. "Just a minute." Smiling, puzzled, she sat back, watching him. He was sure working hard for something. Finally, suddenly, the furrowed brow relaxed, and he smiled. "Karen. You're Karen, right?" She nodded, pleased. "Yep. I'm Karen. And you're Zac?" "You already know my name" "Humor me." His expression became a little sulky. "You already know my name. Why do you all keep asking me the same things?" Sighing, she sat back, arms folded. "And you're not the least bit crabby, are you Zac?" His face became indignant. "Well wouldn't you be?" "I don't know." She leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands. "Why don't you tell me what's going on? How are you feeling?" He shook his head. "I don't know what's going on." He broke off, coughing, holding his chest. She frowned sympathetically. It hurt like hell, she knew. He looked up, when his breathing eased, and his brows went up. "That, for one thing. It hurts! And so does this!" He waved the hand with the IV in her face. She knew it hurt, it was in the chart. It'd gone bad, and they'd wanted to change it, but he'd pulled his hand under the covers and refused to let them touch it. Putting a sympathetic expression on her face, she gestured to him to go on. He frowned, and slouched down in the bed. " I don't know what you want me to say. My head hurts." "I know. You'll have something in a few minutes to help that. Does anything else hurt?" He nodded, and curled back up again, this time facing her. "Everything hurts. I feel all achy. And I'm hot." She nodded, "Yeah, your running a fever." He nodded, he knew. "My throat hurts a lot, and it hurts to breathe. And when I cough it feels like all my insides are ripping up. I'm all dizzy, and my stomach hurts." He was pouting, and she had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from smiling. "And these people..." He gestured at the mostly empty unit, "don't even care." "Oh, Zac, they care. Why do you think they don't care?" He shook his head. "I don't know. They won't listen to me." "How won't they listen, Zac?" He frowned, and shook his head again, impatiently. "I don't know. Just forget it. Can I have a drink?" "Yep. Let me find out what you can have." "Just water is okay, that's all I want." "You sure?" He nodded, huddling under the blankets a little. "My stomach's kinda queasy." She nodded, unsurprised. "You want ice?" He nodded, face sullen, and she reached down and tapped his shoulder gently. "You're not moody or anything, huh?" She smiled , and went to get his water, again biting the inside of her lip to keep from laughing. For a kid who wouldn't tell them anything, he'd managed to reveal pretty much his entire physical status, head to toe, in about two minutes. Noting the time, she gathered up the medications he was due for, on her way back with the water, as well as the makings for a new IV. She was pleased to see the avid curiosity in his eyes, as she set up the equipment at his bedside. "What is all that?" She smiled, and handed him his water, along with a tiny paper cup containing two tablets. "Well, this is water, and these are Tylenol. You go ahead and take those." He eyed the tablets in the cup doubtfully. "Doesn't look like any Tylenol I've ever seen." He set it down firmly, and turned his eyes up to her. Folding her arms, Karen looked back at him, this time unable to keep her laughter completely in check. "Zac, you're too much. They look different to you because they are Tylenol with Codeine." "Well what's that other stuff for?" "It's for the pain, and it helps with the cough." "Oh. It won't hurt me, will it?" Suddenly serious, she sat on the edge of the bed, taking his hand in hers, squeezing it gently. "Zac..." Her voice was soft, but there was no missing the seriousness. "I am not going to give you anything that will hurt you. You have my word." His eyes met hers, searching again, and she didn't look away. Finally, satisfied perhaps at whatever he'd read there, he nodded, and held his hand out for the pills. She watched as he swallowed them, noticing the grimace as they went down. "Bad sore throat, hon?" He nodded, and finished off the water. "Ice feels good though." She smiled, and took the cup from him. "Lets see your hand, sweetie." He shook his head. "No, it hurts." "I know it hurts, I'm going to fix that." Again, he eyed her suspiciously, half holding his hand out. "Why does it hurt? I had one of these before, and it didn't hurt." Karen pulled her equipment closer, and instructed him. "Put your hand up here, and I'll show you." "Don't touch it." "I won't touch it. Do you know what an IV actually is?" He nodded, slightly annoyed. "I'm not stupid, you know." "Oh, I think I figured that out, Zac. This is penicillin. You need that to knock out the germs." He nodded again. "Obviously when you came in, you couldn't swallow pills, and even though you can now, this is still the best way, the most effective way, for you to have this medication. It will be, for another day probably." "Why?" She folded her arms again. "Zac, when I finish here, I'll go get you a big old stack of medical books, and you can just look it up." He grimaced, and looked away. "Geez, sorry. Guy can't even ask a question..." She saw the glint in his eye though, and smiled. "The fluids in here run through this tube, then through this needle, into your vein. What's happened now, is the needle's either slipped out of the vein, or poked through, and the fluid/s just pooling up in there." "Well, what's that do?" "In a nutshell, Zac, it hurts. And it's making the IV pretty useless. I have to give you this..." She indicated the penicillin, "But I can't until I change that. And it won't stop hurting on it's own." Sighing, he eyed his hand. He couldn't see much for all the tape, but it looked red, and it was hot. "Okay. But be careful." "I will. When did you have one of these before, Zac?" She was gently removing tape as she talked. "I was in the hospital back in the winter." "For what?" He paused then, and she glanced at his face, concerned suddenly at the troubled look she saw there. Wisely choosing not to pry, she continued with her task. She was surprised to hear his voice, soft, sad. "I got in a fight. I got really messed up. Not as messed up as he did, though..." His voice drifted off, and she saw immediately that he wasn't talking about a schoolyard brawl. His eyes were sad, glimmering with tears. Whatever had happened, it had been personal. "You okay, sweetie?" He pulled himself back to reality, and nodded, though his eyes still looked unhappy. "I'm okay. You gonna take that out now?" She smiled, made sure everything was shut off, and slipped the needle out without further ado. He caught his breath, and shot her a reproachful look. "Hey, that hurt!" Her voice was apologetic. "I know sweetie, but there wasn't really anything else to do. Now..." Her tone dropped into a no nonsense range he didn't much like "I have to restart this." "What?!" "Yep. You still have to have it, soooo... if it's any consolation, it won't hurt nearly as much going in, as it did coming out." His eyebrows raised at that, but he sat back, and offered up his other arm for sacrifice. Laughing at the look on his face, she quickly bandaged the injured hand, and set about restarting it in his other one. As she checked first his hand, then his wrist, she chided him gently. "I read your chart, Marylou thinks you wrecked the site when you grabbed onto the bed rails, to sit up. If you need help sitting up, yell to someone, don't squeeze real hard onto a bar, with a hand with a needle in it." "Oh, like I'm supposed to know that?" She snorted at the tone he'd used. "You know it now. Do it again, I just might have to restart it in your foot" She wiggled his toe gently and he yelped, and giggled, pulling his foot away. "No way, my feet are ticklish, and besides, I get it." He watched with interest as she restarted the IV, marveling at how little it hurt. "Whoa, you're good at that, I never even felt it." "Told you. Now, remember what I said. You can use your hand, but be careful. No grabbing hard onto things." He nodded. "I know, I know, or I get it in the foot." He laid back, swallowing a little, and she saw his lips go whitish. "You feeling sick, Zac?" He nodded. "Yeah, it comes and goes. Is that okay?" "Yep. How bad is it?" He shook his head. "Not very. It was for a second. It's weird, I feel queasy, but I think I'm hungry. I'm a weirdo." She shook her head, "Actually Zac, hungry can MAKE you feel sick. Let me see what I can find for you, alright?" He nodded, and settled back. All this talking tired him out.

CC looked at the boy sleeping next to him. He had to bring him back. He knew he did. Damn it, he didn't want to. This was probably the first good sleep the boy had gotten since the whole crazy mess had started. The thought of waking him and bringing him back home was abhorrent to him. Oh, it wasn't that it was a bad place. It was a beautiful place, and the people there loved Taylor desperately. But they were so close to it all. CC'd seen it before. Kids who wanted to tell their families, but lived in fear of being judged, of being found unworthy, of being sent away. Nine times out of ten they didn't even realize they felt this way. They only knew that some deep, primitive survival instinct screamed at them to cover it up, to never let anyone know what was wrong. And plain old human nature then kicked in, causing them to resent, and sometimes even hate, the very people they most wanted to have with them. For not knowing. It was a vicious cycle, but it could be broken. What hell to go through though, and this family had already been through so much. On top of it all, Taylor didn't trust them. In his mind, they'd already betrayed him a million little ways. With time, he would come to see that his family's reactions were not betrayals, but for now... Sighing, he watched the shadows grow longer, and the boy in his arms slept on.

Taylor's sleep was not as easy, or as peaceful as it looked to CC. He'd slipped into a dream, a dream of echoing corridors, gray, cold. People's faces hidden behind blue masks, eyes blurred and dim. Where was he? All around him the echo of footsteps, slamming doors, rubber wheels against cold tile, beeping, ringing, hissing, a voice, harsh, electronically grating. Couldn't make it out. Where was he going? Fear began to set in then, cold fingers up his back. His head was thumping, aching, and his stomach started to roll. "Working too hard, but I have to find him." Find who? What was he here for? A giggle, suddenly, and in his sights, only a door. That door. He's on the other side of that door. The giggle again, behind the door, and a tugging on his mind, a feeling of "Hurry up". His headache suddenly worse, he pushed the door open, to see his brother, stretched out on a bed, eyes rolled back, filthy, shaking in the throes of some horrible seizure. Blink, and the scene changed, and Zac was sitting up smiling at him. "It's about time, Tay." "Where are you? What is this place?" He walked up to the bed. "Watch out, don't step in that." He looked down, and saw a floor puddled with blood. "Zac..." "That's yours Tay, I'm not the one bleeding here. You're putting your own self into this. Listen to me." Zac's voice, suddenly almost angry. "I can't do this much more. It hurts, and I'm already sick. You're going crazy, you can't help me much longer. I told you where I was, you never came to find me. You're bleeding all over my bed, Tay." Taylor stepped back. "Sorry. Where are you? I'll come get you." "I don't know. But I'm okay. All I wanted to do was tell you I'm okay." "Is this where you are, or where I am?" Zac looked around, "The hospital?" "Yeah" "It's where I am. Where you should be. I got a really nice nurse too." Zac grinned, and Taylor saw he had teeth missing. "What happened to your teeth?" "My teeth? Nothing. Tay, you need to get out of here and wake up. Things aren't good for you right now. Tell them that I'm okay." "Why are you in the hospital?" "I got sick." "I wanted to come find you." "I know, I wish you had." "What was that I saw when I came in?" The scene changed again, and he saw his brother, helpless and dying, surrounded by shouting, rushing people. "Was that you? Is that how sick you are?" "No, I'm better than that, Tay. There's stuff coming out your eyes, and you've already messed up my bed. You better go. You're not good for anything anyway." Taylor touched his cheek, and brought his hands away, sticky and wet. What was going on? "I am too! I'm good for something, how can you say that?" Zachary's face became gentle, sympathetic. "I didn't say it, Tay, you did. You brought that here along with all this stuff. You think that. I don't." "I'm falling apart, Zac." "I know." Taylor closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, the scene had changed again. Brightly lit corridor, glass window. He was looking through a window, at his brother again, but this time Zac was laughingly flinging his arm around the neck of a woman. A nurse. She was laughing too, and appeared to be whispering something in his ear. For just a moment, Zac's gaze shifted to the window, and his smile slipped, as his eyes met Taylor's. He gazed intensely into those eyes for a few moments, then something, wind, air, a vacuum, a noise, what he didn't know, gripped him, steel embrace, and pulled him away. Spinning, everything was spinning. His eyes flew open on the brilliant Oklahoma evening, and he pulled out of the arms that held him, turning away, retching onto the grass. That fragile peace, such as it had been, had ended.

.

Chapter 39

Too much. It was all just too much. Why did anyone have to make any kind of statement to the press anyway? God, he hated the media. Watching them beginning to gather, this time not in the street, at the end of the drive, but right up in his yard, he felt a sweeping kind of sickness. Were these even people? Did they even realize what they were doing? "We must look like bugs to them." He thought. "Something interesting under a microscope. We aren't even real to them." Disgusted, he walked through the house, taking in scenes as shutterblinks. He couldn't seem to connect. His mind wouldn't let him stay on anything for more than a few seconds. "I have to get out, I'm gonna go nuts." He stepped out onto the back porch, and sat down in the swing. Nobody out here, thank God, but he couldn't sit. His nerves were screaming, and he had to keep moving. Where to go? "I don't know what to do..." He got up again, rubbing at his eyes. They burned, stung, he was so tired. "God, I'd sell my soul for an hour's sleep." Sighing, he turned back into the house. He had to go, had to do something. He went through to the front again, and eyed the gathering crowd. Lot of onlookers too. Sure why not? Come stare at the freaks. What the hell?

Anger beginning to build in him, he knew his control was going. Edging out into the din of the front yard, he found his father. "I'm goin' dad, I'll be back, but if I don't get outta here, I'm gonna go nuts." Walker's reply was almost haphazard. "You can't go anywhere, you need to be here." He turned back to the man he'd been talking to, and Isaac stepped between them "Dad!" "Ike, for heavens sake, what?!" "I'm leaving! I'm taking a walk or a drive or something, but I have to get out of here!"

The hysteria in his voice cut through his father's fog of anxiety and preoccupation, and Walker actually looked at his son. His distress was clearly etched on his face. Sighing, Walker nodded. He did look terrible, and getting out would certainly do him no harm. The thought of him behind the wheel though... "Don't drive. Not like that. Just take a walk if you have to, but be back for this." "Why? Do you mind?!" He shot a look at the man standing just behind him. "I'd like to talk to my dad, if you could just step back before I kick you down the steps..." "IKE!" Walker's voice was shocked, but held a certain rueful amusement. He'd felt much the same, and was absurdly pleased with his son for having said something. "Well he's breathing right down my neck!" The man backed down a few steps, looking very much as if he'd just come face to face with a rabid dog, and hastily scribbled on the pad in his hand. Seeing this, Isaac's temper slipped another notch. "Yeah, you wouldn't want to forget THAT one for the papers, now would you?! How do you sleep at night?!" "Isaac..." Walker's voice was quiet, but his tone was clear. He was overstepping. "Enough. Just go. Make sure you have your beeper." Nodding, "I have it..." he pushed past the man on the stairs, and made his way past the crowd. Something, perhaps only the look on his face, perhaps divine intervention from a God who didn't want to see anyone killed, kept the glut of press from approaching him, and he made his way unmolested to the end of the drive. No destination in mind, he headed west, walking.

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"I don't like that."

The pouty look on Zac's face was beginning to grate on Karen's nerves. "Zac, you said you were hungry. You said you liked Jell-O. That is Jell-O. So..." She smiled a little. "Eat it." He shook his head, face still screwed up and disagreeable. "I don't like red Jell-O. I don't like red anything. I don't like orange, either." He shoved the little dish away from him, and crossed his arms. "It's gross, it'll make me puke." Karen's eyebrows went up at that. His mood certainly wasn't improving as the evening came on. Thinking he was fast losing his charm, she adopted his posture, eyes closed, face scowling. "Well then, crabby, what DO you like?" '"I'm not crabby. I just don't like red Jell-O." "Okay Zac, I get the picture. Now tell me what you do like." "Green" Karen laughed in spite of herself. "You're the only kid in the world who likes green Jell-O. Let me ask you something." "What." "If I'd brought you green, would you have turned your nose up at it, and asked for red?" He sighed, and looked away from her. "NO, I just don't like RED, so sue me." "Zac..." Her voice was weary, and exasperated. "What?" She shook her head, giving up. "Let me go see if they have any in the kitchen. I don't think the red would kill you, though." Her gentle teasing met with a scowl, and she sighed. Maybe the green Jell-O would perk him up. If not, it was going to be a very long night. "If not..." She mumbled under her breath as she left the room, "He may find himself shampooing with that red Jell-O."

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Jason staggered into the kitchen, and pulled himself down a glass, loose Tylenol clicking in his hand. He filled the glass from the fridge door dispenser, and eyed the tablets in his hand. "Four's a lot of pills." He thought about it for a moment. "But, it's a lot of headache." Shrugging, he swallowed the tablets, thirst suddenly overpowering him. He drained the glass, filled it again, drank it down, and set the glass in the sink, gazing out the window. A moment later the cold water hit his stomach, and a railroad spike of pain settled between his eyes. Gasping, eyes closed, stomach cramping, he waited over the sink, wondering if he were about to throw up. A few moments later his stomach told him it would accept the cold water, and he relaxed, wondering what in the world was wrong with him. His head was thumping unpleasantly, even though the brain freeze had faded, and the slightest motion made the room spin. Had Zac been contagious? Was he about to just keel over too? Probably not. He didn't feel anything like that sick. Pretty lousy though. Sighing, he wandered back into the living room. Still no mom. Where in heck was she? He looked around the house, not daring to call out. His stomach was too uneasy for him to want to risk yelling, and his head would only complain anyway. Puzzled, annoyed, and a little hurt, he stepped out onto the front porch, and collapsed onto a deck chair, trying to think around the headache. Maybe she was at Zac's? "Did she go over there to wait for us to get back? Well, I have to call them about Zac, anyway." Thinking that sounded reasonable, he hauled himself up and went back inside, bypassing the living room for the kitchen phone. He liked it in here, early evening sun slanting across the linoleum. Homey, safe, cozy even. Smiling a little, he dialed Zac's number, frowning at the busy. Shoot. Figured. All those people, there was always someone on the phone. "Maybe I should go over there..." He thought about it for a moment. Lightheaded, stuffed up, and vaguely nauseous, he wasn't much up for a walk. Shaking his head, he took the cordless, and went back out to his deck chair. He'd just keep trying.

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"Oh, man, look at that." CC eyed the tangle of people in the Hanson's yard. "Great. Tay?" He glanced at Taylor, curled up in a ball in the passenger seat for the entire ride. "Taylor. C'mon..." He shook him gently. "Sit up, we have a situation." Taylor uncurled slowly. He couldn't manage much else, memory was heavy upon him, clouding thought, slowing movement. He felt heavy, and hot, too tired to breathe. Fear had retreated, numbness creeping in. So dark, so cool inside here, this place he'd run to. Why was CC calling him now? "Taylor! Come on, snap out of it, you need to get it together now." Taylor looked at his friend, struggling to make words with a tongue that felt to big for his mouth. God, why was he so hot? "What is it, C..." His voice was thick, words slurred. Hard to stay here, hard to think. Back inside, inside where it was dark, and cool, and there was nobody there, that was where he wanted to be. CC's mind was a whirl "Oh no, not now. He's losing it..." Dull eyes, slurred speech. The boy was retreating, and after the retreat would come the explosion. Whatever he had dreamed, it had brought everything to the front. It was right there, seconds away from the crash. "I have to get him inside. I have to get him where it's safe. God, past all these people. All these cameras, Jesus Christ..." "Tay, we have to get past them, is there a back way?" "What? Just lemme 'lone." "No, Taylor, now come on! You have to stay with me! How can we get in? Do you WANT to walk through all those people?" Taylor shook his head, and struggled to make sense of the man's words. His friend, he wanted to help him. What was it? The people. Get past the people. The old fear flooded back in, at the sight of the press, vans, cars, cameras, microphones, driving the hot, dreamy ball of memory back a little. Whimpering a little, he turned to CC, eyes clearer. "We can..." He stopped, swallowed, and tried to get his mouth around the words. "We can drive next door, and cut through the woods. They won't mind, they never have." CC released the breath he'd been holding. Good. Good, he was rational, at least for the moment. "Let's go then. Think you can make it in?" Taylor curled up again, ducking down out of sight. "What's wrong with me, CC?" Naked terror in his voice. CC's heart went out to him. Poor kid. He knew what was happening to him, and he was scared to death. Well, there would be no easy way through it, but they'd do the best they could. He was a strong kid, he'd make it out the other side. "Tay, nothing's wrong with you. You're just finally finding the right road, that's all." "To where?" "To you. Just tell me where to go." "What road, CC? What road?" The phrase had started to echo in his head, "what road, what road..." and he was helpless to stop it. What was wrong with him? "CC!" "Calm down, Tay, it's okay." Oh, that had rhymed. How funny, had CC always spoken in rhymes? Something touched his cheek, near his eye, and he brushed it away. "Bye bye fly, get outta my eye..." Another rhyme. He giggled, and CC looked at him. "Oh God, this is really gonna be close. Tay, c'mon, try to stay with me." "Everything's coming in rhymes Ceec, is it real or is it me? Ha, there it is again, CC help me!" Panic now, what was going on? Senseless words, psychotic rambling, what was his mind doing to him? CC's voice, words lost, no meaning, but the tone, the tone was okay, the tone was warm, flowing over him like oil. CC's hand on his hand, he gripped it tightly, never seeing CC flinch as nails dug in. "Tay, come on, where do we park the car?" CC could see full well where to park the car. He didn't care, he needed to get the kid alert, and he needed to do it now. He had to get him inside. No good, no good, Taylor's eyes had rolled away again, and mumbled nonsense tumbled from his lips. "Tay, come on, come on..." CC began to feel desperate. He needed to do something, shock him back into reality long enough to get inside. If he'd had ice water he'd have thrown it in his face. He eyed the coke cans in the back, dismissing them immediately as too warm. "God, I can't hit him. He'd never trust me again. I have to do something..." He watched as Taylor began to curl up again, "No Tay, come on, we have to get out of the...." Stopping suddenly, he leaned on the horn, the sound filling the car. The noise snapped Taylor to attention, eyes darting, breath coming in gasps. "No, no, stop it! Stop it, I'm out of the way!" "Get out of the car!" CC's shout brought him up short. "What? What..." "GET OUT OF THE CAR!!! JUST GET OUT!!" Frightened, Taylor fumbled the door open and climbed out, braced for flight. Feeling like a heel, CC followed, knowing he was scaring the kid, hating himself. He circled the car, and grabbed the boy's hand. "Show me where your house is." Nodding shortly, Taylor started through the short stretch of woods, CC following. It was a shallow patch, and they could clearly see the knot of press at the front of the house. "CC..." Taylor's voice was shaking. "Ceec, I can't, I can't go out there!" "You're not going out there, kiddo, you're going right behind them. They're not even gonna see you." Groaning, Taylor kept moving, feet heavy, reality slipping and tilting on its axis. He didn't understand what was going on, yet on some deep, animal level he knew. Critical mass had finally been reached, and there was no turning back now. It was here, for good or ill, and he couldn't stop it, not any longer. "God, CC, it's stronger than I am, help me!" CC spun on his heal, and took the boy's face in his hands. "I'm going to help you! And YOU are going to help you! You're okay! But we have to get inside, so just let's go!" His voice was loud, tone firm, but once again, there was no fear. No panic. Finding some residue of calm, an echo of the man's voice, he took a breath, and stepped out of the woods, into his yard. CC had no idea that Taylor was taking strength from his tone. In the words of his indubitable college professor, he was "shitting a brick". Ceec could not remember ever having been so scared in his life. This kid was on the edge, OVER the edge, hanging off a cliff, and if CC dropped him now, it was all over. Cautiously eyeing the crowd in the front, CC took Taylor's wrist, and pulled gently. "Come on, keep quiet. Unless you really want to deal with them." Taylor shook his head, trying to keep quiet. Neither of them saw the man watching them, from the side of the house.

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Karen watched Zac from her vantage point at the nurses desk. True to his word, he'd accepted the green Jell-O with every appearance of enjoyment. Not that it had helped his disposition much. He was achy, bored, miserable, and the Jell-O, however much he had liked it, had nauseated him, and made his stomach hurt. Unfortunately for Karen, he'd found her a safe target for his unhappiness, and after half an hour of being snapped at, she'd retreated to the safety of the desk, watching him from a distance. Sighing heavily, she turned to her paperwork, logging down Zac's bad mood. Eyeing the spot on the form for comments, she briefly toyed with the idea of suggesting punting him out into traffic, scolded herself for her unkind thoughts, and sighed again. He was just a little boy, he was sick, he was lonely, he had every right to be griping. "What's the matter hon, you ok?" Tracey took the chair next to hers. "Yeah, I'm fine. Zac's just kind of... well here. Read." She pushed the chart at Tracey, who read it with a smirk. "Well, I have a suggestion for the both of you." "Really, what's that?" "Time to get Zac, off the unit, and down onto the floor. Get some of the stuff off him, the cath, the probes, give him a bath. All the kids love the new whirlpool." Karen grinned. She knew they did, and if that didn't sweeten him up, she wasn't sure what would. "Once he's off the unit stretcher and into a bed, with a phone and a TV, he'll chill out." "Probably. That's a good idea. I'll go tell him." She shoved her chair out, and started around the desk. "Oh, Karen..." "Yeah?" "You might as well go with him. He likes you. You like him. And do you really want to subject the poor, unsuspecting floor girls to him?" She snickered at the look on Karen's face. "You know you like him. Now go on and tell him, I'll call down and make sure they have a bed ready." Karen laughed, and nodded. She did like Zac, and he most likely would perk up when he got off the unit. She headed for his bed, smiling to herself when she saw him quickly shut his eyes. "Oh no, tiger, I'm not falling for that one. I know you're awake. Up and at 'em Ace, we're movin' out." Zac's eyes flew open, then slitted suspiciously. "Movin' out where?" "You're moving down to the regular floor. You're not sick enough to be up here anymore." "I don't wanna move." "Sure you do. You're lucky you know, not everyone gets their own private nurse. It's slow here tonight, so it looks like I'm going with you." His eyes were still narrowed, he wasn't liking this moving idea at all. "Zac... shove over." He slid over a little, making room for her, and she sat next to him, smiling as he snuggled up close to her. "It's no big deal, moving down to the floor. We'll get all the tape, and glue, and tubes out, you can take a bath, there's a killer new whirlpool down there, you'll have a TV, and a phone. You'll be a whole lot more comfortable." "And you're comin' with me?" "Yep." Sighing, he nodded. "I guess. Hey wait..." He pulled away from her, something she'd said suddenly registering. "What tubes are being taken out?" He was very much afraid he knew. "Well Zac, the catheter. You don't need it anymore." He went a little red, and averted his eyes. "And WHO is gonna take that out?" "I am, Zac." The slight blush deepened to crimson, and he shook his head vehemently. "No. No way. No females allowed, no way. Not gonna happen." Karen bit her lip, struggling not to laugh. "Zac, gimme a break. I'm a nurse. It's my job." "Well, yeah, but you're a girl! No, no, no, no, it's just not gonna happen." Sighing, knowing it very well was going to happen, Karen let it go, and changed the subject. "I'll be right back. Why don't you put this on..." She handed him a robe, "and these..." the robe was followed by socks, "and I'll be back in just a minute." Zac did as she asked, the upcoming procedure still heavy on his mind.

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Isaac watched his shadow as he walked. "I'm stepping on myself. How ridiculous." Thinking he'd just finally cracked, he sighed. "Ike, you're losing it. Losing it hard..." "Ike?" Isaac looked up, surprised to see himself outside the Elliott's house. "Oh, hey Jay..." He waved absently, and kept walking, one step, two... Jay. Jason. His tired mind tried to grasp something and missed. Jason. Jason! Spinning around, he sprinted up the stairs, startling Jason into dropping the phone. "Jay, you're here!!" Jason nodded wanly. "Yeah." "Where were you?! When did you get back?! Where's Zac?!" Jason held a hand up, desperate to slow down the rush of words. His head ached. "Slow down, slow down. I don't know when I got back, I just woke up. I slept all day. I don't know where Zac is." "Whaddaya mean you don't know?!" "Ike, c'mon, my head." Isaac stepped back, and took in the younger boy, finally realizing that Jay was sick. "Man, you look awful." "I feel awful." Isaac sat down next to him. "Jay, where'd you guys go, and how can you not know where Zac is?" Jason sighed. "I don't know. We just went camping. Zac was sick, I guess I knew he was, but I wouldn't let him stop. We jumped the train and ended up lost. Some guy took him to the hospital, I don't know which hospital, I don't know who the guy was, I don't know anything. I can't even find my mom..." He broke off, blinking back tears, and Isaac slid an arm around him. "Jay, your mom's at our house. They're planning on going on the news, asking for help finding you guys. Why didn't you call us?!" Jason toed the phone, lying belly up on the deck. "I have been. It's either busy, or nobody answers." "Aw, yeah it's nuts over there. Come on, come back with me, you have to tell them what happened. Is Zac okay?" Jason shook his head. "I don't think so, I don't know. He was awful sick, and this guy that picked us up, his dad took him to some hospital somewhere. The kid drove me home." Isaac stared thoughtfully for a few minutes, finally nodding to himself. "Come on with me." Jason nodded, and they started down the sidewalk.

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"Here Zac, pretend it's a limo." Zac snickered, eyeing the wheelchair. He knew he was supposed to insist he could walk, but in all honesty, he didn't much feel like it. He watched as Karen detached the IV bag, and hooked it to a pole on the back of the chair. "Okay sweetie, c'mon. I'm gonna help you, you might get a little woozy when you stand up." He nodded, climbing down carefully. Between the IV and the catheter, there was a lot of unpleasant tugging going on, and he'd be glad when this trip was over. "Y'doin' okay hon?" He nodded, sitting down carefully. Standing and sitting just weren't all they were cracked up to be. "Here, hold this". She handed him a bag containing his balled up clothes, and started out of the room, waylaid by Tracey. Smiling, she knelt down to Zac's level. "Bye bye Zachary Hanson, you be good." He nodded, and smiled a little, leaning back as far as he could. "How long a ride is this, Karen?" "Just down the hall, hon. Won't be long." He nodded. Good, he wanted to lie back down. He watched the doors moving past, slightly dizzy, grateful when she finally stopped. "Here we are Ace, home sweet home." "Yeah, good." He had to admit, it was a lot more pleasant. Almost homey. He let her help him into the new bed, sighing a little. It was a lot more comfortable than what he'd been lying on upstairs. He settled back, eyes fixing on the TV. "Oh hey! Hey what's on?" She chuckled, and shook her head. "Later Zac, we have stuff to do" His eyes narrowed again, she was beginning to recognize that look. "What kinda stuff?" "Zac, you know what kinda stuff. Here, get your arm up, and I'll get that thermometer off you." "Is that what that is?" He winced a little as she removed the tape. "Yep." She handed the probe to him. "Just like a turkey, we had to see if you were done. Be grateful they put it under your arm." His eyes widened in absolute horror. "You people are just gross, do you know that?" She shrugged. "You do what you have to, Zac." She stood, watching him for a few minutes. Some of his color had started to come back, after the trip down here. Good. Sighing, she eyed him steadily. "Zac..." "No. No, I know what you're thinking. NO." "Zac, I have to." "No. In this whole hospital, you can't come up with one guy to do this? There are guy nurses, I know there are." "Zac, if there were someone here, I'd be the first one running to get him, but you're surrounded by female nurses. You know, a female nurse put it IN, Zac." "Yeah, well I didn't know that, did I?" "Zac, it has to come out." She felt bad for him, there was real dread in his face. Sighing, he looked away from her. "Zac..." He grabbed his pillow, flipped it over his head, and from behind it his muffled voice came. "Go ahead. Just do it fast. I'll try to smother myself." "Zac..." She sighed. It took her less than a minute to accomplish the task at hand, and she tapped him on the shoulder. "Deeds done, you can come out now. I'm gonna go start the tub." She left quickly, not wanting him to see any amusement on her face.

"You're not gonna wash me too, are you?" Zac had about had it. It was all beginning to be a little much. The thought of the hot, bubbling water sounded good to him, but his modesty had suffered enough. Always a private person, it was hard for him to tolerate all of these violations. "Nope sweetie, you are. Just don't get that hand wet. I have to stay in the room though. You're nowhere near ready to be on your own." Sighing, he nodded. The bath had just become a chore. "Zac, hang on. I have an idea. I'm not supposed to do this, and housekeeping is going to kill me, but just hold on." She left him sitting on the chair in the tubroom, and he heard her steps trotting down the hall. A very few moments later he heard her coming back. "Zac, lookie what I found" She held up a bottle, and Zac laughed, delighted as he read it. "Mr. Bubble. Karen, you are too cool." She grinned, pouring a generous amount under the running water. "I won't be able to see a thing. I am gonna have to help you in and out though. Can you stand that?" He nodded, watching as the tub filled with bubbles. He'd never seen so many, and made a mental note to try for one of these whirlpool things at home. He let her help him in, sighing at the warmth that surrounded him. "Oh, God..." His groan of pleasure made her smile. "Told you your situation was about to improve. She squirted liquid soap onto a washcloth and handed it to him. "Go to town hon, I'm gonna start on your hair." He nodded, and she watched, amused as he stuck a foot up, grinning at the bubbles on it. "I feel like Mackie" "Who?" "My little brother. He has a thing for bubbles." Smiling, she instructed him gently. "Tip your head back sweetie, so I don't drown you." He did as she asked, then went back to what he was doing, mixing bubbles with soap to make thick creamy lather. As he played, forgetting for the moment that he was naked in the tub, with a girl in attendance, he began to sing, absently to himself. She wasn't sure, he had to keep stopping to cough, and to clear his throat, but it sounded as if he had a pretty good voice. "What's that song, Zac?" He smiled, and leaned his head back to look up at her "That is "Weird". You like it?" She nodded. "It's pretty. Who sings it?" He sat up suddenly, splashing water all over her. "Who sings it? Who SINGS it? I sing it!" Her eyebrows went up at that. "Oh really, and who sings it NORMALLY?" "ME!" "Zac..." He heard the skepticism in her voice, and indignation turned to wonder. "Karen, I'm Zac Hanson. Y'know, Hanson?" She smiled blankly. "And that's supposed to tell me what?" "You've never heard of Hanson?" Karen shook her head, still smiling, though the word was ringing a very faint bell. "Can't say that I have Zac. Hush up now and close your eyes, so I can rinse your hair." Flabbergasted, he shut his mouth, and let her do it, wondering how in the world she'd managed to not know who he was. As soon as she finished, he began again, listing off his various accomplishments. Karen listened, fascinated. "Son of a gun..." The thought floated through here mind "My little Zac's a celebrity" She eyed the bubbles in his hair and chuckled. He didn't look much like one. "So, you just traveled all over the world?" "Yeah, It was awesome. We had to stop though, when Tay got sick..." His voice trailed off, and she saw his eyes begin to glimmer. "Who's Tay?" His sigh was shaky, bitter. "My brother. I don't wanna talk about that." "How many brothers and sisters do you have, Zac?" she steered him away easily, and marveled at the number he quoted her. "My God, do you live in a hotel?!" He giggled. "Nope, and we only have one bathroom, too." He paused then, the thought suddenly occurring to him. "Karen..." "Hmm?" "How come my mom's not here? She hasn't even called..." He looked up at her, eyes brimming over again, and Karen nodded shortly. "Zac, I think I know the answer to that. Let's get you out of that tub, and you can call her." "But..." "Zac, we don't know who dropped you off here." Her voice was tight as she helped him out of the tub, modesty forgotten by both of them. She dried him off quickly. "Someone left you downstairs and took off. You're mom may not even know where you are. So, I think calling her is just an EXCELLENT idea." He grabbed the towel from her, drying himself off as fast as he could. "Nobody called my house? Karen, nobody called my house??!!" She could hear anger, as well as anxiety in his voice. "No, Zac, nobody did. Doreen asked you for your phone number, and you didn't give it to her. I was planning to ask you again when we got done here." "But you know my name!" "Is the phone listed in your name, sweetie?" Her logic was inexorable. "Uh... no." "Alright then. Now sit down, the last thing you need is a concussion, because you keeled over trying to jog to the phone. We're gonna go call her right now."

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Peter Robinson looked up from his lenses, as motion caught the edge of his vision. What was that? Puzzled, he looked from the man and the boy just exiting the woods, to the crowd beside him. Was that the kid everyone was looking for? Blond, thin, with a companion. But no, the runaway kid was a lot younger. Frowning, thinking it looked awfully suspicious, he started toward them, quickly, quietly. As he got closer, he realized the man was literally holding the boy up, seemingly coaxing him through each step. Was the boy sick? He looked sick. Did they need help? Setting his extra lenses down, slinging his camera around his neck, he sped up, reaching them just as the approached the back porch. "Excuse me?" His voice startled them, he saw them jump, and the boy's eyes widened. The mans hand tightened on the boys elbow, and Pete saw that the boy was about to run. "Oh, oh easy now, I'm..." His hand, meant to be comforting, gripped the boy's shoulder, as the sun flashed off the camera lens. Flash ! Pete's world exploded with pain and sound, as an unearthly screech filled his head, and his lips mashed back against his teeth. "Holy shit, he just belted me!" Blipped through his mind, and then the pain hit again, this time harder, and his feet slid from beneath him. Shaking his head, squinting in the sunlight, he thought he saw the boy running, the man on his heels.

*******************

Zac hung up the phone, frustrated. "Karen, it's still busy. Something's not right." Karen suspected he was right, but she wasn't about to say so. "Is there another number you can call? One that might not be busy? They're probably calling around looking for you..." He nodded, and pressed the outside line. "Ike's beeper. Or Tay's... Someone's." He sighed, anxiety stamped across his face, as he dialed the number.

********************

A touch on his neck, and a flash of light on glass, and Taylor's world crashed in on him. Coherent thought left him, and his mind played images, jagged as broken glass, leaving him gashed and bleeding. Flash. That hand, that voice, "LET ME GO!!" He struck out, once, twice, had to get away! Hand in his hair, tangled, pulling, it HURT!! Can't get away. "I can't get away!" Panic, "He's got me, what's he gonna do to me?!?! He'll take me away, get away from me!!" He ran then, every face he saw that face, every touch that touch, every glimmer of light, the flash of a bulb from a camera. Blind, deaf, closed to reality, he had to get away.

CC never had time to think. It all happened too fast. One minute they were home free, feet bare inches from the steps, the next, Taylor was gone, a man was bleeding at his feet, and in his ears, he could hear screaming. Bare seconds took in the situation, and years of crisis training kicked in. Before anyone else had digested the situation, CC was after Taylor. He was taller, his legs were longer, and he was in better condition, but Taylor was running in blind panic. Terror, cold and dreamy, suddenly flooded him, making him feel faint. The road. He was headed for the road. Knowing he'd never catch him in time, he tried to speed up.

********************

Isaac entered the yard, Jason dragging along beside him. Man, the kid was slow. "Jay, you sure you're alright?" Jason nodded dully. His eyes felt full of sand, and his back ached fiercely. "I'm okay. Just tired." Isaac nodded, and Jason felt absently guilty. This was probably what Zac had felt like, the entire time he, Jason, his FRIEND, had been goading and bullying him. "God, I'm a creep". He sighed, and leaned a little on Isaac, who slid an arm around him. "Hold on, buddy, you're almost there. You're really wiped, huh?" Isaac looked down suddenly, as his pager beeped. Absently, not really worried about returning anyone's calls, he switched it off. "You gonna be okay, Jay?" Again the dull nod. "Ike..." He broke off then, as Isaac's gaze suddenly shifted. What was he looking at?

.

Chapter 40

Isaac's attention had been seized by a flurry of motion. What the hell was going on over there, was that TAYLOR yelling like that? He watched, puzzled, it was hard to make out what was going on. He watched, the crowd forgotten. "Oh my God, he's headed for the road!" The blind panic on his brother's face, and his headlong rush toward the highway, imprinted themselves onto Isaac at the same time. Leaving Jason standing there, he took off at a dead run.

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"God, get away from me!" Reality had ceased to exist. Taylor's mind took him back, dropping him into a nightmare he'd never really awakened from. The nightmare of the past. The man on the bench slid closer, and his hand slid up Taylor's leg. "You're so much more... photogenic... than your brothers." Taylor shook him off, and slid away... "I didn't wander off!" His father's face, sympathetic but frustrated, "I didn't go anywhere, I didn't do anything!!" "Do yourself a favor, come with me..." That hand, on his neck, "God let me go!!" He jumped off the bench, foot touching pavement... His voice, lost in a scream, as something hit him, and hit him hard.

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"Taylor stop!!" Isaac's voice was lost in the shriek that pealed from his brother's mouth. "TAYLOR!!!" He knew he had to stop him, and he had bare seconds to do it. "Goddamn it Taylor!" He threw himself in his brother's path, his greater weight taking them both down. He heard his brother's grunt as his body hit the ground, heard his gasps for breath. "Oh Christ I hurt him..." "Don't let him up!" CC's voice, panting, "Don't let him up, for God sake, if you love him, hold on to him!" CC dropped next to him, eyeing Taylor quickly. He'd had the wind knocked out of him, but he'd recover soon enough, and when he did, he'd take off. The thought was barely out of his head, when Taylor suddenly lunged, nails ripping at his brother's face. "GET OFF ME!!" Isaac pulled back, shoving the clawing hands out of his face, and Taylor jumped up, only to be tackled by CC. "Ike hold ON to him!" Isaac nodded grimly, blinking against the blood trickling into his eye. "TAY! CC what's wrong with him?!" He shouted over the screams. Even with CC's considerable assistance, it took every ounce of strength to keep his brother pinned. CC shook his head, crossing an arm over Taylor's chest. "Just hold on until he calms down."

Images, flashing too fast to focus. Hands on him, everywhere, flashes of light, "Stop looking at me!!!" "Come with me, I've been trying to get you alone all day..." Hands on him again, hand's on his "please don't touch me... I didn't mean to wander off, YOU SAID IT WAS SAFE!!" Images, his brother, CC, the police, that face, that voice! Holding him down, holding him for HIM! Blood, there was blood, bright and slick in the back of his throat, choking him, gagging him, "GET OFF ME!!!"

Isaac and CC held on, watching in horror as rills of blood ran out the corners of the boy's mouth. "CC..." "It's okay, Ike, it looks worse than it is." "Why is he bleeding?!?!" CC's head shot up. If Ike got hysterical there was no way. "Isaac!!" He risked freeing one hand, and took hold of Isaac's head. "Just hold him!!! It's gonna stop!"

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Zac's frustration had become something close to hysteria by this time, and Karen had all she could do to keep him in bed. The main number was busy, nobody was answering the pages, and the child was frantic. "Zac, sweetie, I'm sure it's alright. Give them some time. They'll call back." He shook his head. "Something's wrong. I'm calling Tay's pager. Somebody has to be able to call me back!!" He looked up at her, his expression heartbreaking. "I just want to talk to my mom, Karen, I just want to talk to my mom..." Sighing, she nodded, and squeezed his hand. "We'll just keep trying, hon. We'll get through."

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"JUST BACK OFF!!" Tiffany's voice rose above the din. "Get out of my way! Just move!!" She ran for the cruiser, parked in the driveway, and banged on the glass. "Get out! Come on, they need help, come ON!!" He voice, vaguely hysterical brought the man out of the car immediately. "You have to help them, will you get OUT of my way!!" She shouted, then shoved the mane with the microphone, who had approached her. "Get these people out of here, and go HELP them!! Are you all blind!!" She gestured wildly toward the struggle on the grass, and ran for the house to get Diana.

CC bit back a scream as Taylor's teeth sank into his wrist. Resisting the urge to yank his arm away, he pushed hard, into the boys' mouth. Pressure on his jaw forced Taylor's mouth open, and CC pulled his arm free. "Oh God..., are you okay?" Isaac's face was white, tears streaming freely down his face. "God, What's wrong with him?" It was taking everything he had, and he was tiring rapidly. CC didn't answer. There was no time to answer. His own strength was rapidly giving out, pain taking a lot of endurance from him. At some point, Taylor's head had crashed into his face, and he could feel broken teeth in his mouth. This had to end, and it had to end soon, for all three of their sakes. Neither of them noticed the men in uniform, quickly edging the crowd of onlookers back, noticed the din of family and friends, heard the cries of people wishing to help. The world had narrowed to each other, and the struggling, biting, clawing boy on the ground. Another pair of hands suddenly appeared, strong, large hands, pushing down on his chest, pinning him securely. "You..." The man nodded at CC. "Get him up close to you and hang on. Full contact, you'll never keep him down this way, he's too strong." CC nodded. "I know, I need to get his arms pinned." " I've got him, you get yourself situated" CC let go, and sat back, and the man with the large hands gripped the boy tightly, picked him up, ignoring the fingers that went for his eyes, and shoved him up against CC's chest. CC's arms were around him in an instant, and Isaac moved forward, pinning his legs. Taylor's struggles, with his arms securely held, became more muted, more manageable. "There, you'll be able to hold him better. I've already radioed for an ambulance, what happened h..." He broke off as Taylor suddenly spat in his face, lunging forward out of CC's grip, coming suddenly face to face with Isaac. For just a moment, all was quiet, and Isaac reached up a hand to touch his brother. "Tay..." Taylor's response was an animal growl, and he struck like a snake, biting Isaac's face, nails going for his brothers eyes. Isaac, pain unimaginable, felt blackness invading, as his vision narrowed to a pinprick.

A moment later, Taylor was screaming, and CC's voice rammed his head, bringing him back to some sort of soupy alertness. "What'd you do!! Jesus fucked up Christ what'd you do to him!!!" Nightmare images, Taylor, screaming and clawing at his own eyes, blood, so much blood, everywhere, who's was it? The cop, with something in his hand, what was that? "You fucking maced him?!! Jesus Christ!!" CC's voice, fury beyond measure, and then his father was there, picking up Taylor, who's screams went on, and on, but who's struggles, for now, had dimmed. "Ike! Ike, come on, don't stay out here." CC's voice. Something was ringing. Beeping. What was that? God, his face hurt, what was wrong with him, and what was that noise?! Absently, automatically, not even realizing what he was doing, he reached down and turned of his pager for at least the twelfth time.

"Stay out, just keep them out!" CC's voice rang through the room. Isaac kept quiet. He didn't know anything, he couldn't seem to think. Shivering, he looked around, his eyes settling on Taylor. Walker had brought him into the living room, laid him down, and silently, so silently, begun rinsing the chemical from his eyes. Taylor's struggles had ceased, but his voice, a dull monotone now, throat hoarse from screaming, went on and on. God damn it, there went his pager again. He glanced down, barely registered the number, and switched it off again, as his brother, somehow triggered by the sound, fought his way up off the couch, running again. Men suddenly, many of them, bags, equipment, radios. Where had they come from? What were they doing? "Don't! Don't touch him!" Silver needle, glinting in the light, driven into his brother's body. "What're you doing to him!?" "Calm down, son, it's okay." Isaac looked up at the man who was washing off the side of his face. Blood ran onto his legs in threads. "Who's bleeding?" "You are, buddy. Hold still." "Why am I bleeding? God, I'm so cold..." the man looked at CC, who nodded shortly. "Shock." The EMT sighed, and looked at the girl in the doorway. "Go get a blanket, would you?" She nodded, and fled, grateful for the opportunity to do something. Isaac tried to make sense of the conversations around him. They wanted to take Taylor away. CC was telling them not to. The worst was over now, he was a doctor, it would all be okay. Isaac shivering had increased to the point where it was hard to sit up, and the man taking care of his face slipped an arm around him. "Take it easy, son, you're alright. Hell of a thing though, isn't it?" Isaac nodded, numbly accepted the blanket draped around him, and turned back to his brother. What was he saying?

"Shut up, all of you, shut up! Listen!" Taylor had collapsed onto the floor, and one of the men picked him up, setting him back onto the couch. His voice was ragged, his eyes open, glazed and far away. The men in the ambulance had given him a shot, Ike had seen it, and he'd gone limp and tractable, but the words went on and on. Gradually, as the men finished their work, the room quieted down, and they began to hear the words. Brow knit, CC moved in close, and spoke softly. "Tay, what did you say?" Taylor's gaze turned toward CC, and his eyes tried to focus. "I didn't do n'thin." "I know you didn't. What do they think you did?" Taylor's sigh was bitter and heavy, and when he spoke, Isaac felt a horrible chill. The voice that came from his brother's mouth, wasn't quite Taylor's. Horrible voice, suggestive, almost lewd. "You're so much more photogenic than your brothers. I've been trying to get you alone all day. Do yourself a favor" His eyes flickered away again, and Isaac felt a fainting kind of terror seize him. He'd heard those words before..."CC..." CC nodded, waving Isaac away. "Ike, it's okay, it happens. Taylor, who said that to you?" Taylor's eyes rolled back to him, "The man in the park." His gaze turned heavenward "Look how he's looking at you Tay, get up. Come on, stop that." Isaac trembled, the voice coming from Taylor's mouth was almost his. "Gross, tell dad, just get away from him." CC's eyes met Walker's, and he saw a dreadful understanding there.

Taylor's voice came again, "I wasn't doing anything. I was all ready. I just sat down to wait. It wasn't my fault, I didn't mean to ruin it all..." Again, the voice that issued from his mouth altered, and this time CC's eyes turned to Walker. "Don't go anywhere near him, and don't go anywhere alone, stay together. Damn it Taylor, we told you not to go off alone!" The voice dropped away again, to that same hoarse mumble. "I've been trying to get you alone all day, what're you hanging around with losers like them anyway? You've got what it takes to be a star, come with me, I'll show you." The boy's eyes suddenly narrowed to slits, and he raised up on his elbows. "Come with me NOW!" His eyes met his brother's, flickered to his father, and lit on CC. Something in them cleared then, and they filled with tears. "CC, God, help me?" The plea was a whisper, and CC reached out and pulled the boy close to him, rubbing his back, holding him tightly. Chills ran through him, at what he'd just seen. Not that he hadn't seen it before, but he'd had no idea things were as bad as that with this boy. He held the crying child to his chest, never moving, until the boy suddenly pulled away, turned, stared into his brother's eyes. CC watched, carefully. Isaac had every reason to be afraid, but no, there was no fear in those brown eyes. Love, yes, and a guilt so strong it streamed from him. But no fear. Taylor must have seen this too, because he tore loose of the hands that held him, CC's and his father's, and flung himself into his brother's arms. Isaac's arms came around him then, and his eyes met CC's. "We knew about this." His voice was a whisper. "How could we have known about this all this time..." Walker finished the thought for him. "And never realized it was killing him?" CC sighed. He knew that answer, that was an easy one. But they weren't ready for that yet. He watched Isaac holding his brother, watched Taylor's face. He saw it before it happened, saw the color suddenly fade to nothing, and signaled Isaac. "He's gonna get sick, you better move him." Ike shook his head, if anything holding the boy more tightly. "It's okay, I'm not letting him go. Not until he wants me to." CC nodded, and when Taylor did vomit, Isaac never moved. Never flinched. CC turned to Walker, and motioned him to follow. When they'd reached the doorway, out of earshot of the two boys, he gestured back toward them. "He's through the worst of it now. There's no need to take him anywhere, you can send the EMT's away, if you're comfortable with it." "Will you stay? Then fine, send them away." His attention was suddenly caught by a sound from his sons. "What in the..." Isaac shrugged, and smiled a little. "It's his pager. Mine's gone off about a million times." He reached down, shut it off, and gently laid his brother, now sleeping, back on the couch. "I'm gonna go get changed." He edged past the two men in the doorway, eyes averted.

As he passed the front door, he heard the noise level suddenly pick up, and glanced outside. His poor mom, there she was, trying to get those people away from here. "I should help her..." He took a step toward the door, glanced down at himself, and grimaced. "No, she's got Tiff, I'm taking a shower... God I'm talking to myself." He headed upstairs, noticing as he passed the hall table, that someone's pager was beeping. "What is it with all these damned pagers?" He ignored it, shutting the bathroom door on the annoying sound.

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Diana's voice was beginning to give out. Damn these people anyway, why wouldn't they shut up?! It was killing her, not being in there with Tay, God only knew what was going on, but she knew she'd be in the way. One more body underfoot wasn't going to help anyone, and her hold on rationality was shaky at best. It wouldn't help anyone if she went ballistic, and she suspected the sight of her son in the condition he seemed to be in, would be enough to tip her over. "No, no sorry." She wedged the phone against her ear, trying to figure out what the man on the other end was talking about. He was blathering away about something, God knew, possibly God cared, what. Diana didn't. "No, officer, if you could just get them before they leave." "Ma'am, they have the right..." "God damn it!! Diana forgot the man on the phone "I have the right, my SON has the right, to not have something like this blasted across the airwaves! He's just a little boy! Now are you gonna help me, or stand there with your thumb up your ass!" Shocked, the policeman nodded, and quietly directed his crew to speak to the press. He was a family man himself, he understood where she was coming from. Among the instructions he gave them what he considered the most important: to turn a blind eye to the friends and members of this family, who were busily waylaying photographers and journalists, exposing films and absconding tapes. "Protect your own folks, I won't stand in your way..."

"Drop it, buddy!"

The man with the camera eyed Diana, amused. "Oh, I don't think so. Freedom of the press y'know." She advanced on him, eyes flashing. "Freedom of my fist up your nose, now give it over!" "You can't touch me, I'll slap a lawsuit on you so fast..." She took a step closer. "Try me! Just try me! Let me tell you how it is! I have one kid missing! We don't know where he is, or even if he's alive. THAT is why you are here. We called you people here to HELP us. I have one kid who maybe just keeled over dead, I DON'T KNOW! Because I'm too busy trying to get YOU PEOPLE out of my YARD, to even to find out! Now if you really think I care about any lawsuit, you just keep talking. But that film is going to be in my hand, one way or another. YOU decide!" The look on her face, more than any words, decided him. She was crazy. She'd kill him as soon as look at him. He backed away, ejecting the cartridge from the video camera, and dropping it at her feet. She watched him go, retrieved the tape, and turned away, bumping into Pete Robinson.

"Oh, ma'am, I'm sorry." He stepped back, apologetic. "Just wanted to give you this." He handed her the film from his camera. "I didn't take any pictures, but you don't know that." She eyed him carefully. His nose was bleeding, and his mouth swollen. "You're the guy that was over there with Taylor." He shrugged. "I guess that's his name. The kid that blew a gasket over there. He's your son?" "He's my son. Y'ok? Looks like he kinda messed you up." The man looked down, embarrassed. "I'm fine ma'am. It was my fault anyway, I think I scared him. I was only trying to help..." Sighing, she nodded, and looked around. There were still a zillion people here, but it looked like they were well in hand. "Ma'am?" She turned back to him. "I wanted to know if I could help. I'm..." He shrugged helplessly, and she smiled, just as the phone rang again. "You can give them a hand with those idiots down there, no offense, if you don't mind." He nodded. "Glad too." Thinking he was a nice man, Diana hit the talk button on the phone "What!"

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Zac had had it. Whatever was going on, they were ignoring his pages. Probably didn't recognize the number. Sighing, he thought hard. How could he let them know it was him? "Karen?" "Hmmm?" she was sitting behind him, vainly trying to remove the tats from his hair. "If I was to call Ike's pager again, and type in my pager number, do you suppose he'd figure out it was me trying to call?" Karen, marveling at a world where children had secret pager numbers, nodded. "He might. He might at least think it was odd." "Then I can put this number through to my pager." Impressed with the way the boy's mind worked, she nodded. "That just might work, Zac. What have you got to lose?" He nodded, and dialed again, wishing he could shake the feeling that something was a lot more wrong than just them looking for him.

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Isaac sank into a chair, exhausted beyond belief. Across the room, Taylor slept on, unmindful of the chaos around him. Almost envying him, Isaac shut his eyes. This was all just too much. He felt steps away from just going insane and becoming a babbling idiot. Well, at least now that Jason was back, they could... Jason! God, he'd left him standing out there! Jumping up, he ran out to the steps, scanning. Where had he gone? Did anyone know he was here? "Mom!" She turned, phone plastered to her ear "What is it baby?" "Jason! Did you see Jason?" "What? Ike, no, baby Jason's with Zac, remember? You better go lie down..." "No, Mom! He's... Damn it!" His pager went off again, and he regretted the habit that kept making him put it on. Yanking it off his belt, he fully intended to heave it out into the yard. "Look at the damn thing!" The voice shouted in his head. What the hell? "Well that was weird" Still, weird as phantom voices were, they did serve to catch his attention, and he looked down at the little screen. Wait. He knew that number. What the hell was it? Thinking, head aching "Oh God, my brain hurts! Is that even possible?!" he stared at the number. "Oh my God." Realization hit him like a slap in the face. "Oh my GOD!" Flying into the house, he ran for the upstairs hall. It was Zac's number. Zac's pager number flashing on the screen. Who knew Zac's number? He, Tay, and their mom and dad. And Zac. Snatching Zac's pager from the upstairs table he saw the number that had been appearing on his pager all day. "Son of a bitch!" He ran downstairs, both pagers in hand, and collided with Diana on the porch. "Give me the phone, give me the phone!!" He yanked it from her hand, shoving her away, ignoring her angry retorts. Zac. It had to be Zac. Frantically, he dialed in the number.

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Sound crept in around the edges of consciousness. Voices mostly. God, his head hurt. And his throat! "Oh God..." He tried to speak, swollen throat closing on the words. Struggling to clear it, coughing, gagging, his eyes flew open. God it hurt! Soft voice near his ear, "That's alright Tay, just try to stay quiet. Here, sip this..." Something cold, against his lips, water, icy cold, easing the pain, making it feel a little less like he was suffocating. Gentle arms holding him. Cleared his throat again, more carefully this time, the pain not so knifelike. More of the water. Better, this was better. So tired... he shifted his eyes to the person holding him. "Ceec?" His voice was barely a whisper, and he tasted blood in his mouth. CC nodded. "Yeah, it's me. It's going to hurt like blazes to talk, so you may want to just keep quiet." Taylor shook his head, regretting it almost immediately, as the room spun. "No." Coughing again, whimpering at the pain, he reached an arm around his friend's neck, burying his face in his shoulder. "No, please..." CC stroked his hair, holding him tightly. "Tay, I'm right here. Whatever you need to say, I'll wait for." The boy pulled away, and CC felt those blue eyes boring into his. "No. Go..." He struggled with it again, trying to clear a blockage that couldn't be cleared. "Get my dad, I need... He stopped to sip the ice water, sighing a little as it washed over his burning throat. "I need to talk to you." Sighing a little, CC nodded. "Okay, Tay. He's right here." Taylor twisted around, and his eyes lit on his father, filling with tears almost at once.