Charlie was going to be sick. He opened his eyes, almost panicking at the force of the nausea ripping through him. The floor he was lying on was cold and metallic, the vibrations beneath him adding to his discomfort. His vision was blurry, and he blinked, trying to figure out where he was. He tried to turn onto his side, but he couldn't seem to get enough momentum to move, his body heavy, slow to respond. He managed to turn his head instead and found himself staring into a glassy, brown eye.
The realization of what was lying only inches away and what had happened to it was the final trigger and he heaved.
His vision swam as he lay there, helpless and vulnerable. His muscles wouldn't obey, his head was fuzzy, partial memory of the dead antelope reminding him of the danger he was in. Don had to know where he was, right?
The metal walls seemed to shift and swerve, the vibrations underneath him easing slightly. He tried to focus, tried to listen, but something sharp was shoved into his arm and the room faded.
- - - - - -
Charlie snorted, then woke up choking. He spat water from his nose and mouth and coughed some more when the cold water returned. Raising his head and opening his eyes, he looked around blearily. His hair had fallen into his face, but what he could see between the sodden strands was blurry, and he wondered why he was lying face down in the shower.
With cold water running, no less. He was freezing and shivering like crazy.
His hands were caught somewhere behind his back. With a bit of difficulty, he turned onto his side, thus managing to get his nose and mouth out of the flow of cold water.
"Dad?" His voice came out as a rasp, and even in his disorientated condition, he knew his father wouldn't hear his voice over the running water. "Dad?" This time his call was louder, so he waited, trying to hear over the pounding.
Charlie coughed again and tried to shake the hair out of his face, but the wet strands were well-plastered and the continued downpour kept them in place.
He lay there shivering, and realized if help wasn't coming, he'd have to get out of the shower himself. His head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton, his mouth dry and pasty despite the water that kept trickling into it. He angled himself so he could rise onto his side, then kicked out with oddly heavy legs, finally managing to bring his numb body upright.
That was when he realized he wasn't in the shower. Hell, he wasn't even at home.
Blinking away the water dripping into his eyes, he peered fuzzily at the wooded area around him. He was lying in a large clearing, and a couple feet away were the corpses of the dead antelopes, partly covered with a tarpaulin.
Charlie raised his knees and lowered his forehead against them, feeling the torrential rain pounding on the back of his neck and trickling forward again into his nose and mouth. Spitting out the water, he angled his face so he could breathe more easily.
The dead animals were the key reason he was here, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember why. But someone had brought the antelopes here, so there had to be somebody around who could help him.
He pushed himself to his knees, then swayed as the world spun sickeningly. Charlie swallowed back bile, and allowed some water to fall into his mouth and swallowed it, hoping it would ease the burning sensation in the back of his throat.
Charlie managed to stand, shivering all the while, his balance totally off due to the fact that his hands were tied behind his back and his whole body was numb. He looked around, almost desperate now to find a way out of the wet and cold, and took a few stumbling steps forward toward the wooded area, then stopped when he saw nobody there.
He turned, walked around the tarpaulins, and headed in the other direction. His sneakers slid in the muddy ground and Charlie fell to one knee. He took a deep breath, steadied himself, and as he attempted to stand again, he saw it.
An axe, stuck deep in an old stump. Piles of cut wood littered the area beneath a lean-to of sorts, but Charlie only had eyes for the axe. He slid his way to it and then knelt with his back to the stump. He angled his hands, trying not to catch his numb fingers on the edge of the blade, and began sawing the ropes binding his hands together.
He tensed his muscles, trying to stop his trembling as he worked his heavy and frozen arms up and down. His whole body hurt in that position: his thighs and back burned as he leaned awkwardly, his chest and shoulders throbbed from being pulled backward by the bindings, and his forearms ached as he worked himself free. Rain blew over him, sending uncontrollable shudders through him that at times seemed to force him to catch his breath. His head pounded fiercely and his stomach clenched, sending another warm gush of bile into his mouth.
Charlie stopped sawing and coughed, losing control over his body to the tremors. He spat, rinsed his mouth with rainwater, and eased back toward the axe once more.
When the ropes gave, his arms fell apart suddenly. Charlie just knelt there for a moment, then eased his arms forward. He shook off the remaining strands of rope, then frowned when he saw blood dripping down his right palm.
He brought his hand close to his face, noting a small but deep nick in the fleshy part of his thumb. Charlie brought his hand to his mouth and felt the cut with his tongue. The taste of blood filled his mouth, and he spat again.
Charlie sat back on his lower legs and wrapped his arms around his torso, trying to get the shivering under control. He stuck his hands inside his open jacket, underneath his armpits, searching for any trace of heat, but he could barely feel his fingers as he scrunched forward.
Charlie had no idea how long he sat there, but eventually, despite his frozen limbs, his muscles began to cramp. He forced himself up onto his feet and looked around, shoving his hair out of his eyes with one hand.
A stream ran close to the large clearing where he'd woken up. The dead carcasses lying beside it finally reminded him that he had to get out of here. He needed to find Don before the poachers came back.
There had to be a way in. Someone had brought him here, hadn't they? By the way he felt, he must have been drugged. Charlie staggered toward the stream and noted that on the other side was an old dirt track, the grooves made by tires filled to overflowing with muddy water. The track disappeared into the woods. He could go down that way, but if he did, he was afraid he'd run into the bad guys.
He sniggered at that thought. Bad guys. Cops and robbers. FBI agents. Poachers. Drug runners. Charlie stopped laughing. It wasn't so funny anymore, drug runners and arms dealers who sneaked their stash out inside the corpses of poached animals. And here he was, right smack in the middle of it all.
Best if he avoided the most obvious way out. Downstream. That was where he'd go. If ever in doubt, head downstream. It would eventually lead to civilization. And hopefully to someplace dry and warm.
Without a second thought, Charlie began walking alongside the stream. Several feet later, he was forced to wade through the knee-deep water, the thick brush making it impossible to follow next to it.
- - - - - -
"Over there." Don pointed at the dead animals partially covered with a tarpaulin near the edge of a cleared area as he and Megan crossed the swift-running creek. He wiped the rain from his face and looked around for any sign of Charlie. "Larson left his stash for the helicopter to pick up, just like he said. Charlie has got to be somewhere around here."
"There's a shelter."
"Check it out. I've got the woodpile." Don slogged through the muddy ground, aiming for the pile of cut wood that had a rough covering over it made of branches and another tarpaulin. A quick check showed no signs of Charlie, but as he turned to join Megan at the small lean-to, Don spotted some rope lying beside an axe. He bent down to pick up the rope and noted one end had small smears of red on it. Even as he looked at it, the red stain disappeared as the rain poured over it.
"I've found something." He held up the rope when Megan looked at him. "There was blood on it. Charlie was here."
Megan hurried to him and looked at the pieces of rope in his hands. "There's no blood now."
"No, the rain washed it away. It must have fallen in a way that the rope shielded it from totally washing off."
"There's nothing in the shelter."
"The tarps." Don nodded toward the dead animals and they both took a portion of the large tarpaulin and raised it. "Damn." He wasn't sure if he was swearing at the storm that had flooded a river in the valley and forced them to search on foot, or the fact they'd managed to catch everyone involved with this operation, yet Charlie was still missing. Don's men were spread out over thirty square miles, each following a set of trails in hope of finding Larson's camp.
Megan and Don had gotten lucky.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled his brother's name. The rain muffled his cry and the wind whipped the sound away. Still, he tried again. Frustrated, he lowered his arms. "He didn't go down the trail. He'd have run into us."
"And he's not here. He's probably hiding or trying to get back to civilization some other way."
"Charlie alone in the wilderness?" Don impatiently rubbed rain from his eyes as he strode to the creek's edge. "That scares me more than his being taken captive by those goons." He looked up and down the storm-swollen water. "I think we'll have to split up."
"You think he followed the water?"
"But you're not Charlie, and we don't know what condition he's in. I'm not so sure splitting up is a good idea."
"We can't just flip a coin and decide if we go up or downstream. It's best if we—"
"If Charlie wanted to get to safety, he'd head downstream."
"I don't know. I think we're better off—"
"He can't be that far ahead of us. The blood you saw on the rope would have washed away in a few minutes."
"Then we're wasting time arguing about this. I'm going downstream."
"Okay. But if we don't find anything in thirty minutes, we turn back and meet here."
"Fine." Don immediately set out, trying to stay in the brush alongside of the stream and out of the water. But after several yards, he found the brush was thick and hard to pass through, branches constantly catching on his backpack. Finally, he was forced out into the water. The rocks were slippery, many of them impossible to see, the footing precarious in the running water. He swore, then realized if Charlie were out there, he wouldn't be making good time either.
The rain reduced visibility so much that Charlie could be walking fifty feet ahead of him and Don would never see him. And if he'd pushed out of the water and was walking in the woods, again, Don would miss him. With those thoughts looming heavily on his mind as he walked away from Megan, it was sheer blind luck that when Don slipped on a rock and nearly fell, he spotted the white sneaker only a few feet away on the creek's bank.
Charlie had gone that way.
Don grabbed his gun and fired one shot into the air to signal Megan, then he hurried up the muddy bank after his brother, the sneaker clutched in his hand.
He didn't have to go far; ten feet into the bushes he found Charlie, lying on his side and huddled in a ball.
"Hey, hey, buddy." He walked slowly toward Charlie, keeping his free hand outstretched, ready to stop his brother if he panicked. Larson had confessed he'd drugged Charlie, so Don had no idea what frame of mind he was in. Plus the gunshot might have scared him. "It's me. It's Don."
Slowly, Charlie raised his head, blinking through thick locks of hair that had fallen into his face. Don slowly crouched and placed a hand on Charlie's leg. "It's okay, it's over. We're going home now." He could feel the tremors as Charlie shivered.
"D...Don? There w...was a gunshot."
"Yeah. Sorry, that was me. I had to let Megan know I found you. She'll be along in just a second. Are you hurt? Are you bleeding?"
"Hurt? N...No. Just c...cold." Charlie sat up, off-balance because his hands were thrust inside his jacket. Don grabbed hold of his arm and held him steady.
"Okay, let's get you out of here." He handed Charlie the sneaker, but his brother seemed reluctant to take it. It took a moment to pull his arms out and take the shoe. "We're gonna go back down into the water and head toward Larson's camp. Are you sure you're okay?"
Charlie nodded and fumbled his foot into his shoe. He seemed to be having trouble with the sneaker's tongue, which had folded back inside. Impatient, Don pushed Charlie's hands aside, pulled the shoe off, fixed the tongue, and thrust it onto Charlie's foot. As he tied the laces up, he heard Megan calling his name.
"Over here! I found Charlie."
Out of breath, Megan climbed the bank and hurried to their side. She grinned first at Charlie, then at Don.
"Yeah." He wasn't ready to tell her how he'd almost missed seeing the sneaker. He clapped Charlie on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's get out of here."
Together, they slid down the embankment and into the water. Now that they were walking against the current, their progress was slower. Charlie stumbled along beside Don, his arms wrapped against his chest, trying to keep the edges of his open jacket closed with his arms.
"Charlie, you'd be better off if you zipped your jacket up."
"I'm fine," Charlie mumbled. Still, he gripped the edges of the zipper and put the two pieces of metal together. As Don slogged through the water, trailing just behind Megan, he realized they hadn't gone far downstream from the camp. He could see the clearing up ahead; the area was a little brighter because of the lack of trees. He turned to tell Charlie that when he realized his brother was still fumbling with the zipper. And that he was struggling along behind Don with what appeared to be a lot of effort.
"Here, let me do that," Don finally said when Charlie stopped walking and concentrated on the jacket. But when Don reached for the ends of the jacket, his brother batted his hands away.
"D...Don't. Just leave me alone." He began walking again, his jacket flapping open in the wind.
Don shrugged at Megan and hurried after Charlie. "C'mon, we're almost at the camp. Then just a couple'a miles downhill and there'll be dry clothes and a hot shower waiting for us."
Charlie stopped suddenly, panic in his face. "We c...can't go b...back to the c...camp. It's not s...safe. They'll be c...coming." His words were slurred and mumbled, compounded by chattering teeth. Don figured most of that was probably due to whatever drug Larson had given him. Charlie began backing up, and before Don could reach out and stop him, he slipped and fell.
Immediately, he and Megan grabbed Charlie's arm and pulled him up out of the rushing water. Don held tightly onto Charlie and leaned close to make sure Charlie understood him over the pounding rain. "We're safe. We caught all of Larson's goons, including the helicopter pilot who was supposed to come and pick up the last load of drugs. We caught the big man himself as he was driving down the mountain when he dropped you and the stash. It's okay, we're going home, okay?" He shook Charlie gently. "Okay?"
Charlie seemed to calm down as he nodded. Again they started toward the break in the woods. Once they reached the clearing, Don went to the tarpaulin-covered corpses. With a grimace, he began rummaging inside one animal's belly. His fingers were cold, but the feel of plastic bags definitely wasn't something that belonged inside an antelope.
"We'd better bring the drugs with us. If this water keeps on rising, there's a chance it'll get washed away."
"Don, can I talk to you for a moment?" To his surprise, Megan forcibly pulled on his jacket, tugging him away from Charlie and the dope he'd been trying to pull out from the carcass.
"What?" Don asked when they were out of earshot. He kept an eye on his brother, who just stood there, huddled against the rain.
"We can't go back down that trail. Charlie needs medical attention, now."
"What? Okay, so he's a little out of it, but the guy got knocked out by some—"
"He's hypothermic. He's got the 'umbles'."
"The what?" Don brushed water out of his eyes as the wind whipped the rain around. "What are you talking abou—"
"Stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, grumbles. It's one of the first signs of hypothermia. Just think for a minute. Like you said, Charlie was knocked out, probably by a powerful sedative. He lay in that rain for God knows how long, his vitals already slowed down by the drug. He's lost motor coordination, and just look at him. He probably wouldn't be able to walk a straight line if you asked him to."
Suddenly, the fear Don had felt for Charlie earlier returned with a vengeance. "So shouldn't we hurry up and get him back to town?"
"No, he needs help now. Look, it's going to be dark soon, we'll never make it down the mountain before then. We've got shelter, we've got firewood. We need to get him dry and warm, and fast."
"You get Charlie inside the lean-to and out of his clothes. I'll get the drugs and then bring in some firewood."
Don immediately turned to his brother, calling out as he walked toward him. "Charlie? We're gonna have to camp out here tonight. It's late and we're not going to make it down the mountain before dark." He took a closer look at his brother. Charlie was soaked to the bone and besides being obviously miserable, he was pale and didn't look well.
Charlie was wearing a light jacket and a thin jersey underneath, with a pair of jeans. Both Don and Megan were wearing much heavier jackets along with rain gear. Even with the extra clothing, Don was damp, and although he couldn't admit he was actually cold, he knew the exertion of the past two hours had kept him warm. If he'd have to stay put for a while, he'd probably feel the chill in no time.
He pointed toward the lean-to, then let Charlie walk ahead of him. As Megan had said, Charlie couldn't walk a straight line. He staggered as if drunk.
Don pushed open the edges of the tarp covering the lean-to for Charlie to enter. Charlie fell to his knees, then huddled in a corner, his arms wrapped around himself again, shivering. Don closed the tarp behind him and looked around. There would be enough room for the three of them inside, but barely. He spotted some sleeping bags tucked in a corner and said a prayer of thanks under his breath. "C'mon, let's get you out of those wet clothes." When Charlie didn't make a move, Don put a hand on his foot. "Charlie?"
Charlie raised his head and squinted at Don.
"Let me help, okay?" Without a word, Don tugged Charlie's sneakers off, then reached for his jacket. He threw both into a corner, wondering what he could use as a towel. He spotted an old blanket. He grabbed it, figured it was clean enough, and reached for Charlie's jersey.
As he tugged the sweater over his brother's torso, he was shocked at how cold Charlie's skin was. He wrapped the blanket around Charlie's shoulders, then reached for his belt. Don unzipped his jeans and tugged them down past Charlie's hips. His underwear came along with the denim, and Don figured at this point his brother wasn't too worried about his modesty. He had Charlie sit and he pulled the jeans off, then his socks.
Using the blanket, Don began gently dabbing at Charlie's body, trying to get the material to absorb the moisture without irritating Charlie's chilled skin. When Charlie was fairly dry, Don spread one of the sleeping bags on the ground and had Charlie crawl into it.
Megan came in at that point, arms full of firewood. She propped the tarp open just enough so that they could build a fire at the entrance. As Don wiped the moisture from Charlie's hair, he watched Megan with admiration as she quickly and efficiently got a fire going.
"Regular Girl Scout, aren't you?"
"Don't laugh. I used to rough it with my dad and brothers growing up."
"Do you see me laughing?" Don smiled at her instead.
Once the fire was blazing to her satisfaction, she turned to Charlie. "We'll have some hot soup ready for you in a little while, Charlie. You'll feel better once you get something warm inside of you. In the meantime, do you think you can eat some of this?" She unwrapped a piece of chocolate and handed it to him.
Charlie snaked a trembling hand from beneath the sleeping bag and took the chocolate, only to drop it. He fumbled for it amongst the folds of the sleeping bag until Don picked it up and broke off a smaller piece. He put it to Charlie's mouth and as his brother sucked on the piece of candy, Don shrugged out of his rain gear.
"Take your pants and jacket off, and then get under there with him."
"He needs to warm up and he's not generating any heat. Keep your shirt on, take off your sweater, it's too thick, and, oh, take your socks off. They're wet. Can I have the spare pair you put in your pack?"
"Yeah, go ahead." As Don complied, he looked pointedly at the fire. "Won't that help Charlie warm up?"
"Yes, but your body heat will help more." Megan took the socks from Don's backpack and began tugging them onto Charlie's feet. "Shit, he's so cold."
Together, they zipped the second sleeping bag to the first one and Don slid in behind Charlie. The nylon material was cool along his legs; despite the fire, it was still chilly in the lean-to. He inched closer to Charlie's huddled body and plastered himself against his back, only to jerk back in shock at the coolness of Charlie's skin.
"Wha—" Charlie jerked also, then leaned back, seeking Don's warmth.
"It's just me." Don reached his arm over Charlie's waist and held him close as Charlie leaned back against him, shivering hard. Don brought his knees up and eased them behind Charlie's bent ones.
Don grimaced at the chill he felt now inside the sleeping bag; Charlie was physically leeching the heat from him. Despite the discomfort, he kept himself spooned up against his brother as Megan zipped the sleeping bag up behind him, bunching the edges of the bag against them to hold in whatever heat they generated. As she reached Don's feet, she wrapped the sweater he'd just taken off around his bare and cold feet.
"Thanks." He curled his toes into the still-warm material.
"Charlie?" Megan moved forward to kneel beside their heads and spoke softly as she fiddled the top edges of the bags. "I'm going to pull this up a little and cover your head with it. It'll help keep the heat inside the bag, okay?" She glanced at Don a moment, then began making a small hood with the bag.
"What heat?" Don grumbled. "An electric blanket would be nice."
"Yeah, well, so would a hot bath, a glass of wine, and some takeout from Zesto's." She softened her tone as she leaned over Charlie again. "Charlie, I'm heating some water so you'll have something warm to drink in a little while. Do you think you can eat another piece of chocolate in the meantime?"
"I know," Megan said softly. She held the candy to Charlie's mouth before she pulled the hood over their faces.
The sleeping bag suddenly smelled of chocolate, making Don's stomach growl. He pushed away all thoughts of hunger as he listened to Charlie's teeth chattering. Eventually the chocolaty smell dissipated, replaced by the campfire's smoke.
He could hear Megan moving around, the sound of the rain overhead, and the crackle of the fire. Don wondered what time it was; he didn't think he'd been in the sleeping bag for more than ten minutes and it felt like forever already. Charlie was still shaking, his skin didn't appear warmer, and night was going to fall pretty soon, meaning it would get a lot colder.
Which reminded him, they hadn't reported finding Charlie. "Hey." He raised his head past the edge of the sleeping bag and looked over Charlie's shoulder at Megan. "We need to call base camp and tell them we're up here with Charlie."
"I did that already." Megan looked over her shoulder at him. "When I was out getting firewood and the drugs. They said they'll send a helicopter up for us at sunrise if the weather lets up."
"Thanks." Don put his head back down and settled himself against Charlie again when suddenly his brother's shivering increased. "Hey. Hey." Charlie's breaths were coming in harsh pants as he shook uncontrollably.
"It's okay." Megan hurried over to them and adjusted the sleeping bags around them to cover any gaps. "I think his body's finally realized that it can get warm and it's just trying a little harder."
"Well, I'm not an expert at this." Her voice was full of exasperation, and Don realized how much he'd depended on her up until now to help Charlie.
"Relax, Charlie, I'm here. You'll be just fine," Don whispered into his brother's ear.
"I c...can't stop—"
"I know, it's okay. We'll get you warmed up in no time." He felt Charlie relax slightly and the shivering finally eased a little after a few minutes.
"How are you doing, Don?"
Surprised, Don peeked out at Megan from the gap near his face. "I'm cold. I can't believe how cold he is."
"The soup will help him. Can you help me turn him over a little so he can drink?"
Don rolled onto his back, bringing Charlie with him. Megan eased something behind his back so he was almost sitting up and then raised a cup of fragrant chicken soup to Charlie's mouth. Don's mouth watered at the aroma.
"C'mon, Charlie, can you drink some of this?" Megan coaxed. She placed the tin cup to Charlie's chattering teeth and let some dribble into his mouth. Charlie swallowed audibly and shifted against Don.
"Yeah, nice and hot." She held the cup again to Charlie's mouth and let him drink a little more. Charlie slid his hands out from beneath the sleeping bag and tried to wrap them around the cup. But his shaking caused the soup to slosh over, spilling onto his fingers and the bag.
"Ow. T...That was s...stupid."
Megan deftly moved the cup from Charlie's grasp and put it to his lips again. "It's okay, there's plenty more." While Don pulled Charlie's hands back into the relative warmth of the sleeping bags, Megan had him drink some more.
"Granola bars sound good to you?" she asked Don when Charlie had slurped the last of the soup.
"Oh, yeah." Actually, he'd take just about anything right now; he was starving. They'd half-expected they'd be trudging through the mountains in the dark, but he hadn't thought of bringing anything edible.
He watched as Megan unwrapped one and handed it to him, then unwrapped a second and began feeding small bites to Charlie. When Charlie had eaten half of it, she returned to the fire and got some more soup. She handed the cup to Don first. "You probably need to try and keep your innards warm yourself." When Don hesitated, she looked pointedly back toward the fire. "It's just broth, there's plenty more chicken stock, and by the sound of it," she rounded her eyes toward the still-falling rain, "we won't be lacking for fresh water."
Don let go of Charlie's hands, which he'd wrapped up in both of his, and accepted the cup. It felt good against his chilled fingers. He swallowed the soup, which was just as tasty as it smelled, and hot. After having drunk more broth, despite still being hungry, he felt slightly more optimistic.
By the time he and Charlie lay back down, it was full dark, and Megan had found and lit a small propane lamp. Despite the cooling temperatures outside, their shelter felt a little warmer than before. Or perhaps that simply was because he'd had something hot to drink and maybe, just maybe, Charlie wasn't shivering quite as hard as before.
Actually, Charlie's skin felt warmer, especially his back where it made contact with Don. But as they got comfortable together inside the sleeping bags, Charlie turned over so that he was facing Don and buried his face against his shoulder. The way Charlie nestled against him, trusting and needing, brought back poignant memories of a much younger kid brother who always tried to be independent but constantly looked to Don for approval.
They weren't a touchy-feely family, or at least the Eppes men weren't. Their mom had been the one who'd provided the hugs and kisses. But there had been a time when Charlie, before the strains of adolescence had touched upon them both, had actually looked to Don for comfort a time or two when childish fears of the dark and boogiemen and thunder had spooked him.
As he pulled Charlie closer, Don felt a swell of affection for his brother, while the knot of worry from the moment he'd learned of Charlie's kidnapping began to slowly loosen. He'd been secretly proud of Charlie as a kid despite the huge gap in their ages and intelligence. And he was even prouder now as he grew closer to the man his brother had become.
He knew his dad was happy they were working together and— "Dad."
"What?" Don felt Charlie raise his head. "D...Dad's here?"
In the dimness of the lean-to, he couldn't see his brother's face "No, he's not. Sorry, I just realized I should call him, tell him we're okay." He raised himself on an elbow, looking around for his jacket. "Megan, do you know where my—"
Without a word, Megan reached for his jacket and dug his cell phone from its pocket. She hit the speed dial button and put the phone to her ear. Don lay back down as Charlie snuggled closer to him.
"Mr. Eppes? This is Megan Reeves." She smiled, looking at Don. "Yes, sir. I know. They're fine. Mr. Eppes, just a moment, please."
Without saying another word, she handed the phone to Don.
"Thanks," he mouthed as he took the phone. "Hey, Dad."
"Don? Are you okay? Charlie? How is he? David called to say you'd found him but that you were stuck up in the mountains."
"We're okay. Charlie's a little worse for wear so we didn't try making it down the mountain in the dark."
"What do you mean by that? I thought you said he was okay."
"He is, or rather, he will be. He's got hypothermia, Dad." He felt Charlie shift against him and he rubbed Charlie's bare back with his palm. "Megan recognized the symptoms and we didn't try and get him off the—"
"Hypothermia? That's dangerous. Your brother could die from that. Are you sure there's no way to get him off the mountain? He needs a hospital, to be looked at by a doctor."
Don winced as his father's voice rose over the phone. "Dad, I know. But it's too dangerous for a helicopter to try and land after dark, and the roads are impassible." Charlie raised his head and moved slightly away from Don. "We've got things covered—Charlie's doing good. He ate a bit and had something hot to drink. I think—"
Don hesitated when Charlie's cold fingers wrapped around his and pulled the phone away from his ear. He realized Charlie wanted the phone and relinquished his hold, allowing his brother to speak to their father. Charlie dropped his head back against Don's chest and Don repositioned the phone properly against Charlie's ear as he spoke into the receiver.
Charlie had stopped shivering. Actually, he'd tensed his body in such a way that he could control the shudders.
"Yeah, I'm okay. A little cold, but Don and Megan—"
Don could hear his father's voice but couldn't quite make out the words. Charlie's hand began to slip and Don held the phone steady for him.
"No, he didn't hurt me. He knocked me out. I don't remember much of anything until I woke up here."
A pause as his father spoke again.
"I don't know. A cave?" Charlie pulled away again, and for the first time since they'd gotten him into the shelter, actually took stock of where he was. "No, it's sort of a lean-to, made of branches and things."
Another long pause.
"He's fine, Dad. And so's Megan."
Charlie gave a full-body shudder, and Don reflexively pulled him a little closer. As Alan spoke, Charlie's head began to get heavier against Don's shoulder. "Say good night, Charlie," Don whispered.
"I g...gotta go." Charlie's self-control began to flag as he shivered again.
Gently, Don pulled the phone from Charlie's hand.
"Dad? They'll be up here at first light, and I'll call you the moment we're at the hospital."
Charlie's voice was partly muffled as he spoke against Don's chest. "D...Don't need a hospital. Just wanna g...go home."
Don moved his arm up to Charlie's nape and ruffled the still-damp curls. Charlie's shuddering was back to full force.
"Charlie said Larson didn't hurt him. Is that true?"
Don grimaced, realizing they'd never really asked Charlie if he'd been hurt. It had been too dark to check for obvious injuries and all he'd seen were Charlie's wrists, which had been red and slightly raw from where the ropes had chafed. And then Don remembered the blood on the rope.
"I don't think he was roughed up too badly. Larson admitted giving Charlie a sedative and leaving him up here with his kills for his pilot to pick up." With his free hand, Don felt inside the sleeping bag for Charlie's hands. He touched Charlie's arm and found his hands nestled between their bodies. He pulled a hand out so he could look at it.
"Left him lying unconscious in the rain?"
There was blood all over Charlie's hand and smeared on the inside of his wrist. "Larson didn't know we'd arrested his pilot. I don't think he meant to hurt Charlie," or at least not right away, Don thought to himself. "Not if he was going to use him as a hostage to ensure his getaway." Squinting, Don noticed a deep cut along the meaty part of Charlie's thumb, near his palm.
The phone crackled as the sky lit up, and his father's words became unintelligible. Thunder rolled far in the distance. "Dad, you're breaking up. Look, I'll call you in the morning."
"Donny, take care of yourself and your brother. And Megan, too," Alan added quickly.
"I will. Bye." Don dropped the phone on the sleeping bag and pulled the edge of the bag back. He rolled away from Charlie and saw there was a bit of blood smeared on Charlie's bare chest and on Don's tee shirt.
"Megan, you got some band aids and maybe something to clean up a little blood?"
"Why? What happened?" She peered over Charlie's shoulder and uttered a soft "Oh," then turned and began digging through her pack. "The cold must have stopped the bleeding, and as Charlie began to warm up, the blood began circulating again." She leaned over with an antiseptic wipe and began cleaning Charlie's hand. "It's not serious, just a deep nick."
"How'd you do this, Charlie? On the axe?"
Charlie nodded, his nose buried once again inside the sleeping bag. "My hands were numb."
As Megan placed a bandage over the nearly clotted wound, Don took the used wipe and quickly cleaned up Charlie's chest with it, then pulled the bag up and over him. The smell of alcohol mixed with that of smoke for a few seconds.
Lightning illuminated their shelter, the thunder following more quickly. Don felt moisture on his face and realized the wind had shifted.
"The rain's going to put the fire out. I'll need to close the flaps to keep us dry." Megan took a stick and broke the fire apart. Once it was extinguished, she brought the tarpaulin all the way down. "I may as well make myself comfortable if I don't have to watch the fire."
Megan grabbed the blanket Don had used to dry off Charlie and wrapped herself in it, smoothed down the excess of the sleeping bag, then lay down on it, huddled against Charlie's back, sandwiching him between Don and herself.
Charlie shifted slightly, then settled again as the rain intensified overhead. Whoever had built this lean-to had made it sturdy and snug. Don just wished they'd stocked it with more food. Then again, maybe they had. He and Megan really hadn't searched the camp in their haste to get Charlie dry and warmed up.
Thunder crashed loudly and Charlie jerked. His hands scrabbled against Don's chest, then relaxed.
"Yeah. The thunder surprised me."
"You starting to feel warmer?"
"N...Yeah, I guess. I'm still pretty c...cold, though."
"You feel warmer. You were like a block of ice earlier."
"I just wish I could stop shivering."
"You will, Charlie," Megan said as she reached out a hand to adjust the propane lamp so it gave off just enough light that if one of them needed to get up, they wouldn't stumble in the dark. "Just give it a bit of time. Try and sleep, if you can."
"Can't. Too cold." Don began to regret the loss of the fire when Charlie spoke up again. "How did you guys find me?"
"Well, I guess you can chalk it up to my incredibly honed talents for tracking in the wild," Don said, trying to swallow a grin, "my years of experience with the FBI, and my incredible sense of direction in the backwoods, combined with—"
"The helicopter pilot confessed," Megan interrupted with a hint of laughter in her voice.
"Hel...helicopter? The probabilities f...for that wasn't h...h...high in my c...calculations."
"Which is most likely why it took us so long to figure it out. We got lucky. We got a tip."
"Actually, it was pure luck we found you so fast. And if you hadn't lost your sneaker..." Don shuddered when he thought of how much longer Charlie could have been out there without getting medical aid. "We used your charts of possible campsites and began searching for those that could accommodate a helicopter." He paused a moment as the thunder drowned out his words. "That it was Megan and me who found you was yet more luck."
"I could p...probably give you mathematical odds as to why luck d...didn't have anything to do with it, but that actually feels like an effort."
Don chucked softly. "Yeah, well, I guess nearly freezing your brain will do that to you."
"Don came up with eleven possible campsites."
"Eleven? That was still a lot of ground to cover."
"Yeah, but we had lots of volunteers."
"Really?" Charlie sounded pleased, and Don smiled to himself.
"You feel up to telling us what happened to you? How'd Larson grab you?"
"It was so stupid. I thought he was an agent. He c...came up to me, holding a clipboard and asked me to give him a hand with something. I went over to his t...truck and the next thing I knew, he stabbed me with a needle and...I woke up in a rainstorm."
- - - - - -
Charlie lay there, feeling waves of embarrassment at the ease with which he'd been kidnapped. He wished the heat of humiliation would help warm him up; his extremities were uncomfortably cold despite the fact his feet were tucked in against Don's legs and his hands were stuffed between their bodies.
He was tired, his head ached, and his thoughts were fuzzy, although at least he knew where he was and what had happened now that he could string a few thoughts together. He didn't know if half of what he was feeling was aftereffects of the drug he'd been given or his having been half-frozen before Don and Megan had brought him inside and warmed him up.
"I never expected Larson to show up right in the middle of town." There was pressure on his shoulder as Megan squeezed through the sleeping bag. "I underestimated him, and I'm sorry for that, Charlie."
"We both underestimated him."
Charlie thought back on the information he'd used for as the basis for figuring out how the drugs were being moved out of the state. He listened as Megan outlined the man's profile again while Don punctuated various points they'd overlooked. The thunder had eased; the rain had become background noise for the conversation, both of which were making him sleepy despite the continuing shivers.
He was finally beginning to feel warm. He wasn't comfortable yet, but he knew he was heading there. And despite the awkwardness of lying in a sleeping bag huddled against his brother, he felt safe. He closed his eyes, smiling to himself as Don's stomach growled.
- - - - - -
Charlie woke up with a start. He was aware of two things simultaneously: he was warm and toasty, and he badly needed to pee. The next thing he became aware of was that he was sandwiched between Don and Megan, making it almost impossible to move. To make things even more complicated, his head was pillowed on Don's shoulder and Don had an arm around him, holding him close.
He tried to squirm out of Don's hold and slide out of the sleeping bag, and was surprised at how lethargic and heavy his body felt. Before he got very far, he felt Don shift and clasp his arm.
"Um, okay." Don let go of his arm and rolled onto his back, allowing Charlie a bit more room. But before he could sit up, Don put a hand against his chest, holding him in place. "Nope, you stay right there." His brother slid out of the sleeping bag and looked around. "I'll see if I can find something you can use to—aha." He held up an old, empty can like a trophy.
"Don. There is no way I'm going to pee into a can," Charlie whispered. Irritably he threw the sleeping bag aside and sat up. Immediately, he broke out in goose bumps. "I can walk to the edge of this lean-to and take a piss like the grown-up I am."
"Yeah, you can. And considering it's still raining out there," Don said as he crouched beside Charlie, waving the can beside him, "all the good we've done getting you warmed up is going to be for nothing. Plus, you're a little lacking in the clothes department."
"I'm what?" Charlie looked down at himself and realized that except for a pair of socks, he was butt-naked. No wonder he was feeling cold again. "Shit." He quickly pulled the sleeping bag over his legs and groin, glaring at Don, who at least had his underwear and a t-shirt on. "Give me that." He grabbed the can and, with a quick look over his shoulder to make sure Megan was still asleep, positioned himself so he could use it as a urinal. He rolled his eyes at his brother as he peed. "Where are my clothes?"
Don pointed to Charlie's clothes, which were spread out over a bunch of boxes alongside the shelter. "They were soaked." He reached over and fingered Charlie's jeans. "Still are."
Charlie finished and, with a grimace of distaste, handed Don the now-warmish can. Despite the embarrassment, the relief was very welcome. As his brother opened a corner of the tarpaulin and tossed the contents out into the rain, Charlie snuggled back into the warm interior of the sleeping bag. Bags, he realized as he lay on his back. There were two of them zipped together. He shivered lightly as he waited for Don to join him.
They lay there shoulder to shoulder, the hard ground beneath him making it hard to get comfortable. Plus, the comfortable warmth Charlie had felt earlier in the bag seemed to have evaporated. Or maybe it was just him. His hands and feet felt cold, and he couldn't seem to be able to warm them. Finally, he turned onto his side, his back to Don, and shoved his feet into the far corner of the sleeping bag, looking for heat.
"Charlie, you okay?"
Megan sounded a little sleepy, but she raised her head over the edge of the sleeping bag and peered down at him.
"I'm fine. Sorry I woke you."
"You didn't. I was just dozing. Are you still cold?" Before he could answer, she thrust a hand into the sleeping bag and placed it on his bare shoulder. He flinched, expecting her fingers to be cold, but they were warm. Warmer than his own, he admitted as he curled his fingers that were tucked underneath his armpits. "Looking good, Charlie."
She removed her arm and settled back down, the blanket she was wrapped in rustling near Charlie's ear. Don turned onto his side, his back pressed against Charlie's. The heat from his brother's body soon quieted the weak shudders. Charlie relaxed, listening to the rain falling.
- - - - - -
"Charlie, c'mon, wake up. Your ride's here."
Squinting in the dim light, Charlie tried to make sense of Don's words. His brother was kneeling beside him, one hand on his shoulder. There was a loud thumping sound that was getting louder and louder. Then the sound of motors roared overhead and the tarpaulin flapped wildly for a moment.
"Helicopter?" Charlie said, too comfortable and warm to want to move from where he lay. He vaguely remembered Don mentioning something about a helicopter the night before. He closed his eyes, ruing the fact he'd probably be cold once he sat up. The sound of the motor and rotors made conversation impossible, but once the helicopter had landed, the motor cut out, and all that was left was the whoop of the slowing blades.
"Do you think you can get up?" Don's voice suddenly turned serious and Charlie opened his eyes and saw a worried expression on his brother's face. "I'm sure they have a stretcher. I can go and—"
"No, I'm fine," Charlie said hurriedly as he sat up, surprised at how sore and tired he felt. The thought of being carried, naked, to the helicopter had him searching wildly for his clothes. "Hand me my jeans?"
Don grabbed Charlie's arm and prevented him from reaching for his clothes. "You're not putting those on. They're still pretty wet."
"Don, I am not getting into that thing without any clothes on." Just the thought of it made him shudder as he clasped the edges of the sleeping bags again his chest. He eyed his clothes, lips pressed tightly together in frustration, wondering if he could make a move for them if Don left the tent for a moment.
The helicopter's rotors stopped moving, leaving them in almost unnatural silence for several seconds. Then Charlie heard voices, followed by footsteps as they neared the shelter. Megan stuck her head inside, grinned at Charlie, and tossed a plastic bag at his feet.
"If you feel up to getting dressed, there's some dry clothes for you in there."
"Thank you!" Charlie exclaimed with passion as he grabbed the bag. Inside were clean jeans, a t-shirt that read "2 + 2 5" that Don had given him for his last birthday, plus socks and underwear. There was also a heavier fleece sweater that was Don's.
"Not my doing. Thank Don. He had Colby stop by your motel room and grab some of your stuff before jumping onto the helicopter this morning."
Charlie gave Don a sheepish look and smiled his thanks. The moment Megan left the tent, he began threading his feet through his underwear. "I can manage," he said when Don didn't make a move to leave.
"Okay. Just yell if you need help." Don stood and left the tent, giving Charlie some privacy.
He tried to hurry but his body seemed lethargic, refusing to move quickly. Once he was dressed, he felt a little less vulnerable and was eager to leave. He gathered his wet clothes and stuffed them into the plastic bag. Don was right, his jeans were still pretty sodden, and he definitely would have been uncomfortable putting them on. As he looked for his sneakers, he wondered where he'd gotten the dry socks, which had been the only thing he'd been wearing inside the sleeping bag.
Charlie sat back down on the sleeping bag and thrust a foot into the sneaker, only to find they were still wet. Still, he had no choice so, with a grimace, he tied the damp laces up, stood slowly, and left the lean-to.
It had stopped raining although the ground was wet and muddy underfoot. It was damp and chilly, and Charlie was glad for Don's heavy sweater, although when a gust of wind swept over him, he wished he'd thought to wrap himself in the blanket before leaving the shelter.
The helicopter had landed about thirty feet away and he took a few shaky steps toward it, then realized there was nobody near it except for the pilot. There were voices to his right, and he spotted Don, Megan, David, and Colby near the river. They were examining something on the ground, so Charlie began moving toward them.
He realized what it was that they were looking at as the memory of him staring into the dead antelope's eyes hit him. The remembered nausea became real and he choked back hot bile. Suddenly, the thought of walking that far seemed overwhelming, and he leaned a shoulder against a tree and crossed his arms against his chest, trying to stay warm.
Charlie raised a hand and waved back at David, who'd called his name, then at Colby. Don spoke to them a few seconds longer, then walked over to Charlie.
"You warm enough?" Don looked Charlie up and down, then hurried into the tent and came back with the blanket Charlie had been thinking about a minute earlier, plus the bag of wet clothes. He wrapped the blanket over Charlie's shoulders and its weight was more than welcome. "You ready?"
Charlie nodded, and Don walked with him to the helicopter. By the time they reached it, Charlie's legs were shaking. He glanced back at the FBI agents who were still huddled over the dead animals. "Aren't they coming?"
"No, they're going to search the camp and the surrounding area. The chopper'll come back for them once it drops us off."
They got into the helicopter and Charlie was thankful to be sitting. He closed his eyes when the pilot started the motor, and once he felt the slight lurch as they began to rise, he grabbed the edge of his seat in alarm. Normally, he'd have enjoyed the ride, but right now he was afraid to admit all he wanted to do was lie down.
His watch said the ride only lasted twenty minutes, but to his body, it felt much longer. Once the chopper touched down, all Charlie wanted to do was return to the motel and sleep for a couple more hours. Reluctantly, he climbed out of the helicopter, resolutely trusting Don to get him back to the motel. They began walking toward the parking lot, away from the helicopter, and Charlie held the blanket tight against his shoulders as the wind whipped through the open area.
Don stopped as their father's familiar voice came over the sound of the idling helicopter motor. Charlie looked around the small airfield where they'd landed. Alan was coming out of a building near the parking lot and was hurrying over to them, followed by two strangers.
"Dad." There was a tone of relief in Don's voice as they headed for one another.
Charlie lowered his head at the look that was on his father's face. He stared at the wet asphalt, noting the cracks and puddles as he wrestled with the guilt at having put his dad through the wringer. He knew how Alan worried over Don sometimes, although he rarely talked about it. Charlie had never meant to add more stress, and somehow he'd managed to get right into the thick of everything this time.
"Charlie, should you be walking? Don, why didn't you wait for a stretcher? The paramedics have a stretcher in the ambulance."
"What?" Charlie raised his head as Alan took hold of Charlie's arm and fiddled with the blanket. He stared at his father in shock. "I'm fine, Dad." And that was when Charlie realized the two men accompanying his father were medical personnel. He glanced at the parking lot, seeing his dad's Acura parked next to an ambulance. "Oh, God, Don, you didn't," he groaned. "I don't need an ambulance. Can't we just go home?"
"I'm sorry, sir." One of the men stepped forward, moving between Charlie and Alan, forcing Alan to let go of his arm. "From what I understand, you were seriously ill yesterday. It would be prudent to go to the hospital and at least get checked out."
"That was yesterday. I'm fine now. Look." Charlie opened the blanket to demonstrate that he wasn't shivering. Well, okay, not shivering much. But to be honest, even Don looked cold. "My hands and feet are cold, but that's because my sneakers are wet and the wind is cold."
"C'mon, let's at least get out of this wind." Don put a hand against Charlie's back, and, reluctantly, Charlie moved toward the parking lot. Closer to the ambulance. In his mind, he decided he was aiming for his dad's car and tried to ignore the two paramedics who trailed them.
"Wet feet? Charlie, that's not good. You could catch a chill." Charlie didn't miss the glare his dad gave Don.
"Hey, mine are just as wet." For emphasis, Don shook one foot after the other. "That'll happen when you go traipsing into running water after your missing kid brother."
"Don, I'm sorry." Charlie slowed as they passed the building and entered the tiny parking lot.
His brother shook his head "Hey, it's fine. We'll both have a nice hot shower when we get back to the motel."
"Can we please skip the hospital?" Charlie moved to the passenger door of the Acura, as far from the ambulance as he could get. "I could use a shower now and—"
His dad's no-nonsense tone angered Charlie. Yes, he was cold. Yes, he was tired and he felt lousy, but all he wanted was a hot shower and something to eat, then the chance to lie down and rest. Instead, they wanted him to go to the hospital and sit and wait for a couple hours, only to be told he was probably fine and should go home and have a hot shower and a hot meal, which he could be getting now.
"Don't forget you were knocked out for several hours," Don said, moving closer to Charlie. Again it bothered Charlie that nobody was unlocking the car doors, which meant he wasn't going to win this argument. "We don't know what..."
Don's voice suddenly began to fade and an odd sensation filled Charlie. He had trouble catching his breath, and the car before him rippled oddly.
Charlie let go of the blanket and grabbed the edge of the car. "Don, I don't—"
Voices rose in alarm as Charlie's vision greyed. Hands clutched at him as sounds faded in and out. He became aware of his own breathing, loud in his ears, while his face was resting against something soft and warm. There were people talking beside him, but it was Don's voice he tried to concentrate on.
"Come on, buddy, stay with me. That's it, Charlie, open your eyes."
Charlie obeyed and realized he was sitting on the cold, wet ground, leaning forward against his brother's shoulder. "Don? What—"
"Charlie? Thank God." A hand roughly clasped the back of his head, then gentled as he was pulled back slightly. The hands supported him, but the movement made him dizzy.
"Mr. Eppes, we're going to place you on the stretcher now. Don't try to move, let us do the work."
Before Charlie could protest, he felt himself being lifted and placed on something soft. A blanket was wrapped around him, then the gurney was moving, the wheels rattling against the asphalt. Seconds later, he was inside the ambulance, out of the wind and cold. One of the paramedics got in with him while the other moved to shut the doors.
Both Alan and Don were standing outside the ambulance. Suddenly, Charlie realized he was going to be separated from them. He almost panicked as he tried to get up off the stretcher, only to realize he'd been strapped on.
"Don, I..." Suddenly embarrassed, Charlie bit his lip and looked pleadingly at his family, not wanting to be alone.
Thankfully, Don seemed to realize Charlie's plight. "Dad, I'll ride with Charlie, if that's okay? You can follow the ambulance to the hospital."
"Right. I'll be right behind you, okay, Charlie? I'll see you there."
The vehicle dipped slightly as Don entered. The door was shut behind him, cutting off Charlie's view of his dad. He just kept his gaze on Don as the paramedic began taking his vitals.
- - - - - -
"When was the last time you ate, sir?"
At the confusion on Charlie's face, Don quickly answered the paramedic, who was unwrapping the blood pressure cuff from Charlie's arm. "Last night—he had some broth and maybe half a granola bar." He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to erase from his memory the look of fear in Charlie's eyes as he'd been loaded into the ambulance. "Before that, breakfast, I think." Don's stomach grumbled, reminding him he also hadn't had much to eat since lunch the day before. Breakfast, definitely. They'd eaten together, then Charlie had been snatched shortly after Don's agents and the local cops had spread out in search patterns looking for Larson and his camp.
"Is he diabetic?"
Don shook his head.
"So he's hardly eaten anything in twenty-four hours? Low blood sugar added to the stress of the hypothermia could explain the syncope." The man put the blood pressure cuff aside and recorded the numbers, then began wiping the back of Charlie's hand with a sterile wipe. Don tried to smile reassuringly at Charlie, who hadn't taken his eyes off him. His brother was pale and there was a fine sheen of sweat on his face. He flinched slightly as the paramedic inserted an IV into a vein.
As Don answered more questions, Charlie fingered the edges of the blanket. His hands trembled as they clutched at the material. For a moment, Don thought the hypothermia was back, but he realized not all of Charlie was shaking, just his hands. He recognized those symptoms; he'd hit the wall once or twice after a long stakeout or case and knew at the moment his brother needed food.
"We'll be at the hospital in another ten minutes." The paramedic was also staring at Charlie's hands, which at the moment were fumbling with the blanket as he clumsily rearranged what the medic had pulled back to take his pressure.
"Just a precaution, buddy. Dad's following, remember?"
Charlie took a deep breath and swallowed. "Don, I don't feel so..."
As Charlie's breathing sped up, the paramedic quickly moved forward and leaned over him. Charlie's gaze lost focus and his eyes rolled back.
"Mr. Eppes, can you hear me?" The medic grabbed Charlie's other hand, his fingers automatically moving to his wrist, searching for a pulse.
Leaning forward, Don placed a hand on his brother's cold hand. "Charlie?"
Charlie's eyelids fluttered and he opened his eyes, but couldn't seem to hold Don's gaze.
"Can't you do something?" Don felt helpless. At least with the hypothermia, he could give Charlie some of his body heat. At the moment, Don had no idea what he could do to help.
The paramedic was doing something with Charlie's finger. After a moment, Don realized he'd pricked his finger and was analyzing his blood. He placed the sample in a small device no bigger than Don's cell phone. It beeped after a few seconds.
"Your brother's blood sugar level is low. I'm going to give him a concentrated glucose solution." He leaned over and removed a syringe from a container. "This will have him feeling better in no time." He pushed the needle into the IV and slowly injected the contents.
By the time the ambulance began to slow down as it approached the hospital, Charlie seemed to be more aware of where he was. He didn't look so pale and the tremors in his hands had stopped. After a few awkward starts, Charlie stammered, "This has got to be one of my more embarrassing moments."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Don replied, a little unnerved that Charlie would actually worry about embarrassment. Normally, his brother was off in a world of his own, to the point that a couple of times when he'd been younger, people had actually asked if Charlie was "normal." Don tried for a little teasing, hoping to distract his brother. "There was the time when you spilled chlorine bleach all over Mrs. Drake's new fuzzy angora sweater in chemistry."
Charlie narrowed his eyes at Don. "That wasn't my fault."
"As I remember it, the girls in class were very appreciative of the little 'accident'."
"Someone bumped my hand just as I was pouring the bleach into a beaker."
"Yeah, but it landed on her chest. You know, I don't think I ever saw you blush before that happened."
"It wasn't funny. I still remember..."
The ambulance came to a stop, and Charlie looked at the doors in what looked like fear. "Don?"
The door slammed shut as the driver stepped out of the vehicle.
"Make sure Dad doesn't...you know..."
"I'm sorry, Charlie, I'm not sure what you're asking."
The back doors opened, and Charlie's gurney was pushed out before he could answer. Don quickly followed. Charlie rolled his head back, looking for him. Don hurried forward and matched the pace set by the paramedics.
"After mom got sick, dad was so tired. Make sure he takes care of himself."
The doors opened and they all stepped into the hospital, hurrying toward the Emergency Room.
"Charlie, is this why you were so afraid to come here?"
At Charlie's haunted look when he nodded, Don nearly burst into relieved laughter. He settled for a wide grin. "You're going to be okay. With any luck, you'll be out of here in a couple of hours."
"I'll make sure he eats and gets some rest. Don't worry about Dad. I—" A doctor had hurried over to them at their approach, and Don quieted as the paramedic began briefing him about Charlie's condition.
The doctor waved the paramedics through into a cubicle and ordered a nurse to give Don the necessary paperwork to fill out. With a sigh, he watched the doors close behind his brother as he took a seat with the clipboard.
- - - - - -
Alan hurriedly parked his car and half ran, half walked to the hospital's front entrance. He could see the ambulance parked near the doors, but there was no sign of his sons. He stopped inside the doors to get his bearings, saw the signs for the Emergency Room, and hurried that way.
He spotted Don immediately. He had a clipboard on his lap and was busy filling in information. There was no sign of Charlie.
Don appeared calm and focused, so things had to be going okay with Charlie. Alan turned back the way he came, heading for the vending machines he'd spotted in the hall on his way there. He got two coffees and returned to the waiting room.
"Here." He lowered the cup until it was directly over the clipboard. Don looked up, startled, then smiled his thanks. "Oh," he sighed deeply as he tore open the edge of the lid and inhaled the aroma. "This is so going to hit the spot."
"I figured it might." Alan sipped his own coffee as he took the seat next to Don, then grimaced at the bitter taste. Machine-made coffee might be hot, but it sure was a far cry from enjoyable. Still, Don was sipping it as if it had come from Alan's favorite gourmet blend.
"Charlie passed out again in the ambulance." Don put the coffee cup down near his feet and continued filling in the spaces on the form.
"Is he okay?"
"They said his blood sugar was low. He seemed better after they gave him something for it."
"He didn't eat. Not if he's been out there since yesterday morning, so of course he's going to be hungry. But it's not like Charlie to faint like that. He's pulled all-nighters before, and I know he forgets to eat sometimes—"
"The guy said it could be from the combination of not eating and the hypothermia." Don shrugged, reached for the cup, and took another sip before putting it down again. "The doctor's in there with him so I guess we'll know in a few minutes."
Alan snorted. "Maybe. I bet you it takes more like an hour or two."
"You're on. I'll buy you breakfast if we don't hear anything within ten minutes."
"Let's hope you've got plenty of cash. I'm starving." Alan buried his grin in his cup as Don smiled to himself. He was scared for Charlie, but Don's attitude relieved a lot of Alan's fears.
"You didn't have to come, you know." Don studiously filled in one more part of the form, not looking at Alan.
"Of course I had to come. Charlie was hurt. I couldn't stay home."
"I'm sure Charlie'll be fine. You drove for nearly three hours in the dark when—"
"I couldn't sleep. It was easier to get up and drive here than worry myself to death alone in the house."
"I told you I was going to call—"
"I'd rather be here." Don seemed to have finished with the form, so Alan plucked it out of his hands and began looking over the filled information. "In any case, who'd look after you?"
"What time do the stores open?"
"I don't know. Not for another couple of hours, I think."
"You make sure the second the stores open, you get yourself, and your brother, new pairs of sneakers."
"Why would I—"
"Wet feet, Donny. You don't want to catch a cold."
"Yeah, well, I know mom always said that, but you don't catch colds just because you have cold feet."
"Your mother was right. It was on the news the other night. Cold feet can lead to a lowered immune system, and you can catch a cold if you've already been exposed to a germ. So get out of those wet shoes the moment you can."
There was an awkward silence. Alan thought maybe he'd angered Don with his nagging, and he racked his brain trying to think of something to say when Don beat him to it. "I think Charlie's scared."
"Of being in a hospital?" Alan lowered the pen and stared at Don in surprise.
"No, of you being here. He didn't want you to worry."
"Worry and hospitals go hand in hand. It's a fact of life."
Don scratched his cheek, his nails on his stubble making small rasping sounds. "I know. But after mom..." Don stood, his movements abrupt and jerky. "I think I'll go call Megan, see how she's getting along. You'll be okay alone for a minute?"
"Yeah, sure. Take your time. We won't be going anywhere for a while."
- - - - - -
By the time the doctor finally came out looking for them two hours later, Alan wasn't sure if his stomach was in the process of digesting itself or if the burning was from excess acid. He shot to his feet the moment Don nudged his arm and looked pointedly at the man in a lab coat who was standing by the entrance to the waiting room.
"Yes, that's me. Us," Alan corrected as the doctor approached. "How's Charlie?"
"Your son is resting comfortably. I'm waiting for the results of his blood work before I determine whether the problems he experienced were simply due to low blood sugar. In the meantime, you can go in and see him in a few minutes. We're moving him out of the ER and putting him in a room for the time being."
"So he's okay?" As much as Alan wanted to see Charlie for himself, he wanted to know what to expect when he walked into Charlie's room.
"He appears to be. He needs food and rest more than anything at the moment. He'll be given breakfast once he's settled, and we'll be keeping an eye on his blood sugar levels throughout the day. If you haven't eaten, now might be a good time to go to the cafeteria and bring something up if you'd like to eat together."
The burning in Alan's stomach eased slightly at the doctor's words. Alan made note of the nurse's station where they were to ask for Charlie's room number, then followed the doctor's directions, and their noses, to the cafeteria.
Several minutes later, armed with juice, coffee, toast, and eggs, which he wasn't sure he'd be able to consume if his stomach didn't stop churning, Alan and Don returned to the first floor. The nurse pointed them to Charlie's room, and Alan, breakfast in hand, quickly walked down the corridor until he found the right room.
He peered around the open door and immediately spotted Charlie. His bed was raised so he was sitting up, and there was a tray with more food on it that what Alan and Don had brought back for themselves.
"Dad." Charlie grinned at them through a mouth full of food. He quickly chewed and swallowed. "I was wondering where you guys might have gone off to."
Alan waved the paper bag at Charlie. "Figured we could have a picnic." He winked at Don as they pulled up chairs beside the bed. Seeing Charlie eating and in good spirits put the fire out in his stomach. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry." Charlie took a bite of eggs and crammed a piece of buttered toast into his mouth. "Better now, though." He looked over the food they were unwrapping and frowned at Don. "By the way your stomach was growling last night, that's not going to fill you up."
"My stomach wasn't growling." Don took a sip of coffee and looked at Charlie over the brim of the cup.
"Then you better go and find a doctor because you've got a lion inside you."
The rest of their meal was spent in teasing banter between the boys. Alan ate silently but watched them with relief. Despite the pale skin accentuated by a five o'clock shadow and dark smudges under his eyes, this was the Charlie Alan was familiar with, not the haunted-looking near-stranger who had gotten off the helicopter with Don a couple hours ago.
Charlie licked jam off his fingers and sighed, his plate empty of food. He eyed Alan's coffee cup, at which Alan merely raised an eyebrow in warning. Charlie grinned at him and sighed. Which he followed with a deep, loud yawn.
"Sorry." He smiled sheepishly at them.
"Do you need to sleep? Do you want us to go?"
Before Charlie could answer, a nurse entered the room. She smiled at them all, then grinned at Charlie when she spotted the empty tray. "Enjoy your breakfast?"
She moved around to the far side of the wall and motioned at Charlie's hands.
"I need to check your blood sugar."
With another sigh, Charlie offered his hand, palm up, to her. Alan watched curiously as a drop of Charlie's blood was analyzed in seconds.
"I'm beginning to feel like a pincushion." Charlie stuck the pricked finger into his mouth once the nurse finished.
"Your numbers are fine," she said as she entered the information onto Charlie's chart. "Did you eat enough? Do you need anything else?"
"I'm fine. Thank you," Charlie answered, swallowing back a yawn. As the nurse picked up his empty tray, she motioned that Don and Alan put their garbage onto the tray as well. They thanked her as she left.
"Nice people here," Alan said once they were alone again. He turned to Charlie, who had closed his eyes.
"Maybe we better go." Don spoke softly, but Charlie opened his eyes and blinked. He eyed them worriedly, chewing on his lower lip. Alan hated to see his son look so apprehensive; it reminded him of Charlie's teen years, when he couldn't seem to fit in anyplace outside the family.
"You got work to finish out there?" Alan asked Don.
"Yeah, I should go and check with the Sheriff's office, and Megan and the others should be returning soon."
"Then go ahead. I'll stay here with Charlie."
As Don stood, Charlie spoke up. "Dad..."
"Ack, Charlie, no argument. I'll just go pick up something to read and wait for Donny here while you get some rest." Alan stood and stretched. He could use a nap himself; maybe he'd be able to nod off in the chair for a bit while Charlie slept.
"You can go back to our motel, Dad."
"As tempting as that offer is, I think I'll keep Charlie company. I'll be right back, son. I'll go find something at the guest shop to keep me occupied for a while."
"I'll come back as soon as I can, Charlie."
Charlie waved at Don, then shifted restlessly in the bed. Alan walked with Don down the corridor, then frowned at the squelching sounds coming from Don's feet.
"Shoes. You make sure you go straight to the store and get some for both you and your brother. You keep those on, you're gonna get blisters."
Don made a face. "Too late. But I'm aiming on doing exactly that as soon as I find out who's got my car."
"You can take mine if you want. I'm not going anywhere."
In reply, Alan took his keys from his pocket and tossed them to Don.
"Call me if you need to go to the motel or if there's any news..."
"You should get Charlie something—he's gonna get bored before the day's done."
"Charlie's fine. He'll probably sleep most of the day."
"You know Charlie, Dad. He'll be complaining in a couple of hours. It's not like him to sit still with nothing to do."
Alan walked Don to the hospital's front door, then made his way to the guest shop. He puttered amongst the books and magazines for a while, finally choosing a couple of magazines and a novel he'd meant to pick up months ago, along with a book on crossword puzzles. He paid for his items and made his way back to Charlie's room.
Charlie was asleep when he walked in, lying on his back, his face turned away from the door. He was snoring softly, so Alan quietly sat down on the chair and picked up the novel.
After some time, Alan became aware of two things. One, his butt was numb and his back was starting to ache. The second was that he hadn't been paying attention the last several pages and had lost track of the story. He checked his watch; he'd been reading for nearly two hours. He backtracked to the last page he actually remembered and marked it by folding down the corner, then put the book down. Charlie hadn't moved, so Alan felt safe to settle himself a little more comfortably in the chair and spread his legs in front of him. He took a deep breath, hating this waiting game. He'd spent too many hours doing exactly this when Margaret had gotten sick. Except, Charlie was going to be fine.
Someone pushed a cart down the corridor, its metallic wheels rattling loudly. Charlie snorted, mumbled something unintelligible, and turned onto his side. After a moment, with his eyes still closed, Charlie reached for the blanket and tried to pull it up to his chin. But the blanket was folded and try as he might, unless he opened his eyes and looked at it, he would never get it to reach that far.
"Just a second, let me get this." Alan took Charlie's hand, placed it on the bed, and unfolded the blanket, spreading it over Charlie's shoulders.
"Thanks, Dad," Charlie sighed sleepily.
"Go back to sleep." Alan bent down and kissed Charlie's forehead while brushing back thick locks of hair. Charlie's hair was wilder and frizzier than normal; whatever gunk he used regularly to control his curls had washed out in the rain the day before.
"Wasn't sleeping." He smacked his lips and snuggled deeper into the pillow.
"Sure you weren't." Alan patted the hair down gently one more time before straightening up. He tried to make himself comfortable on the chair, and finally opted for sitting sideways to get the pressure off his back, when he realized Charlie was watching him. "Is something wrong?"
Charlie shook his head, a look of worry crossing his face. "You didn't have to drive here, Dad." Before Alan could answer, Charlie quickly interrupted. "It's not that I'm not glad you came, I am. But I know you're always worried about Don, and I hate that I've had to put you through all of this."
Once again, Alan straightened in the chair. Something creaked and he wasn't sure if it was his back or the chair. "Charlie, I'm a father. I'll always worry, no matter what."
Charlie lifted his head from the pillow and looked at him in surprise. "Even about me?"
"Of course, even about you. Every time you step out of the house and get on your bike, I worry. Every time you help your brother on a case, I worry. Just like I worry every time I hear about an FBI operation going down and wonder if Don's in the middle of it."
"I'm sorry. I never realized."
"When you have children of your own, you'll understand. Of course, at the rate you and your brother are going, you'll be my age by the time you get your firstborn."
Charlie chuckled softly as he lay his head back down on the pillow. He was still smiling as his eyelids slowly closed. Alan deliberately sat still, waiting for Charlie to fall asleep once more.
The doctor chose that moment to enter the room and Charlie jerked awake. The man nodded to Alan and then walked to Charlie's bed. He was holding some papers in his hand, which he referred to while speaking.
"Your blood work is fine, although your drug screen came back positive for opiates."
"So that means..." Alan prompted when the man seemed more interested in the papers than the people waiting in the room.
"Oh, sorry." He shook his head and smiled an apology. "It means that there are still traces of whatever drug was used to render your son unconscious, but not enough to worry about. Everything looks good, Mr. Eppes. I'd just like to keep you here a few more hours to make sure we're not missing anything."
Charlie raised a hand to scratch at his eyebrow. "But you just said my blood tests are fine. Why can't I get out of here now?"
"It's just a precaution. You have to realize, hypothermia is a shock to your system. You're probably feeling tired and lethargic right now and most likely will for another day or two. Let's just wait until after you've eaten lunch to make sure the reason you passed out was just from the drop in blood sugar and not an underlying problem we haven't yet detected."
Charlie suddenly looked worried. Alan leaned over and patted his son's leg, realizing the concern wasn't for himself but for Alan. "I'm sure everything's fine."
As the doctor left, Charlie got that look on his face that usually meant his mind had begun racing, and Alan was pretty sure he was calculating the odds of his catching any kind of serious disease that had heretofore never shown any symptoms.
"Does your brother know your shoe size?"
"Huh?" Alan could almost see the gears in Charlie's head come to a full stop as he looked at Alan in confusion.
"Shoes. I told Don to get you some new sneakers. Does he know your shoe size?"
"Yeah, same as him."
"Why do I need new sneakers?"
"Yours were soaked. You can't leave here with wet feet. They'll take days to dry out."
"I don't...Oh, yeah, my feet were cold." Charlie raised his arms overhead and stretched, then yawned. He shifted restlessly on the bed, then turned onto his side. Alan picked up the novel and opened it to the page he'd marked.
A moment later, Charlie shifted onto his other side.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Charlie punched the pillow and brought his knees up almost into a fetal position. Alan turned his gaze to the words on the page, feeling his eyes burn from fatigue as he tried to focus on the book. Maybe the crossword puzzle would help him stay more alert. But first he needed a little help.
Standing, Alan tossed the book onto a table beside the bed. "I'm going to get coffee. I'll be back in a minute."
Charlie nodded as he turned onto his back. Alan left the room and headed for the cafeteria.
- - - - - -
As much as Charlie's body wanted him to sleep, his brain had begun racing as he watched his dad fight to stay awake while reading a book. There were dark circles under his dad's eyes and he looked tired and frail. Not quite as bad as when his mom had been sick, but enough to remind Charlie of a time he'd rather not think about, if possible.
Now that Alan had left the room for a few minutes, Charlie found the bed's controls and raised the head. He placed the pillows behind his back and reached for the book his dad had been reading, idly flipping through a few pages before putting it down in disinterest. It wasn't quite his taste in literature.
Instead, he picked up one of the two magazines and began flipping through the pages. He was halfway through it when Alan came back in.
"Shouldn't you be sleeping?" Alan sat down and placed his coffee beside his novel. The smell of the coffee teased Charlie's nostrils.
Charlie glanced up at his dad with what he hoped was a convincing look. "I'm not sleepy. Actually, you don't have to stay here with me, Dad." He fiddled nervously with the corner of the page, folding it over and over in tiny folds. He knew his dad probably wouldn't listen to him, but he still had to try. "Why don't you go back to the motel and get some rest?"
"Nah." Alan drank some of the coffee and picked the novel up. "I'll worry more if I can't keep an eye on you."
This, plus the conversation they'd had earlier, was making Charlie apprehensive. He agreed that Don's job occasionally worried both of them, but since he'd begun consulting, his own fears both had been allayed and intensified as he'd gotten firsthand glimpses at what Don dealt with on a day-to-day basis. But for Alan to admit he worried about him both embarrassed him and made him feel appreciated. His confusion confused him, and he had to smile at that admission.
Charlie pursed his lips as he continued to flip through the magazine, although his attention was no longer on the glossy pictures. He watched his father instead, and wondered how long he'd looked that tired. Charlie knew he'd been working hard and long hours trying to get his new consulting business off the ground with his friend Stan, but he'd seemed to be enjoying the challenge. Could Charlie have been wrong?
Then again, if his dad had driven there, he'd have left nearly in the middle of the night to arrive at the crack of dawn. So that meant he hadn't slept much the night before, if at all, and he had to have been worried if Don had given him the news Charlie was missing.
Bored with the magazine, Charlie tossed it on the table and picked up the other one. He heard a soft sound and looked at his dad. His glasses had slid to the tip of his nose, his chin was resting on his chest, his eyes were closed and he was snoring softly.
Dad falling asleep while reading or watching television was a normal event; Dad falling asleep sitting beside his hospital bed nearly broke Charlie's heart.
He wondered how often he'd fallen asleep beside Mom at the hospital, and immediately shoved that visual from his mind. To Charlie's relief, a noise outside his room woke his father. Alan simply cleared his throat and reached for his coffee as if nothing had happened.
Charlie shifted restlessly. He wasn't sleepy anymore and although he felt tired and sluggish, he was fed up with lying in bed.
"What's the matter?"
Alan chuckled. "You know, that's not something I've heard you say very often. Now, your brother, on those days he couldn't get outside to play, used to drive me and your mother crazy with his restlessness."
"I want to get out of here, Dad. I feel okay. Why can't I leave?"
"You heard what the doctor said. They want to—"
"I'm fine. There's no reason for them to keep me here." The thought of his father having to spend his time sitting with him worrying when there was nothing wrong was what pushed Charlie to make the decision. "You know what? I'm not staying." Charlie sat up and threw his legs over the edge of the bed. "Where'd they put my clothes?"
"You can't...Charlie, you shouldn't..."
Charlie ignored his father and walked to the door, holding the back of his hospital gown closed with one hand. A nurse spotted him and he waved her in. Then he stepped back inside and began rummaging through the drawers of the cabinet near the bed. He grabbed his clothes and dumped them onto the bed.
"I'm sorry." He stopped to smile at the nurse as she entered the room. "I don't think it's necessary for me to stay here any longer. I assume there are papers I need to sign?"
"Mr. Eppes, if you'll wait, I can get Doctor Winslade and he—"
"I've spoken to the doctor." Charlie forced another smile as he looked for his shoes. "He was in here a little while ago. I feel fine and, honestly, I'd rest better somewhere other than here."
"You're certain about this? The doctor wanted us to keep an eye on your blood sugar and—"
"I'm sure. I feel much better since I ate and it'll be lunchtime pretty soon, won't it? I promise to eat proper meals and take it easy for the next day or two. That's essentially what I would be doing here, isn't it?" He found his sneakers on the far side of the bed and frowned, feeling the damp cotton cushioning inside the shoe. He'd forgotten how wet they'd been.
"Very well. I'll get the paperwork done. Please don't leave until I return."
"I won't." Charlie hurriedly grabbed his clothes and began putting them on, eager to get rid of the hospital gown. "Dad, you drove here, right? Is your car in the parking lot or did Don borrow it?"
"Don's got it. Look, Charlie, are you sure you want to do this?"
Charlie zipped up his jeans and stopped to look at Alan. "I'm sure. I just want to go to the motel, grab a hot shower, and watch TV or stare out the window instead of looking at four walls."
"You've got a window, and I can probably arrange for a television."
"Dad...I just don't want to be here. Can you understand that?" Charlie began to wonder if he'd have to call Don himself. Thankfully, Alan nodded and reached for his cell phone. Charlie listened to his conversation with half an ear as he pulled his t-shirt over his head, then sat down on the bed to put his socks on. He delayed putting his sneakers on until they were ready to leave; the idea of wet feet somehow reminded him how cold he'd been the day before, and he shivered at the thought of cold feet.
"Your brother will be here in ten minutes."
"Thanks, Dad." Charlie sighed deeply. Getting dressed had tired him out and he could feel his legs shaking. He sat back on the mattress, suddenly wondering if he'd made the right decision.
The nurse came in and Charlie signed the forms, waiving all responsibility of the hospital were he to fall ill for whatever they were treating him. If he ended up suffering from hypothermia again, it certainly wouldn't be the hospital's fault. He smiled as he gave the forms and pen back the nurse, and waited for Don.
- - - - - -
Don walked into the room and thankfully didn't say a word. Instead, he handed Charlie a shoebox. Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Charlie opened the box and took out a pair of brand new sneakers. He grinned his thanks and immediately put them on. The old ones were dumped into the box and, with a final look at the rumpled bed, Charlie allowed Don to lead them out of the hospital.
Thankfully, the motel wasn't far, and once inside, Charlie immediately made for the bathroom. The hot shower felt wonderful and he stayed underneath the stream of water for a long time. When he finally got out, he put his pajamas on instead of his clothes and stepped into the room.
His dad was sitting by the window, alone in the room, doing a crossword puzzle.
"Where's Don? Did he go back to work?" Charlie moved to the bed he'd slept in two nights before and pulled the covers back.
"No, he went to get something for lunch. He shouldn't be long."
"Why don't you go shower, Dad?" Charlie slid under the blankets, immediately feeling more relaxed than in the hospital.
"I will. That is, if you left me any hot water."
"I'm sure there's enough tepid water to allow you a quick wash." He grabbed the remote and turned the television on. He yawned as he began flicking through channels.
He had almost dozed off when Don walked in, plastic bags in each hand. He nudged the door shut with his hip.
"You bring anything good to eat? I'm starved." A whiff of something spicy filled the small room and Charlie's stomach growled.
"Colby recommended a Greek place about a mile down the road. Dad been in the shower long?"
As if on cue, the water cut off. Don walked up to the bathroom door and knocked. "Dad? Lunch's here."
"Be right out."
"You gonna eat in bed or are you going to join us at the table?" Don began taking packages from the bags and placing them on the table.
Charlie stretched his legs, enjoying the comfort and warmth of where he was. "Here."
Alan joined them by the time Don had filled three plates with the fragrant food. Don handed Charlie a plate and a bottle of orange juice, then sat with his father and began to eat. Charlie dug in, half listening to the television droning and his father and brother talking about the case. He was feeling sleepy, the food was filling and tasty, and his dad was looking more and more relaxed.
As Don cleared up the remains of their meal, Alan stretched and yawned. "I think I might just rest my eyes a minute or two. Do you boys mind?"
"Go ahead, Dad. I have to get back out there, anyway. With some luck, we'll have this case wrapped up by this evening."
"I think I'll join you for some shuteye." Charlie swallowed the last of the juice and punched his pillow a couple times for good measure. By the time Don waved goodbye, Alan was snoring away.
Charlie watched his dad sleep for a few minutes, then closed his eyes and congratulated himself.
- - - - - -
"You're sure you don't want me to give you a lift to CalSci?" Don leaned against his Suburban and watched Charlie wheel his bike to the curb. Just the fact that Don had dropped in before work was surprise enough; the offer for a lift was even more unexpected.
"I'm fine, Don." Charlie shouldered his backpack and grinned at his brother. "Anyway, you'd have to come and get me to drive me back home this afternoon if I accepted."
"Charlie, do you need a lift in this morning?"
Rolling his eyes at his brother as their father came down the walk behind them, Charlie sat astride his bike and shook his head. "No, Dad. Thanks anyway."
Alan unlocked his Acura and dropped his papers inside. Charlie glanced at both Don and Alan, a little irritated at their offers, but it was his first day back at work after the kidnapping, after all.
He smiled at them. "I feel fine. While I appreciate the concern, I really am okay. I'm going to go to the University, give my classes, do a bit of research, and come home in time for supper. Just like I always do."
"Fine. There's ground meat in the fridge. You can start the hamburgers if you get home before I do." Alan slipped into the seat and shut the car door. Then he powered the window down.
"Burgers on the grill? With the herbs and the bread crumbs like mom used to make?" Charlie laughed softly. Don was already salivating.
"You can pick up the salad fixings on your way over tonight, Donny." Alan started the car and put it in gear. "That'll save me the trouble."
"I didn't mean...it's just that I don't get a chance to eat...you know...there's no grill in my apartment."
"You are so easy," Charlie said as Alan pulled away. "Dad forgot to buy salad stuff yesterday and now he won't have to stop on the way home tonight." Charlie turned to his father as he finished backing up out of the driveway. "Hey, Dad, don't be late." As Alan waved, Charlie couldn't resist adding, "And drive carefully, okay? You don't want us to worry about you."