Chapter 4

What can I say? This was quickly becoming the worst Friday of my life, and the drive to the hospital was anything but comforting. Mom remained tight-lipped and distant, refusing to say anything more about the phone call she had received from the hospital. My two younger siblings – Emmary, 9, and Jackson, 4 – fought the entire way, and they probably would have murdered each other had I not constantly intervened. The two were rarely on good terms, and the events of the last hour certainly hadn’t helped that.

The nearly two-hour drive gave me way too much time to think. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I made no progress on the day’s mysteries. My thoughts were too often interrupted by horrible imaginings of why we were driving to the hospital.

I tried asking mom for more information, but all I got were shakes of the head and budding tears.

Argh.

It was almost 10:00pm when we finally reached the hospital. Mom plowed into a parking spot (two parking spots judging by the angle of our Odyssey) and jumped out, leaving me to unbuckle and remove the little ones. I dragged them alongside as I raced to catch up to her.

“Mom, wait! What’s going on? Why are you running?”

She said nothing, instead pushing firmly through the hospital’s revolving doors and marching straight to the front desk. I barely made it through the doors in time to hear my dad’s room number – 2731 – then I scrambled down the hallway, a screaming child’s hand in each of mine, and only by smashing an arm into the elevator door was I able to catch a ride up with her.

“Mom, listen – you gotta tell us what’s happening! What’s the rush? Is dad dying?”

But still she said nothing. She didn’t even make eye contact.

I had never seen her act like this. The only explanation I had was that she was either extremely angry or extremely frightened.

Or both.

The elevator bell rang and mom darted out. I picked up Jackson and dragged along an increasingly agitated Emmary as the three of us hurried to catch up.

Three turns and four hallways later we reached dad’s room. Mom entered and closed the door behind her. I, too tired and confused to pursue, set down Jackson and let go of Emmary, then slumped into one of the waiting room couches.

Not knowing how long it would be before she emerged, I decided to buckle down and try to make sense of what was happening. If I were about to get terrible news tonight (and really, given the circumstances, what else could happen?), I wanted to go in prepared.

I decided to start with the obvious. There was no denying how much mom was out of character. Something must have frightened her – angered her too, perhaps, but there had to be some sort of fear involved. Nothing else would put her into such an unbelievable hurry.

Next, I found myself waiting in the oncology wing of the hospital. I knew what oncology meant, having learned about just a week earlier in my health class.

Oncology meant cancer. Could dad have…?

I didn’t want to think about that, at least not until I’d heard something specific. I’d just have to hope the sinking feeling in my stomach was something else, that being in the oncology wing was only a coincidence.

My stomach rumbled and I realized none of us had eaten dinner – and it was after 10 o’clock. No wonder Emmary and Jackson were so edgy.

Suddenly the door to dad’s room re-opened and my mother emerged. She was shaking.

“Children, I need a few minutes alone with your father. He’s alive and okay, but we have some things we need to talk about – just the two of us. I’ll come get you when we’re done.”

She stepped back into the room, leaving me to grapple with my empty stomach, scattered thoughts, and two disgruntled siblings.

Well I’d had enough of that, so I jumped out of my chair and crept over to the door. Maybe I’d be able to overhear something.

I knelt down and pressed my left ear against the door.

It was quiet, but inside hospital room 2731 I could hear my mother’s tone shift from frightened to angry.

“I warned you about this, David. I warned you this would happen.”

Mom only called dad ‘David’ when she was pissed. Usually it was ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ something of that sort.

Apparently tonight wasn’t a ‘honey’ kind of night.

“Listen to me, Natalie. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”

“Okay? Okay?!”

“Yes, okay. This is only temporary until–”

“Until what? Until the poison kills you? What then, David? You’ll leave me a widow? A widow with three children, no money, and god-knows-what chasing after us?”

Did I just hear her say poison?

I pressed my ear more tightly against the door.

“They don’t know about you, Natalie, and they don’t know about the kids.”

“Kepik knows.”

Kepik? Who was Kepik?

“Kepik knows everyone involved in the project. I’m one of a thousand people on that list.”

“But you’re the only one to escape. Ever. And that means Kepik isn’t the only one who knows about us.”

“After next Friday, everyone else on the list will be an escapee too. We can disappear.”

“That may be, but The Closing won’t solve your poisoning. Have you found a way to get an antidote?”

Poisoning? Antidote?

“…I think I have. But you’re not going to like it.”

“I’ll like anything that gets you cured.”

“It involves Teal.”

My heart skipped a beat. Maybe two.

“…What? You aren’t honestly thinking of acting on that ridiculous dream, are you?”

“It isn’t ridiculous, Natalie. Please try and understand how significant–”

“No. Stop. Listen to me, David. I don’t care if God himself marched down here and commanded you to send Teal after an antidote. You’re no Abraham, and he will not be your Isaac.”

A lengthy pause.

“…Well then no, I don’t have an idea. Not yet, anyway.”

“I can’t believe you actually considered sending your 15-year-old son through a portalgate. You must be insane.”

“It’s a valid–”

“No, it’s not. It’s a terrible idea. I’m getting the children. They must be starving and terrified.”

“You haven’t fed them?”

“I had no choice. I had to make sure I talked some sense into you before you involved Teal in your dangerous, idiotic scheme.”

“It’s a good–”

“No, it isn’t, and I don’t want you to ever mention it again. Please, David, just forget about it.”

“It could work, Natalie.”

“No. And that’s final. I’m getting the children.”

I scrambled away from the door and pretended to be deeply engaged in the bland, amateurish landscape painting across from my dad’s room. It wasn’t hard to look deeply engaged – my mind was doing 100,000 RPMs trying to make sense of what I’d just heard.

The door behind me opened and my mother again stepped out, a forced, weary smile on her face. Emmary and Jackson – who had been momentarily distracted with a nearby fish tank – ran over to her.

I, however, took the opportunity to just stare angrily at my mom. Honestly, I’d never had too many problems with my parents; they were good to me, never asking for much, and in return I kept up my grades and occasionally helped around the house. If you ask me, parents are pretty simple creatures: smile when you talk to them, keep your room clean, be home when you’re supposed to and they won’t give you much grief.

But tonight I was starting to appreciate the rage a parent could cause. It wasn’t fair of mom to treat me like this. It wasn’t fair to hide information, to withdraw, to leave me in charge of two frightened children. It wasn’t fair that I had no idea what was going on and that she had refused to talk for the last two hours. It wasn’t fair that we were in a hospital at 10:30 at night without any dinner, especially my little brother and sister.

And then there was the conversation I’d just overheard. Dad had been poisoned? When were they going to tell me that? It sounded like he had plans to send me on a mission to retrieve an antidote, but mom disagreed. Who was she to make that decision? If dad really was poisoned, I’d do anything to save him. ANYthing. She’d never keep me from doing it, no matter how dangerous it was.

I felt my temper rising, which was rare. I’m a pretty level guy, but the more I thought about the last twelve hours, the more this whole day seemed like a load of crap.

Some Friday.

I shook my head and continued to scowl, but mom refused to make eye contact, instead speaking quietly to Emmary and Jackson.

After several minutes of consoling them, she reached down and took their hands in hers.

“Teal,” she said, finally making eye contact with me. “Are you hungry?”

I debated how sarcastically to respond when without warning, the overhead lights flickered twice.

I paused and looked upward.

Two more flickers, then the lights shut down completely.

Blackness engulfed the hallway and lobby.

Just frigging great, right? Just when you think the day can’t possibly get worse…

My younger siblings began to whimper, followed by fervent whispering from my mom.

“It’s okay, guys. It’s just a little power outage. Teal, are you okay?”

I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me and instead said, “yeah, I’m fine.”

“Stay close. The power should come back in a moment.”

A moment passed and everything remained dark.

None of this made any sense. Why were no emergency lights on? This was, after all, a hospital. Weren’t there supposed to be backup generators? How could things like life-support machines and other equipment function without backup power?

And why would the power go out now, of all times? The sky outside looked clear as clear could be, so weather clearly wasn’t the cause.

I waited another moment for my eyes to adjust, then glanced around the lobby and hallway. The lobby desk sat empty, there were no other visitors, and a powerfully eerie silence weighed heavily upon everything.

Where was the desk attendant? And where were all the nurses?

And why was everything so damn silent?

I began to tip-toe toward mom and the siblings when the unmistakable creak of an opening door drifted from the distant end of the hallway.

I froze.

A slight tapping sound echoed out, followed by the soft click of a shutting door. Something about the tapping seemed so familiar…

Silence, then two more taps. I remained frozen in place, thinking.

That sound. It was identical to what I’d heard at the school earlier that day.

At the opposite end of the hallway – the end behind me – another soft groan from an opening door drifted through the air. This time there were no scuttling sounds; only a symmetrical groan and click as that door swung closed.

Now there was someone – or something – behind us and in front of us. We were surrounded.

A bead of sweat rolled off my forehead and onto the ground. I couldn’t shake the feeling that whoever (or whatever) had just snuck into the room must be after my family, since everyone else seemed to have evacuated without us knowing.

My mind continued to race, too busy planning an escape to spare effort making sense of what was happening. To my right, mom was retreating toward the exterior windows, a hand firmly clamped over each of my sibling’s mouths.

Another tap came from the far end of the hall. Then another. Three more followed.

It was moving toward us. Slowly but surely, whatever was there kept moving closer.

I began inching my way toward the outside wall, carefully planting each foot as quietly as possible. I struggled to keep my breathing smooth and silent.

It wasn’t easy.

At the distant end of the hallway (still the side in front of me) a door creaked again, meaning another one had arrived. That meant at least two in front of me and at least one behind.

I could only assume all of them were slowly converging on the lobby.

…Or on my father’s room.

That sudden realization stopped me cold. Maybe these things weren’t here for me or mom or my siblings – maybe they were after dad. Maybe these guys were the reason he was here in the first place, and now they were coming to finish the job.

I had to marvel at the way my mind raced from possibility to possibility, each one worse than the last. I had to get it together. I needed to get calm, think straight, think smart.

If only I had some kind of weapon…

I reached the outside wall and crouched down next to my mother and siblings.

Another tap. Then another.

The four of us huddled together. I could feel little Emmary shaking beneath mom’s arms.

Terror, rage, and adrenalin tangled inside me.

Tap tap.

Tap tap.

I slid slightly in front of my family, hoping that would be enough to protect them against whatever was coming.

Tap tap.

Tap.

And then it happened.

Two bursts of purple energy exploded from the left end of the hallway, immediately followed by a rain of green bursts from the right. Explosions spattered across the walls, floor, and ceiling, showering the lobby in a sudden wall of light. Shadows scattered and I leapt to my feet, using the epiphanic light to search the surroundings for some kind of weapon, some kind of defense.

Another barrage of energy exploded across the hallway and into the lobby, spewing dust and debris everywhere.

But I was already moving, sprinting for the far wall. The next green blast blew out an exterior window, letting a sudden gust of wind into the room.

Behind me, mom screamed something. It sounded like “wait!”

Too late for that.

I reached the far wall and darted toward my goal. A solid smash from my elbow busted open the glass, and two seconds later I had a fire extinguisher firmly in my grasp. It was heavier than I would have liked, but it’d have to do.

I whipped around as a particularly vehement series of colored blasts consumed the desk to my left. Splinters swept across my side, but coursing adrenaline kept me from noticing the sudden swath of scratches across my arm and chest. I hefted the fire extinguisher over my shoulder and charged back toward the family.

Now I can guess what you’re thinking – this all sounds too brave to be true, right? Well it’s not. See, not many things make me lose my temper, but after a Friday like I’d had I was pretty pissed off. Add the possibility that my little brother and sister could be hurt by these thugs, and I was ready to kill someone.

And since they were obviously trying to do the same to me, I felt perfectly justified in what I was about to try.

Something rounded the corner and unleashed a series of shots in our general direction. I swung the extinguisher under my arm, cradling it like a football, and leapt into the air. Warm air and light coursed immediately beneath me, setting my hair on end and blasting charred craters in the floor.

Someone – a woman – mom? – screamed, and a wave of orange energy flew across the lobby, consuming the thing that had shot at me. My feet reconnected with the ground, and I glanced over to see who had saved me.

…What the hell?

It was mom. She was on her feet, a small silver weapon clutched tightly in her hands. Orange columns of light burned from its barrel, devouring the thing at the edge of the hallway until only a cloud of dust remained.

She then began creeping toward the hallway, pausing only to glance at me and yell, “the children! Protect the children!”

I shook off my surprise and sprinted the remaining distance to my younger siblings. Emmary was hiding under a chair and screaming wildly while Jackson cowered behind her. I threw down the fire extinguisher and threw my arms around both children.

“It’s okay guys. It’s okay. We’re gonna be–”

Another volley of light – this one the biggest yet – exploded somewhere overhead, turning the glass window behind us to powder. I swung myself over Jackson and Emmary but most of the glass seemed to fall outward, sparing us.

I heard mom yell something; then a man’s voice yelled back, none of it clear.

More explosions erupted from the hallway.

I had the sudden, eerie feeling that something was watching me and my siblings. I reached out my left hand, felt around until it connected with the fire extinguisher, then pulled it in close and slowly moved into a crouch. Jackson and Emmary were both crying, and another thought of someone hurting them brought the full brunt of my adrenaline to bear.

Smashing and booms still echoed from the hallway, though they seemed to be moving further away. My eyes – a little tripped out from all the flashing – slowly scoured the surroundings looking for something out-of-place. Why did I feel like something was watching me?

My eyes drifted across the broken reception desk, the charred sofa, the fish tank – surprisingly, still intact.

…There.

Something flickered on the other side of the tank. Was it an eye? A light? I wasn’t about to find out.

In a single fluid motion I swung the fire extinguisher behind me, then quickly rotated and launched the heavy metal container straight at the fish tank. Whoever hid behind it realized what was coming and quickly lunged sideways, aiming a weapon directly at me.

I dove backwards.

A bright green ball erupted from the thing’s weapon just as the fire extinguisher connected with the tank. I knew the blast was coming straight for me – I couldn’t make it out of the way – it was too close, too easy of a shot.

Water poured from the broken tank: some in streams, some in droplets, the rest as mist that moved into the path of the green blast. The ball of energy moved forward, passing through the water toward me – and then something changed.

The green blast suddenly deformed, absorbing into the mist rising from the shattered tank.

A monstrous surge of light swept through the water and vaporized everything. Whatever glass was still intact exploded, and the thing that had fired at me disappeared in the blast.

The shockwave from the sudden discharge of energy swept across me, burning my skin and eyes and knocking me to the ground. I thought I heard more windows break; Emmary and Jackson both screamed, and somewhere down the hall mom yelled something unintelligible.

Once the light from the blast subsided, I climbed slowly to my feet, realizing for the first time how many body parts hurt. My presence of mind slowly returned and I immediately called out for Emmary and Jackson.

They were fine, miraculously unhurt, but scared to death. I pulled Jackson out from beneath a chair and held him close as Emmary wrapped herself tightly around my leg.

“Teal!”

I turned to see mom running toward us, arms outstretched. She looked like she had earlier that day when she’d first seen me at school – scared but relieved, angry but controlled.

She swept Emmary off my leg and hugged her tightly, then took Jackson and squeezed him just as hard.

Finally she turned to me, a genuine smile crossing her face for the first time in hours.

“Teal…”

I stared back at her, wanting to reply but having no idea how. What do you say after something like that? What question should I ask first?

Who attacked us? Why us? Why now? Why here? Where did you get a frigging laser gun? Why are we here in the first place? Is dad okay? Is he poisoned? What’s this about a mission?

What else are you hiding?

“Excuse me, Mrs. Garrison.”

I paused my racing thoughts and directed my gaze toward the edge of the room, looking for the source of this new, deep voice. Sure enough, the silhouette of a tall, sturdy man stood in the corner, deep shadows concealing everything but his outline.

“Yes Joseph, I know,” mom replied.

She knew him…? But who was he?

“Mrs. Garrison, you’re not safe here.”

“I said I know. We’ll leave in a moment.”

The silhouette nodded.

“Good. I’ve got men watching every door in and out of the hospital. I promise they won’t get anywhere near you or your husband again.”

“I certainly hope not, for your sake as much as ours.”

“…Of course. I suppose I deserved that.”

“You placed my entire family in danger tonight, despite your many guarantees of protection. Your promises no longer mean much to me, Joseph.”

“Look, I’m sorry–”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” she spat back. “The only reason I even allowed The Closing is because I had guarantees from everyone – you and Kepik included – that my family would be safe. I can see I’ve misplaced my trust.”

“With all due respect,” the man in the corner replied, his scratchy voice not sounding respectful at all, “The Closing is about a lot more than just you and your family.”

“Not to me, and not to my husband.”

“Your husband knows–”

“ENOUGH,” she yelled. “I don’t want to hear another word from you.”

The man said nothing. Mom – with Jackson still in her arms – took hold of Emmary’s hand.

“Come, children.”

She began walking toward the hallway.

A sudden bout of anger sparked inside me. I wasn’t going anywhere until I got some answers.

“No, mom. Wait.”

“Teal,” she said, not even bothering to turn around. “We don’t have time for this.”

“That’s fine. I’ll get my answers from dad.”

“Teal, I know this is hard for you to understand, but–”

“Mom, c’mon! Hard to understand? I just had a bunch of guys try to kill me! I’d like to know why!”

“It’s not safe here. We can talk at home.”

“Do you promise to explain everything to me?”

A pause followed. A long, awkward pause.

It was the tall man who spoke next – the one called Joseph.

“Mrs. Garrison–”

“Not now!”

“You need to go. The police are almost here.”

Mom sighed heavily before turning to face me.

“Teal, come. Now.”

Angry though I was, I could tell she meant business. We needed to go.

She began walking toward the stairwell. I followed. I said nothing; everything I could think to say was either totally disrespectful or so honest it would have brought me to tears. I didn’t want to cross either of those lines, so I stayed quiet.

Our walk back to the minivan was strangely uneventful. Mom stuck to the stairwell, which we were able to take all the way to the parking garage. Though I probably wasn’t supposed to notice, every flight of stairs was guarded by a man with a weapon, and a halo of these ‘soldiers’ loosely surrounded us as we left the stairway and walked to the car.

The same went for the drive home. At least three vehicles followed us the entire way, and one of them – a white Explorer – parked on the far end of our street after we pulled into the driveway.

We entered the house without comment. Emmary and Jackson had somehow fallen asleep on the way home; mom carried Em to her bedroom while I carried Jack to his. Then mom went straight to her bedroom and closed the door. Apparently our talk would have to wait until tomorrow.

I fell into bed without changing clothes. My stomach growled again and I realized we still hadn’t had dinner.

Meh, screw it. I was tired and my mind was totally overloaded. I needed sleep more than I needed food.

And before my stomach could growl again, I had fallen sound asleep.



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