Author's Note: Sorry I haven't updated guys, I have just been really busy and then under the weather for the past week or so. Thank you to those who are reviewing, it definitely helps me want to keep going. :) ENJOY!
~JP

Family Imperfect
by Jaclyn Parker

"You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be."
~ Chuck Palahniuk
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"Mommy!"

"Jack!"

Both cries came simultaneously and Carly whipped out an arm to pull Josh to her when the child tried to run towards the kitchen area that was no longer visible through a new haze of thick dusty smoke.

Carly was about to call out again when all the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. For some unknown reason she yanked Josh off his feet and rolled into a protective cover over his body on the floor by the couch. The second explosion decimated the wall directly to their left, showering the woman and child with debris and an intense heat. Carly heard Josh sobbing hysterically underneath of her and she tried to push down her own rising hysteria as she shifted under a piece of ply wood that had landed on her back. A sharp pain shot up her left arm and gathering her bearings she could feel the warm trickle of blood flowing down her forearm and causing her long sleeved shirt to stick to her wound. Thankfully, by placing Joshua between the couch and herself, she knew that no debris had managed to get to him.

"Josh, stay down." Carly said, probably more loudly than she needed to but the ringing in her ears threw off her sound perception. When Josh didn't answer, she gently hugged him with her arm. "Do you understand? I have to move but I need you to stay down."

Josh finally gave a tiny nod of his head, which was enough for Carly and she lifted her own to look around her. Smoke stung her eyes and she felt the naturally protective tears begin to slide down her cheeks as she tried to take everything in.

The back of the house where the kitchen and bedrooms had been were completely blocked off by fallen beams and debris. She tried to strain her hearing but gave up quickly when she knew that it was going to be impossible to hear anything beyond her own breathing and Josh's crying. Carly placed a hand on Josh's head, stroking his hair to try and provide some comfort, and grimaced as she felt the soot and grime that had attached themselves to the fine locks. Her eyes ran around the room, desperately trying to find a way out and when a blast of cold air hit her cheek, she whipped her head around to find the source.

The second explosion had caused a large portion of the left wall to be blown clean away and through the haze Carly could see glimpses of the snow covered outdoors. However, that hole was also providing oxygen for more than just the two humans inside the fallen house and a sudden roar caught Carly's attention. The small fires scattered about the room had combined to form a giant inferno that was now climbing the walls and licking its fiery tongue across the ceiling above them. The smoke was intensifying and Carly could feel the beginning of the burn in her lungs that the deadly smog caused.

Unwelcome memories of similar situations hit her hard and for a precious moment Carly froze in sheer panic. Suddenly she wasn't in this safe house anymore, she was - trapped in a locked trunk in a burning attic praying that she would see her babies and husband one more time; holding Jack back from going to a burning van and finally throwing him to the ground as it exploded over their heads; tied to a chair with her ex-husband while flames licked at them, thoughts constantly straying not to their survival but that of their kidnapped thirteen year old son.

A rasping cough snapped Carly out of her panic and her bleary eyes caught sight of Josh, huddling in a ball with his little chest desperately trying to take in clean air. Her eyes narrowed and she ducked down again, trying to ignore how quickly the fire was getting out of hand.

"It's okay, Josh. Everything's going to be okay." She murmured in his ear and felt his responding shudder.

"I can't…breathe, Aunt…Carly." Josh gasped out and he began to cry again, which only made the task of breathing more difficult.

"I know, Honey, I know." Carly said and she frowned, calculating the distance between the hole in the house and their position.

It wasn't far but there was enough debris in the way that it appeared to her like a military boot camp obstacle course. She shifted again, testing out her limbs and when the only pain that appeared was the familiar one from her left arm, she deemed herself clear of any broken bones or sprains. Carly was still trying to figure out the best way to approach the situation when she heard a horrifying noise directly above her.

Glancing up, her suspicions were confirmed as one of the only ceiling beams left in the living room was being consumed by the fire and looked ready to cave down upon them. The terrifying sound of wood groaning and snapping at the same time came again and Carly knew there was no more time to debate her decision.

"Josh, I need you to turn towards me and wrap your arms around my neck as tight as you can." Carly said and even though he hesitated, Josh did as told.

Carly frowned at how much she was trembling as she held him to her, knowing that shock and loss of blood was more than likely already setting in. She needed to get them both out of there before her strength was completely gone.

"Now, bury your face in my shoulder and don't look up, no matter what. Do you understand?"

She felt Josh nod against her and taking as deep a breath as she possibly could in the situation, Carly gathered up all the strength left inside of her and pushed up off of the floor.

With muscles that she never even knew she had groaning in protest and her head spinning like a carnival ride, she made her way through the ravaged living area. A thunderous crashing sound came from behind her and without turning around she knew that the spot where she and Josh had huddled moments before was no longer there.

The hole in the wall beckoned welcomingly to her but then, with only a few feet to go, her foot caught on what was left of one of the lampshades from the room. Carly felt herself begin to fall forward and knew at that moment, all she could do was cradle Josh as best she could so that it was her who would take the brunt of the fall and not the tiny boy in her arms.

And yet, her collision with the floor never happened.

Strong arms caught her and as the person helped her with those last few steps out of the house, Carly could feel the poke of a service weapon and the stiff material of an officer's uniform against her.

The first contact with the crisp cold air of the winter day hit like a sledgehammer, almost causing Carly to drop to her knees anyway. While both she and Josh pulled in the welcome and much needed oxygen, the coldness also stung their lungs quite a bit. But as she stumbled further away from the raging inferno, Carly knew she would welcome the pain of fresh air over the pain of what had almost happened to them in that house.

Finally giving in the lack of adrenaline that was hitting her, Carly fell to her knees on the ground, ignoring the cold snow as it seeped into her jeans. Josh, who still hadn't let go of her, was cradled protectively in her arms.

Ragged breathing filled the air as well as the constant popping and crackling of the fire burning behind them. A voice she didn't exactly recognize was speaking to her but only two things were running through her mind at the moment.

"Where…where's Jack? Where's Nicole?" Carly managed to get out, choking on some of the smoke that was drifting their way.

"Mrs. Snyder…" The officer tried to say, but she cut him off.

"Where is my husband?" She demanded, but again had to give in to a coughing fit when her lung alerted her to the fact that they weren't up to demanding anything just yet.

"Mrs. Snyder, I need you and the boy to please come with me. Detective Snyder managed to call us at the station and even though the fire department is already on its way we need to get you to a safe distance away from the house." The officer said, calmly.

While Carly couldn't see very well through thecombination of smoke and her red swollen eyes, the more she listened to it the more the voice was somehow familiar and she felt herself relax. She held a shaking Josh closer to her and allowed the officer to gently take her by the arm and help her to her feet. The sound of a motorcycle roaring to a stop caused all three of them to pause.

"Hey, what the hell is going on?" A voice called out and a leather clad man burst through the smoke a few moments later.

"Dusty?" Carly said, recognizing the voice almost instantly. She blinked harder and the stinging in her eyes from the soot and smoke caused her natural tear duct reflex to start over again. Thankfully her blinking speeded up the process and tears began to soothe her gaze.

"Carly? Are you okay?" Dusty said, rushing over to her side. "Where's…?"

He trailed off as he watched Carly's eyes shoot to the burning house. The emotions that crossed her face told him all he needed to know.

"Stay here! I'm going in to help. Just stay here!" Dusty said, leading them to a small clearing about 50 yards from the house. He lay down in the cold wet snow and rolled around several times, before jumping to his feet again. Before Carly could say anything else, he had thrown one arm up over his face and rushed back into the fire.

Carly had never been a fan of Dusty Donovan's but right now, she was more than willing to be his biggest cheerleader if it meant him helping get her husband out of that house.

"I want my mommy." Josh started to whimper, the shock of the inital explosion finally wearing off. His cries became louder and he began to struggle against Carly's hold. "I want my mommy!"

"I know, Josh, I know." Carly said kneeling down to hold his arms and looking into his frightened soot covered face. "Jack's going to bring her out, but you need to stay with me okay?"

Josh didn't say anything else but glared down at her in defiance. Suddenly his face fell and throwing his arms around Carly's neck he began to sob.

"I…want…my…mommy." He cried and Carly closed her eyes, holding the shaking child close. She wanted nothing more than to fall apart too, but she knew that this poor little six year old boy needed her to be strong.

A rustling noise made both their heads turn and Carly stood quickly, letting out a gasp. With a hard slam, the side door leading to the kitchen area flew off and into the forest, several feet away.

"Oh thank God!" She cried as she watched Dusty run out of the house with Nicole in his arms and Jack right behind him, half-dragging one of the federal agents.

They made it to the clearing where Josh and Carly stood, before coming to a stop. Dusty gently laid a coughing Nicole down on the ground, helping her sit halfway up as she tried to forcibly expel the smoke from her lungs. Jack and the federal agent stumbled to the ground next to them, also coughing up the foreign substance.

"Mommy!" Josh yelled and rushed out of Carly's arms to hurl himself at Nicole.

"Oh, God, baby! You're okay!" Nicole cried, holding her son to her and sobbing as she rocked back and forth with the little boy on her lap. "You're okay!"

"Jack?" Carly said, kneeling beside her coughing husband and brushing her hand over his forehead.

He had a large gash over his right temple and what was probably going to be a nasty bruise over his left cheekbone but, like the rest of them, miraculously nothing appeared to be broken.

Jack grabbed her hand and kissed her palm, before tugging her into a hug.

"I'm okay, Carly. Are you okay?" He asked, his voice rough and she just nodded, knowing that words could not do justice to the emotions she felt running through her.

Jack held her close a moment more and then letting go, scrambled to his feet. Swaying momentarily, he shook his head and then turned towards the house again.

Carly narrowed her eyes and jumped to her feet too.

"Jack…" Her voice held a serious warning as all the nerves in her body were on alert. She saw the look in his eyes and said his name again.

Jack just turned to her and then, after hugging her again, he pulled away.

"Hines is in there. I saw him by the kitchen doorway as we were running out. I gotta go back for him."

"Jack, you can't go in there!"

"Carly, he's right by the door! I have to try. He has a wife and two kids. What if it was me in there, Carly, and no one even bothered to...? I can't just leave him there. Please understand, baby, I have to try." Jack repeated and despite herself, Carly found herself listening to his argument. And even though fear had completely wrapped itself around Carly's heart, she felt her fingers slowly release their death grip on his sleeve as if they belonged to someone else.

Jack kissed her hard and before she could say anything, he was bolting back in the direction from which he had appeared only a moment ago. Immediately she wanted to call him back but her voice seemed to have deserted her. All she could do was watch him as he maneuvered away from some of the flames and vanished around the other side of the house.

A small hand slipped into hers and she looked down to see Josh clinging to her on one side while Nicole placed an arm around her shoulders on the other, even as she continued to shake and cough out the remnants of her own lungs' ordeal. Dusty stood off to the side, trying to assess the semi-conscious agent that Jack had pulled out while glancing every other second to the house. The battle of whether or not to help Jack was written all over his face but they all knew that he would most likely only prove to be a distraction if he ran back in too.

Silence hung in the air and though it was probably only a minute, it felt like hours to Carly. Then, the sound she had been dreading came and with the low rumbling, Dusty's voice echoed out

"Oh my god."

As they watched, the entire roof of the house began to cave in and with a mighty whoosh, the house seemed to collapse in on itself.

"Jack!"

Carly's primal cry echoed in the chilly atmosphere of the day and several birds that had been resting in the trees that hung over the house like morbid voyeurs, took to flight.

But other than the rustling of departing wings no more movement came from the area of the burning dwelling. Carly broke away from Nicole and Josh and stumbled towards the house in shock, but quickly found that her progress was stalled due to the restraining arms of Dusty Donovan. While her struggle against his hold would leave some serious bruises in its wake, she had been weakened by the smoke inhalation and the blood loss from her injury and found that she was no match for his grasp.

Held back in Dusty's strong armed prison, Carly's continuous screams for her husband mingled with the sound of approaching sirens heralding help that was just a little too late.