"But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them."
— Dave Eggers
It was nice, Shannon decided, coming back to a lighted house. Danny's collapse last week, frightening as it was, seemed to have put in check his self-destructive tendencies, and something like normalcy had resumed between them. He'd spent most of the past week tinkering with Todd's dusty old game consoles, sleeping, and running whatever errands he could talk her into giving him. The TV stayed off the news channels, and Shannon hadn't once woken up to find him gone.
She locked her truck in the drive, then trudged up the crunching gravel, indulging in thoughts of cooking for two and tossing bad jokes back and forth across the dinner table. It was temporary, she knew that, and she wished that whatever had thrown Danny her way had never happened, but… in the meantime, it was nice.
Shannon unlocked the door and stepped into the warm glow of the front hallway. The smell of popcorn and garlic bread lingered in the air. Harley's nails clicked on the floor of the living room as the black lab trotted out to greet Shannon, tail wagging. The upbeat soundtrack of some cartoony-sounding movie bubbled in through the open doorway.
"Movie night?" Shannon called. Hanging her purse on the coat rack, she kicked off her shoes. She noticed a couple of pizza boxes stacked on the kitchen table, just visible through the open doorway. "I see you were too hungry to wait." The prospect of not cooking wasn't particularly unhappy either.
She stepped into the living room, then stopped short. The person wrapped up in blankets on the couch was not Danny. A small, brown-haired girl stared at her with impossibly huge brown eyes, like a startled owl.
"Hello," Shannon said slowly, to cover her surprise and give her time to think. She realized that she recognized this girl— the little sister that Nicki had brought to the dinner, and to the clinic once or twice for ear infections and on teacher workdays.
"Don't be mad," the girl whispered. "Danny said it was okay."
"I'm not angry at all," Shannon said warmly, coming to sit down on the edge of the couch next to her. "Liz, was it?" The girl nodded. "You're always welcome here. Nicki is a good friend of mine and I'm always glad to see you, too. You remember me from the clinic, right?"
Liz sat up, knees poking out of the blankets, and leaned forward. "I was here at the party where Danny puked and we all had to move to Mr. Frank's to watch the game," she volunteered. "That was gross."
"You have a good memory, kiddo." Shannon glanced around, as if an explanation might be tucked into a bookshelf or under the coffee table. "Did Danny say why he brought you here?"
"Nicki got sick," the girl said, and she hunkered back down, small chin on bony knees, fingers twisting in the blankets. "She left the pizza to burn and she usually doesn't now, so I guess it's pretty bad. Danny had the keys because she had to go right to the hospital."
Shannon glanced at the pizza on the table, which still looked warm, then back at the girl. "How long ago was that?
Liz shrugged. "A while." She reached inside the blanket. There was a rustle, then she popped a handful of popcorn in her mouth and chewed slowly, a frown creasing between her big brown eyes. "I wanted to go see her, but it's suuuper contagious and really gross, so Danny said I can't yet." She tucked her chin back onto her folded knees and sighed. "He got me new pizza to make up for the burnt one. He said this'd be like a sleepover—though just me and Harley and not my friends." Liz glanced at Shannon sidelong, pulling the blankets closer. "You're really not mad?"
Shannon took a deep breath and smoothed her worry into a smile. "No, honey, you can stay as long as you like. Is Danny here now?"
"He's in the shower. It's been a while, but he was pretty disgusting. Danny's a total klutz, did you know that?" Liz stretched, then leaned forward and patted Harley awkwardly on the nose. Harley delicately licked the girl's buttery fingers. "He fell down on the way to get me, and got all dirty and gross. Looked kinda sick too. I hope he's not contagious or all of this was for nothing." She rolled her eyes.
Fell down. Shannon remembered Danny collapsing at the clinic, and suddenly it became much more urgent to know exactly where Danny was. She left Liz with Harley and the movie and went upstairs, just barely suppressing the urge to run. Dread built in a tight knot in her chest.
Danny was probably fine. He'd been working with Nicki earlier today, she had probably just asked Danny to bring Liz by last minute and he forgot to call about it. Nothing bad had happened. He was fine.
The mental echo of Danny's least convincing catch-phrase only heightened her anxiety.
Todd's bedroom stood empty, door ajar, the bed unmade and a few drawers half open, the curtains drifting in a breeze as if an invisible hand had touched them.
Shannon knocked on the bathroom door. It drifted open at her touch. The mirror was still foggy from a recent hot shower. A damp towel with odd strawberry blotches hung on the rack. A crumpled pile of clothes lay on the floor, also damp and filthy with blackish grime and… Shannon pushed aside a black sweatshirt with her toe and bent to examine the t-shirt beneath it more closely. She stiffened as that unmistakeable smell hit her.
Blood. Danny's clothes were soaked in blood. Shannon took a step back, heart hammering.
"Pull yourself together," she muttered. "There's no solving this by panicking."
She went to her own bedroom and picked up the phone on the bedside table. She dialed Nicki's cell. It rang, and kept ringing. No one answered. Shannon started when it clicked over to voicemail. A coincidence, maybe, but it sent a chill down Shannon's spine.
She bit her lip, thinking, then dialed for Frank. He was close to Nicki, had taken her under his wing when she'd first come to town. If anyone knew what was going on, it would be him.
"Shannon," Frank's voice rumbled over the line, solid and reassuring. "I was just about to call you."
Shannon breathed a sigh of relief; finally she'd get some answers. "Please tell me it's to explain why Nicki's little sister is sitting in my living room."
A long pause. "No, but I was just going to ask you to pick her up." He sighed, and there was a rustle, as if he'd just passed a hand over his face. "That's good then."
Any sense of relief vanished. Shannon clutched the phone, pressing it against her ear. "Why? Is Nicki alright? Liz seems to think that she's sick."
"I wish that were the truth." He sounded tired; world-weary in a way she rarely heard from the tirelessly positive clinic director.
"I don't like the sound of that."
"I'm sorry, Shannon, it doesn't get better. Nicki was shot a few blocks from her apartment. She had me listed as an emergency contact, so I'm here at the hospital, waiting for more news."
Shannon's breath caught in her throat. The phone nearly slipped from her fingers. She fumbled to catch it. Nicki, shot. It was far too easy to supply images to go with those words; five years of ER work provided her with a catalogue of grisly possibilities. All her fears took shape and gathered into a dense weight in her chest. "What happened?"
"Random mugging, they think. Gabriel was at the scene when the paramedics arrived. He'd done some first aid that probably saved her life, but you know how he is around authority figures. They haven't been able to get a word out of him. There was apparently a second witness, but whoever it was slipped off before anyone could get a name or a statement."
"Danny most likely," Shannon said. She pushed a curl behind her ear and moved to stare out the window at the empty lawn, the grass glittering with rain in the porch light. "He's not here, either, but there's a pile of bloody clothes on my bathroom floor." The pieces came together in a rough picture. It was probably Nicki's blood on the towel; Danny had been there, so he knew that Liz needed a place to stay. He was still fearful of being identified and wouldn't want to talk to the police, so of course he'd make himself scarce.
"Ah." Frank sighed, apparently having similar thoughts. "We know how he is with authorities, too."
"I just hope he's not hurt." The thought of him wandering around in this cold rain, alone, maybe injured made her shiver. That, coupled with what Liz had said… what if his blood glucose crashed again? Would he be alright?
"He had the wherewithal to get Liz to your place," Frank said. "I wouldn't be too worried. That boy doesn't look it, but he's resourceful."
Resourceful? Yes. Also self-destructive, avoidant, and frighteningly good at ignoring warning signs. Shannon stared out into the rain as if she could conjure him up on sheer willpower. "I hope you're right."
"Do you mind keeping Liz for the night? My wife and I can take her starting tomorrow, but I don't want to leave the hospital just yet."
"Of course." Shannon glanced at the open door and lowered her voice, even though she knew Liz couldn't hear her. "How bad is it?"
"Her right lung collapsed, and she lost a lot of blood. She's stabilized though, and they've got her in pre-op now to remove the bullets. Does Liz know what happened?"
"She thinks Nicki's sick."
"Alright." He sighed again. "It'll probably be better to keep her in the dark until we know more."
"Thanks, Frank." Shannon put down the phone and took a deep breath, centering herself. She didn't know where Danny was. Nicki was seriously hurt. A part of her wanted to crawl under the covers and stay there, to drift off to sleep and hope that the rain would clear and the morning prove all of this as just a bad dream.
She couldn't, of course; a little girl was sitting downstairs, alone, without a clue that her only family in the world was struggling for her life. Liz needed her. That's what nurses did best, wasn't it? Bring a cheerful face and some comfort into an impossible crisis?
Shannon put on a smile and headed for the stairs. Time for popcorn and pizza, and a lot of silent prayer.
Rumbling all around. Cold, hard metal under her back. A sharp sting in her arm. Valerie jerked awake.
She blinked up at the low grey ceiling of a van lined with piercing white lights. She felt hazy and sluggish, like the crash after a caffeine-fueled all-nighter. Or two. Movement drew Valerie's eyes: The man from the GIW stood next to her, the lights glinting off his square frames, calmly filling a handful of plastic tubes with blood from a dark red line that led up from her arm. Her blood.
Valerie jerked again, mind blank with panic, but there were cuffs on her ankles, upper arms, and wrists that held her fast. "Let go of me!" She demanded, glaring at the man with all the ferocity she could muster. "Get these things off!"
The needle in her arm stung, but even more than that, this was eerily, terrifyingly familiar to the image on that video of Danny. She looked around, twisting her neck to take in the van. There weren't any dissection tools, but there were ectoweapons of all descriptions lining the walls, some with very, very sharp blades.
He glanced down at her, then turned away and packed the tubes away in a little cooler strapped to the wall. "Why would I do that?"
"You have no right to keep me like this!"
"As I am sure you've realized by now, that hardly matters to the GIW." He removed the needle from her arm with a practiced flick and pressed a cotton ball where the needle had pierced her skin, securing it with medical tape. "Do not be alarmed, young lady, I have no interest in doing you serious harm."
"Say that when you haven't just shot me down and kidnapped me." Valerie glanced around the van, flexing her fingers. She still felt wiped out from whatever they had used to knock her out, but that didn't mean she couldn't fight.
He wiped his blue latex gloves on a cloth and adjusted his glasses, frowning down at her. "You have me mistaken for an agent; you are incorrect. I am Dr. Kerza, a scientific consultant. I do not happily associate myself with such… persons." His expression soured. "I would have preferred a more cooperative approach, but I must admit, their brutality does produce results. It was absolutely essential that I have the opportunity to examine you." Dr. Kerza turned his back on her and rummaged through a box of medical tools. "You and your hacker friend, whoever they may be, ensured that my time was limited. Consider it a trade."
Valerie craned her neck and checked behind her. They were alone— if there were any combative agents, they must be in the front part of the van. This guy looked weak. She could take him.
Valerie took a deep breath, centering herself. Letting her eyes fall half-shut, she focused on the cool buzz at the back of her mind that was her suit. She took hold of that feeling and yanked. Her suit materialized with a flash of red light. She flexed her arms and, with an extra burst of energy, formed a laser cannon on each wrist. They burst through the cuffs on her arms and wrists. Her half-formed jet sled demolished the cuffs on her ankles, smashing the sled in the process.
Valerie lunged, determined to knock him flat, smash the cooler and— she froze in her tracks, ears ringing with a shrill hum from a small silver device in Dr. Kerza's hands.
He blinked at the armored fist held statue-still a fraction of an inch from his face, and smiled. "Ah, thank you. I was wondering how I could obtain a sample."
Valerie couldn't pull back her fist. She couldn't even flinch, eyes fixed on the device. It was the same thing that he'd used on her at Tucker's house— a fist-sized piece of technology with a dial and a couple of buttons on the top and what looked like a speaker on a front panel.
The high-pitched sound translated to a searing ache that set her teeth on edge and made her temples throb. She couldn't move. Panic and fear sent her heart rate through the roof, her muscles ached with tension, but she couldn't so much as flinch. Who was this guy?
She watched him drop the thing into his pocket, still activated. Dr. Kerza opened a drawer and pulled out short blunt shears, thick and strong like tin snips. He lay them against her arm, at one of the weak spots where the armor hadn't regenerated yet from her earlier battle.
The sharp blade scraped against her skin, separating a chunk of the armor about the size of her palm. He began snipping it out, inches at a time. The blade against the armor made a sound like crushing glass. Valerie would have shuddered if she could.
"Do you like my device?" he asked in a conversational tone as he worked. "It was inspired by a handy little discovery of my predecessor's. After a certain security breach," He glanced at her with a faint smile, "I felt the need to have a portable means of defense against ecto-entities. This device creates an aural frequency imperceptible to human ears, but absolutely crippling to ecto-entities. You have some resistance to it, being considerably more human than ghost, but at its strongest it can stop even you in your tracks."
Dr. Kerza lifted the isolated piece free. The armor tried to reconnect, sending out questing forks of red light in striating lines, but he slipped it into a metal case which shut with a snap, humming to life with some sort of ecto-containment technology.
Valerie's eyes watered; she couldn't even blink. If she could will an ectogun into existence and blast a hole right through that crisp white lab coat she would have, but the paralysis had frozen her suit, too. Her connection to it, the hum in the back of her mind, buzzed like pins and needles.
He nodded, satisfied, and tucked the box in the cooler next to the blood samples. "Nearly done. I commend you on your patience; you're exhibiting remarkable restraint." he chuckled.
Bastard. Valerie glared, wishing she could will her armor to form around his throat and throttle him.
"When your father described your condition to our organization, I was shocked, as you can imagine, and delighted. Two ecto-hybrids falling into our laps, one after another." The man swiped at her exposed skin with an alcohol wipe."Though, of course, the agency was too blind to realize what it originally had. It's unfortunate that I had no opportunity to study the first hybrid in person. Dr. Fenton is brilliant and took thorough notes—but even she had her blind spots."
The doctor angled the snips down, pressing the point into her skin. "This will hurt. My apologies, we have no time for anesthetics." He closed the snips, shearing off a bloody chunk of skin.
A scream rose and died in Valerie's paralyzed throat. Spots popped in front of her eyes. Blood welled up and flowed down her arm. Tears stung in her eyes and she couldn't do anything to stop those, either.
Dr. Kerza placed the little piece of her he'd taken into a container and added it to his macabre collection. He turned back to her with a piece of gauze in his hand, which he applied to the bloody wound on her arm. He pressed on it, hard, and for a moment Valerie saw white.
Then the pressure eased and through watery eyes she saw him securing a second layer of gauze with medical tape. He patted her arm. "There. Not a complete savage, am I? You should have that looked at professionally, however. It's been quite some time since I practiced medicine."
He pressed a button on the device. The hum vanished and Valerie collapsed, gasping in air, her whole body trembling. The wound on her arm felt like it was on fire. She watched with numb fear as Dr. Kerza calmly unstrapped the cooler from the wall, secured the lid, and tucked it under his arm.
She glared at him with all the energy she had left. He chuckled, then checked his watch.
"I've been forced to work with the most incompetent of colleagues while under the GIW's employ. The only thing one can rely on is their morning coffee consumption. Which means the laxatives I slipped the driver should be taking effect just about… now."
Right on cue, the van swerved, slowed, and pulled off the road. Valerie heard the muffled sound of one of the front doors being thrown open and feet running away from the van.
Valerie watched the man standing over her give a satisfied smile. He'd… wanted them to stop? What was he playing at?
"Agent L will have received my resignation notice by email by now as well." Dr. Kerza nodded to her and touched the cooler. "I have what I came for. I can't thank you enough."
Valerie propped herself up on wobbly arms. Her legs were still remembering how to stand. "Wait—you can't just leave—"
"Oh, you'll find that I'm perfectly capable." Dr. Kerza opened the back of the van; harsh yellow street light streamed in. He stepped out and strolled away, leaving her uncuffed and the door ajar.
Minds that Move :: tbc...
Dun dun...dun? I feel like this one doesn't qualify as a cliffie, but hey, things are happening!
Wow, it's really weird having a buffer and doing nothing day-of except a spell check and posting it... that's a good thing though! I'm about 6k into a new original fic project and horrifically behind on Camp Nano, but I'm not giving up yet! Planning to go out and have a write-a-thon after lunch.
Much love and appreciation to my beta readers for keeping me straight on timelines, name introductions, and keeping it real - MyAibou, Anneriawings, LunarMothim, Misfit-toy-haven, Pumpernickel Muffin, Attu, Chintastic, and Cordria!
And thank you, my dear readers, for your reviews! I wish I could respond to everyone - and I hope this hasn't gotten repetitive - but just know that I read and enjoy all of your comments. Shoutout to Jaguarspot and Workparty! Don't worry, the whole shebang is saved to the cloud so it won't die in any hard drive mishaps. Also thanks for the congrats, Sparky! I always love hearing from you! A Spirit of the Stars, welcome back! Barring some kind of apocalypse SoaD will get a new chapter every two weeks right up to the end. :D
Until next time,