The final chapter! Sorry this took so long. I've been really distracted lately. Well, anyway, it's here now. Please enjoy and review!
Gabe and Lillie had ditched their coats a while back, realizing the soaking fabric was doing more harm than good. Both teenagers were shivering as the sun began to set. Gabe's gunshot wound was burning, and he was sweating, even as his lips turned blue with cold. He was getting dizzy. He was sure he had an infection of some kind.
"Hey," he said, stopping. Lillie, shaking severely, stopped too. "Let's stop here," he suggested, staggering over to a large oak tree, collapsing beside it, leaning against it for support, wincing in pain as he gripped his injured shoulder. The gauze on his arm, covering the wound from just before he went to Peter, was falling off, exposing the painful scratches to the dirty environment.
Lillie collapsed beside him, on his right side, so she didn't hurt his shoulder. She leaned into him, and found him alarmingly warm. Nervously, she looked at his face. He was pale, sweating, shaking, and wore a look of utter pain.
"Gabe?" She asked nervously.
"What?" Gabe's voice was weak when he spoke, and he let out a cough, which caused him to wince in pain.
"Are you ok?" Gabe could hear the fear in her voice.
"Yeah, Lil, I'm going to be fine," he assured her, turning and forcing as reassuring a smile as he could muster onto his face. "I promise."
They sat there for a few moments longer, then they stood up without a word and kept moving.
"Hey, Gabe?" Lillie spoke up.
"Yeah?" Gabe asked breathlessly, leaning heavily on her for support, his legs barely able to hold up his weight, his coughing growing worse.
"What if we don't get out of here?" she asked hesitantly.
"Stop it, Lillie," Gabe said sternly. "We're going to be fine. I promised Mom I'd take care of you, and I'm going to keep that promise."
"How?" Lillie asked tentatively.
"I don't know," Gabe admitted. He stopped walking for a moment, doubling over, coughing as deep, wet cough. Gabe was surprised he didn't actually cough up on of his lungs as his shoulders heaved. Lillie watched him with terror in her eyes.
Finally, the coughing subsided, and Gabe straightened up, continuing from where he left off. "But whatever it is I have to do, I'll do it. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Besides, don't forget, I was on the phone with Peter. I'm sure he's on his way. He's probably already looking for us."
Lillie simply nodded, though she wasn't convinced. The sun was starting to go down. They were losing their light. Before long, it was pitch black outside.
Gabe stumbled over the rough terrain, shaking, sweating, his whole body on fire, yet freezing at the same time. It was a difficult feeling to describe. He was getting progressively worse as time went on. After a few minutes, he stumbled and fell.
"Gabe!" Lillie cried, concerned.
"I'm ok," Gabe assured her. "Let's stop here for the night, though..."
Lillie nodded and curled up beside him. Gabe wrapped his relatively-good arm around her protectively, keeping her warm, and, despite their desperate situation and her worry for her brother's health, calming her down a little. Before long, she was fast asleep...
Peter followed the search dogs as they went down the river bank, sniffing for the children's scent, but so far finding nothing. There was a helicopter in the air, searching for them, but so far, they, too, had found nothing.
"Come on, guys, where did you go...?" Peter muttered as he trekked through the woods with several others, calling the siblings' names. The sunlight was fading, but Peter didn't care. If it found Lille and Gabe, he would stay awake all night.
Several hours later, long after night had fallen, Peter got news from the chopper. "We've spotted them. They're about three miles ahead of you. We'll be landing in a clearing a nearby to take them out of there."
Peter raced forward into the trees, dread for what he might find making him want to stop, and hope that they might be alive lending him speed...
Lillie woke up when she heard the helicopter overhead and the spotlight shone down on them. She quickly realized what was happening, and relief caused her heart to swell.
"Gabe!" she cried, excited, shaking her brother. "Gabe, come on, wake up! Peter found us!"
Slowly, Lillie's excitement died when her brother didn't even stir.
"Gabe?" she asked hesitantly, her voice lost in the noise of the helicopter. Gabe's skin was chalk white. He looked like the personification of death. It was terrifying.
"Gabe, wake up!" Lillie shrieked urgently, shaking her brother. "Gabe, this isn't funny! Wake up!"
Soon, she realized her brother wasn't messing with her. He really wasn't waking up.
"Gabe..." Lillie sobbed, her shoulders heaving. She rested her head on her brother's good shoulder as the tears spilled from her eyes, hugging him tightly. "Gabe...please...don't leave me...no, no, no, this isn't happening...no...please..."
At that moment, Peter came into view. When he saw Lillie sobbing over Gabe's motionless body, his heart nearly stopped.
"You promised," Lillie cried, her voice full of sorrow. "You promised me..."
Even though he knew she wasn't talking to him, Peter still felt an enormous pang of guilt. He had promised these kids he wouldn't let anything happen to them if they helped him. He had gone back on that promise.
Peter watched as paramedics rushed from the direction of the helicopter, one carrying a stretcher. While three or four of them worked to get Gabe strapped into the stretcher, one gently peeled Lillie away from her brother's side. When she stood up, Lillie locked eyes with Peter. Her gaze was so full of sorrow, pain, and hopelessness; it shook Peter to his core. Then she was led away, towards the helicopter, her brother carried along behind her.
Peter was unable to move, and just stood there, watching as the helicopter rose into the sky and took off in the direction of the hospital...
"Gabe..." Gabe opened his eyes and blinked. He was in the tree house, one of the only places on earth he felt safe. And he couldn't believe who was there with him.
His mother, looking just as he remembered her, stood on the other end of the tree house. She smiled encouragingly at him.
"Mom," Gabe choked out, tears of joy in his eyes. He closed the distance between them in a few quick steps and wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her tightly. "I missed you so much."
"I missed you too," Tara Hansen whispered, giving her son a kiss on the top of his head, which she could now barely reach. After a moment, Gabe pulled away.
"I am so proud of you," Tara smiled, tears in her eyes, holding him at arm's length, looking him up and down.
It was then that Gabe noticed that his shoulder didn't hurt. His arm wasn't scraped up. His back wasn't in pain. Old scars that he used to see on the backs of his arms and hands were no longer there. He was perfectly healthy, as if nothing bad had ever happened to him.
"What happened?" Gabe asked hesitantly, unsure if he wanted to know. "Where am I?"
"Nowhere, yet," Tara smiled sadly. "You got hurt pretty bad, Gabe."
"Wait...I'm not...dead, am I?" Gabe asked breathlessly.
"No," Tara said quickly. "You're not dead yet."
"Yet?" Gabe asked hesitantly. "What do you mean, I'm not dead yet?"
"You're body is still alive," Tara explained. "It's up to you if you want to go back to it."
"What about Lillie?" Gabe asked urgently. "Where is she?"
"She's not here," Tara offered. "So I have to assume she's ok."
Gabe let out a sigh of relief. "Thank God," he said softly.
"She should be ok now," Tara said softly. "You can come with me if you want."
Gabe stared at her in shock. "What?" he said gasped, his voice just above a whisper.
"No one would ever hurt you again," Tara continued. "You would never have to worry about anything ever again. You'd be happy. We'd be happy."
"But I can't just leave Lillie behind," Gabe protested. "She needs me."
"Peter's taking care of her," Tara assured him. "She'll be ok now. You don't have to hold on because of her. You can let go. You can come with me."
"But I promised her..." Gabe said softly, more to himself than her.
"She's ready, Gabe," Tara said softly, "even if she doesn't know it. She'll survive without you. I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do. You can stay if you want, but if you want to come with me, that's ok, too."
Gabe hesitated, considering all his options, weighing everything in his mind. "Can I think about it?" Gabe asked, nervous, scared, and confused.
Tara smiled. "Of course," she assured him. "Take as long as you need..."
Lillie sat in her hospital bed, staring at her brother's motionless form beside her. There was a breathing tube down his throat. His heart rate was irregular, and he was struggling to stay alive. He, like her, had suffered from hypothermia. But, unlike her, Gabe contracted pneumonia, made worse by what the doctors believed was an infection of some kind. The wound in his shoulder was believed to be the way he contracted the infection. They weren't sure if he got it in the water or while they were trekking through the forest, looking for help, but they were running tests to find out.
Gabe had a little bit more color in his face, but his lips were still a little blue. It was getting much better, but he was still pretty pale. He looked weak and fragile, as if merely touching him would break him. Lillie had only ever seen him even remotely as bad as this was when their dad got drunk and carved him up, which left him with a nasty scar on his abdomen. Even then, Lillie had only been afraid that he would die for a short period of time. After that, he recovered quickly.
"Hey," Lillie looked up when she heard someone speak. She saw Neal standing in the doorway, holding his IV pole, looking much better than he had when she last saw him. He was wearing hospital-issue blue sweatpants and a white t-shirt, with no slippers or any type of shoes, just a pair of white socks.
"Hey," Lillie said softly. "How are you doing?"
"I'm doing good," Neal smiled. "What about you?"
"I'm fine," Lillie assured him.
"Good," Neal nodded. "And Gabe?"
Lillie fell silent, her eyes sad and fearful.
Neal sighed, making his way over to her and pulling a chair over, sitting down, looking her in the eye. "Your brother is going to be fine," Neal said firmly.
"How do you know?" Lillie asked, her voice shaky, trying to fight back tears.
"Because any kid who would stand up to a jackass dad like yours the way Gabe did, no matter how badly he was hurt, just to protect his sister, even though he knew he could get even more seriously hurt or worse, is not going to just lay down and die when you're here," Neal said sincerely.
"He promised me..." Lillie whispered, looking at her brother with an amazing amount of emotions. "He promised me he'd be ok..."
"Well, there you go," Neal said firmly. "He's going to be fine. He promised you."
"But what if he's not?" Lillie asked nervously. "What if he can't wake up?"
"Hey, your brother is an amazing kid," Neal reminded her. "From what I've seen of him, I wouldn't be surprised if he woke up right now. I wouldn't be surprised at all."
"I can't lose him," Lillie said, her voice shaking, a tear escaping her eye, her gaze locked on her brother's fragile form. "I'm not ready. I don't know what I'd do without him."
"You're not going to have to find out," Neal said confidently. "Not for a long time. And by then, you'll be living your own life. You'll both be really old. Right now, your brother is going to wake up, and you are going to be ok."
"How do you know that?" Lillie asked helplessly.
"I just know," Neal sighed, flashing her one of his most reassuring, award-winning smiles.
"Well, I hope you're right..." Lillie said softly.
Peter looked in at Gabe and Lillie's motionless forms. It was after midnight. Lillie was fast asleep. Gabe was barely clinging to life. His body was weak, and the doctors weren't sure if it would be strong enough to fight off the infection and pneumonia that plagued his young body.
Peter sighed, leaning against the doorframe, his stomach churning with guilt. He promised these kids that if they helped him get Neal home safely, nothing would happen to them. Obviously, he hadn't kept that promise. It killed him to know that he was supposed to keep them safe and to also know that he had been unable to do so.
Peter's guilt-riddled gaze fell on Gabe. Looking back, Peter knew that Gabe had never trusted anyone except Lillie. No one, as long as he'd been alive, had even tried to save them from their father. He was suspicious of everyone. And yet, somehow, Peter had gotten him to put his trust in him. Maybe Gabe was right not to trust a soul. It sure didn't help him this time around.
At least their monster of a father wouldn't be able to hurt them anymore. He was dead. At least Peter had been able to do that for them.
Peter studied the incapacitated young man resting on the hospital bed closest to him. He knew he was struggling to stay alive, fighting as hard as he could to keep breathing, despite the fluid in his lungs. He was one of the strongest people he knew, and he was only sixteen. He had an increadible amount of respect for the young man.
Gabe would be turning seventeen in a couple of months, Peter recalled. Hopefully, he'd be able to hold on long enough to celebrate.
"Come on, Gabe," Peter whispered with a sigh. "You've got to wake up..."
Gabe sighed, leaning back against the tree house wall, so many thoughts rushing through his head, he could barely process it all. He was so torn. All his life, he could hardly remember a time when someone wasn't in some way hurting him. If he went with his mother, that would never happen to him again.
Yet, at the same time, despite what his mother said, he wasn't so sure Lillie was ready to carry on by herself. Or, perhaps more accurately, he wasn't sure if he was ready to leave her behind.
"I have to go back, Mom," he said at last, standing up from the tree house floor. "I can't just leave Lillie like this. It's not fair to her."
Tara nodded. "I understand," she said sadly.
"I'm sorry," Gabe said softly, his heart aching with sadness. His mother was the only person who tried to help him and his sister for so many years. He loved her. He didn't want to leave her behind.
"Oh, sweetheart," Tara smiled a sad smile and pulled him into a hug. "It's ok. You don't have to stay."
Gabe hugged her back tightly, tears streaming silently down his face. Finally, Tara pulled away, once again holding him at arm's length.
"I am so proud of you, Gabe," she said for the second time since seeing him. "I'm so proud of both of you. And I love you both so much."
"I love you too, Mom," Gabe choked on his words.
"Don't worry," she said with a reassuring smile, noticing the touch of fear in her son's eyes. "I'll see you again someday. I just hope it won't be so soon."
"You and me both," Gabe said with a sad laugh. Tara laughed too, and hugged him one more time. Gabe, once again, hugged her back tightly.
"You're right," Tara whispered in his ear. "It's time for you to go home..."
Gabe's eyes jolted open, gasping in a big breath of air. His eyes became panicked as he began choking on the breathing tube down his throat.
Peter stared in shock for a moment, then called for a nurse. It didn't take long for not one, but several nurses to appear, the siblings' doctor on their heels.
"Gabe," The doctor said, taking out a pen light and shining it in each of the teenager's eyes, checking the responsiveness of his pupils. "Can you hear me?"
Gabe let out a stressed nod, still choking on the breathing tube.
"Good, can you raise your finger?" The doctor asked, glancing down at Gabe's hand. Gabe did as he was told, picking up his right index finger.
"Ok, good, good. Gabe, I'm going to take the tube out, but I need you to stay still, ok?"
Gabe nodded again as the nurses held him down. He struggled to remain still as the doctor slowly, carefully, pulled the plastic breathing tube out of the teenager's throat. When it was finally out, one of the nurses placed an oxygen mask over his face, and Gabe began to relax some.
"Where am I? What happened?" Gabe asked, his voice scratchy from the breathing tube and muffled by the oxygen mask.
"You're in the hospital. You got shot and fell into a freezing river," the doctor told him bluntly. "You're pretty sick, but we have you on some medicine that will help you body heal itself, so it looks like you'll be ok."
Lillie, who was now awake, stared at her brother with tears of joy in her eyes, while Peter stood in the doorway, weak with relief.
Gabe's head rolled to the side, and when he saw Lillie, he forced a tired smile. Lillie smiled back, so happy and relieved she could barely process what was happening.
Then Gabe looked over at Peter. "Thank...Thank you..." He said breathlessly. "Thank you so much..."
Peter just smiled. He really didn't think he deserved the young man's thanks, but he didn't say so. He was just grateful that, provided Gabe got better, and Peter had anything to say about it, these poor kids were going to be ok. They were going to make it. They had a future.
Peter couldn't ask for a better outcome to a worse situation.