I don’t actually remember seeing the sun set, much less the darkness coming to take over the shelter. It must have been pretty late though, as the whole school had shut off the lights hours ago. I mean, it’s not like it was completely dark inside…it never was. Between the emergency lights in the halls and the floodlights the military used to protect the gates outside beaming through the many plexiglass windows of the school cafeteria, we barely got anything more than a few comfortable shadows for us to sleep under at any time of night.

The random gunshots from the top floor didn’t even register anymore. An occasional ‘pop’ here..an occasional ‘bang’ there…it was all the same. In fact, instead of being a startling experience for most of us…it was actually becoming a somewhat soothing validation that we would be safe here. At least for a little bit longer.

Outside in the mist were a collection of silhouettes…still being processed and thoroughly checked before they were let into the building with the rest of us. Some people waited out in the hallway for some of their loved ones to finally pass inspection, but they were fading fast. Or were already asleep. The military was definitely being extra careful with the new arrivals. But, considering the stakes, people on both sides committed to being patient with the whole operation, and nobody seemed to be having much of a problem with it. Which was something else that put my mind at ease.

I felt Spencer stirring next to me, snuggling himself deeper up under my arm. He really does look completely normal when he’s fast asleep like this. Almost angelic, to be honest. He just had this…vulnerable quality about him that needed protecting. And it’s not because I knew him all that well as a person. Except for his name, the fact that he was sick, and that Officer Logan was his father…I barely knew him at all. And yet…when I saw him sleeping under my arm, face pressed against my chest with a little bit of drool darkening the fabric of my shirt…I felt as though I was protecting ‘innocence’ itself, you know? For, like…all of us. It almost gave me hope about the rest of us finally reaching a point where we could all sleep this peacefully again someday.

I’m sure that it was nearly three O’clock in the morning, give or take twenty minutes or so. And yet Walker and Eddie had been chattering away in excited whispers like some kind of junior high sleepover party ever since he got back from his inspection. The two of them really had a close bond with one another, and it was fun to watch the way they couldn’t seem to let their own excitement die down long enough to get some rest.

It was the weirdest thing. Walker couldn’t utter a single word for days when they first brought him in…and now I’m surprised he has enough breath in him to talk as much as he was at that particular moment.

“Dude, and then I climbed out the window, and I slid down on that feeble gutter drain, but it broke halfway and I landed on my back!” Eddie whispered as Walker looked at him wide eyed.

“Holy shit! Are you serious???”

“They were splintering the door! What else was I gonna do? Hide under the bed?”

Walker asked, “But how did you get away, though? You were actually out there with those things?”

“I ran to the neighbor’s house, but they were over there! So I ran across the street, and they were over THERE! I’m friggin’ ‘Superbowl’ jooking these assholes, left and right, trying to keep them from biting a chunk out of my ass!” Eddie said, getting Walker to chuckle under his breath. “And I get to Mrs. Betty’s house down at the end of the block…”

“The cat lady?” Walker asked.

“Exactly! And I was a little bit nervous about going inside because…I dunno…zombie cats, maybe?”

“Hehehe, what?!?!”

“Fuck, man! I don’t know! I’m lucky I hadn’t pissed myself already!” Eddie giggled, but both boys tried to keep their voices down, as other people in the cafeteria were sleeping. “Anyway, I know that she leaves her back windows unlocked at night because she sometimes opens them half way to let some of the free roaming cats back in. I guess they’re too fancy for the doggie door or something. So I crawled in, got everything locked up tight, and that’s where I stayed, living off of cookies and candy until I heard the gunshots outside in the street one morning. It was this guy, Mr. Wolcott and his family, looking to see if they could help anybody who might be hiding away somewhere.”

“Mr. Wolcott? Is that the guy you came in with?” Walker asked.

“Yep! He’s a truck driver. I guess he was delivering goods like wood and lumber and stuff to some place just on the outskirts of town when everything went to shit. He dumped about half his load and went back for his family, and then decided to see if he could save a couple more people too. He’s pretty cool. You’d like him.” Eddie told him. But, as his smile faded slightly, he said, “I’m…I’m sorry, but…Jason didn’t make it.” My ears perked up a little bit when I heard that part. “I mean…a lot of folks at that party didn’t make it out of there…in time. Just…I know how much you liked him, Walker.”

Walker’s face frowned up a little bit, but he didn’t seem to be overly distraught about the whole situation. “Thanks.” He said. “I mean…it sucks, but…Jason wasn’t who I thought he would be. It was probably just a waste of my time, anyways…”

“Oh. I didn’t know.”

“Yeah, he…was more of an idea in my head than anything else, I suppose.” Walker whispered softly. Then he asked, “What about your brother, Michael? I mean, he had to have gotten out of there before it was too late, right?”

It was almost too painful to watch Eddie’s face suddenly go ‘blank’ the way it did when Walker asked him that. He just…sort of shut down, emotionally, for a brief moment and stared down at his shoes. Then he forced himself to perk up and told Walker, “I’m…sure he’s fine…” But from the look on his face, I could tell that he was lying. Deep down, I think Walker could too. Luckily, he didn’t push any further for an answer. Instead, Eddie secretly wiped his eyes while pretending to yawn. Evading the question altogether. Then he worked up a smile and said, “So…hiding out in my basement, huh?”

“Hehehe! Yeah. My little last minute fortress of solitude.” Walker grinned. Then he sort of stared off into space, “I can’t even remember how long I was down there. Couldn’t tell day from night. I kind of just felt like I was lost for a long while. Forgotten. It was a weird feeling.”

Eddie said, “Yeah. I hear ya. Me too. I think everybody in the back of Mr. Wolcott’s truck felt lost for a little while. He still hasn’t found his son yet. He’s probably out there feeling lost too, right about now. If he…you know…survived.”

There was a melancholy moment between them, but Walker worked up a little smirk and said, “Oh, and I uhhh…I shot somebody…”

Eddie’s jaw dropped. “What??? You SHOT somebody??? With WHAT?”

“With your dad’s old hunting rifle, I guess. I found it in the lock up.”

“And you used it shoot somebody? Was it one of those zombie things?”

Blushing, Walker said, “Not exactly.” Then he snickered to himself, adding, “I shot a soldier.”

“Jesus Christ!” Eddie exclaimed, suddenly covering his mouth with both hands. “You’re crazy, dude. Straight crazy!”

“I didn’t mean to do it, I was just scared!”

“You’re lucky they didn’t blaze you up for that.”

The boys shared a short laugh over it, and then Walker asked, “Eddie…I’ve gotta know…what’s with the coloring books? You have, like, a psychotic number of coloring books in your basement.”

“A psychotic amount…I…? Dude, I was just a kid.”

“I was a kid too once.”

“It’s NOT that weird!”

Walker said, “Ummm, yeah…it’s a little weird.”

“Nobody asked you to go digging through my personal stuff. Fuck off! Hehehe!” Eddie pulled Walker in and rubbed his knuckles over the top of his head, messing up his hair as both boys giggled gleefully in unison. It just made me smile to see the two of them playfully shove one another as they reconnected and found some sense of normality in all this chaos.

However, on the opposite wall of the cafeteria…something completely different seemed to be going on.

Donovan was sitting in a corner all by himself. He had been so still for so long, that I thought he might be asleep, but the light shining in through the window bounced a gentle glare off of his brown eyes as he leaned back against the wall. What was he thinking about? What was bothering him so much? It’s difficult to see someone go from not caring about anyone or anything to suddenly being blanketed in this thick despondent syrup of distress. I never thought that I would say this…or anything close to it…

…But it almost looked like Donovan possessed the same level of yearning and vulnerability as Spencer did at that moment. Like he needed protecting too. Maybe we all did, whether we were ready to accept it or not.

I guess he’s one of the lost ones too…

I would never have the guts to go over there and try to ‘loosen him up’ with casual conversation. Donovan’s simply not the type. If anything, I’d imagine that he’s probably getting more done and doing more self healing by being alone than he ever could by attempting to lean on somebody else. Me trying to help would only give him a stirring reason to smack me with a heavy dose backlash and give him enough of a distraction to avoid his inner feelings altogether. So…I’d probably only be doing more harm than good.

I even noticed that little Preston had rolled over and was sleeping on a floor mat that was placed a bit of a distance away from him tonight. I guess he could feel the sense of lurking ‘danger’ surrounding Donovan this time around. Otherwise, he’s be all cuddled up in his lap like a newborn puppy.

And then…there was Alex.

He stayed close. Just on the other side of Spencer, who I secretly wished had been snuggling under my other arm instead of finding a comfortable spot between us. But Alex had really tired himself out, and remained unnaturally quiet since he realized that his parents weren’t with that last convoy of refugees that were admitted into the shelter. I mean, I understand why he would be so hopeful, but…these weren’t actual military vehicles from the two convoys heading our way. It was just a goodhearted trucker with a family who had the room, the resources, and the opportunity, to help out as many other people as he possibly could. It was just a few folks who wanted to help. I’m sure his parents will be on the next one. Right?

Anyway, I didn’t push him. I wanted to do more to soothe his aching heart, but much like Donovan…he seemed to just want to be left alone with his thoughts for a while. I guess I can respect that. So I let him sleep. Besides…Alex is so damn pretty when he sleeps.

It scared me a little bit when Spencer began to cough out loud. I was lost in my thoughts at the moment, I guess. His coughs caused his whole waifish frame to tremble and shake, and it almost felt as if his lungs were collapsing. I’ve seen people who smoked two packs of cigarettes every day for years who don’t have a cough like that. But once he settled down, he seemed to scoot even closer to me than before, wrapping his arm around my waist, and he drifted right back off to sleep so fast that I had to question myself to see if the coughing spell had even happened at all. And then…less than a minute later…Spencer gasped for one deep breath, his eyes still closed…and I didn’t hear him exhale.

It was weird. SO weird. I looked down at him, brushing some of his hair out of his face to examine him and make sure that he was ok. He looked fine…but he had stopped moving. Like…completely. “Spencer?” I whispered. God, he was sooooo tired, but I reached down to give his shoulder a little shake. “Hey. Hey, buddy. Spencer? Dude, are you…?” I shook him a little harder. Then I put the back of my hand under his nose, and I didn’t feel any breath at all. Not going in or coming out. “Spencer???” I said a bit louder, and I moved over to give him a harder shake…

Then, all of a sudden, he released all of the air in his lungs and started breathing really hard for a few seconds before his body relaxed again.

This wasn’t normal. Not normal at all! He stopped breathing for what must have been a full minute and a half, and he didn’t even wake up! This is seriously starting to worry me now. Even more now than ever before.

“Spencer? Dude, wake up!” I whispered loudly, shaking him hard now with both hands.

His eyes fluttered open. “Huh??? Wha…what happened? What’s the matter?”

A feeling of fear raced through me, as he didn’t seem to even realize what the hell was going on with him at that moment. “Can you walk?”

“Walk? I don’t…I don’t understand…”

Cringing from having him so close to me, I suddenly took my arm from around his shoulder and was quick to get up on my feet. “Come on, get up. I think we need to get you some help.” I said.

“But I’m sleepy…” He whimpered softly, his eyes already closing again. But I shook him again and took a hold of his wrists to pull him up to his feet. “Jake…”

“Shhh! Come on! I’ve got…an idea or something. I think.” I said, hoping that what I had in my head would work. I reached down to grab the blanket that Spencer had beneath him, and I draped it over his shoulders to make his as comfortable as possible. And as we were getting ourselves together, I looked back over towards that lonely corner of the cafeteria, my eyes making a connection with Donovan’s for a moment…hoping that he would help me. But instead, he just turned his head to look back at the bright lights outside of our windows.

Fuck! I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to do this alone…

I took Spencer out of the room with him wearing the blanket like an extra long Superman cape, and we began walking down the halls. I knew that we were on camera, and we passed by a couple of fatigued soldiers who were keeping an eye on all activities within the school overnight, but it wasn’t hard to tell that they had been worked to the point of exhaustion at this point. They barely gave us a second look. I guess that’s a blessing, considering the circumstances.

I know that Spencer’s dad was going to be heading out on a supply run in just a couple of hours. I believe he said it would be right before dawn. 5 AM. But I thought…maybe I still have one option left when it came to getting Spencer checked out…just in case.

I had to practically carry Spencer half the way, as he seemed to be so tired that he was literally nodding off while I was holding him up with one arm over my shoulder…and I made it to Dr. Vega’s office, not at all surprised that he would still be up at this hour, with a tiny desk lamp and a desk full of papers.

He looked up at us as we came through the door. “Jacob? Shouldn’t you boys be asleep?”

“Ummm, Dr. Vega…can you, maybe…help us?” I asked, timidly. I remember what he said about teens and puberty triggering the virus, and how we weren’t to be trusted within these walls if we were…you know…different

…But, at the moment, I didn’t know who else to turn to. The only people who have studied and have any real knowledge and experience with what’s going on right now are Dr. Vega…and the soldiers who have been ordered to terminate all threats on sight if they see even the slightest of problems at all.

I think I’ll take my chances with Dr. Vega…

He stood up from his desk and came over to look at Spencer, lifting his chin and opening his eyes. “His pupils are dilated. Irregular breathing patterns. He should have a fever, but he feels a bit cold to the touch…”

“I don’t know what any of that means…” I told him.

“I need to check his vitals. Something seems to be off, here.” Dr. Vega bent down to look Spencer in the eye, and communicate at his level. “Are you feeling a little bit icky there, Champ?”

“I don’t know. Things have been weird lately.” Spencer whimpered softly.

“Weird, like how?” Dr. Vega started to probe for answers, and as much as I wanted to trust him to take care of this…I was afraid of what Spencer might say. And what he might do if he found out that he…might be ‘different’ from the rest of us.

“I think he’s just having trouble sleeping. He was in a hospital before he came here. It’s probably nothing serious, but I thought it would be best to just give him a really QUICK check up and send him back to bed. That’s all.” I said.

Dr. Vega gave me a bit of a strange look. Wondering why I was trying to hide what might really be wrong with Spencer, considering that I went out of my way to bring him in here in the first place. “Jacob? What are you not telling me?” He asked.

“NOTHING! Ok? I just…he’s my friend. I wanted to help him go to sleep.”

He, obviously, didn’t believe me. “I think I should run this by some of the military medics and see if maybe they have some kind of precedent for this kind of…”

“NO!!!” I snapped. “Please, Dr. Vega…? Don’t.”

With a sideways glance, he said, “You two are going to have to fill me in on what’s going on here. Do you want my help, or not?”

“Can I have some water, please?” Spencer said, his boyish voice delivering the polite request in the sweetest tone imaginable. It was enough to get Dr. Vega to break out of his focus on what we might be hiding and walk over to the sink to grab a glass and fill it up with cool water for him to drink.

“What’s your name?” He asked.

“Spencer, sir…”

“Ok, Spencer. I’m Dr. Vega. And we’re going to run a few tests and get you all checked out so we can find out how to make you feel better, ok?” Spencer nodded, and Dr. Vega grabbed a few supplies to check him out, and then he lifted Spencer’s frail little body up to sit him on the counter top. “Can you tell me what you were in the hospital for? Do you remember?” Spencer slowly shook his head. “Was it a big hospital? Like the one downtown? Did they have to hook you up to any kind of machines, or put a needle in your arm?”

“They gave me a needle at first.” Spencer said. “They told me I was dehydrated. But then they took it out a couple of days before the monsters came.”

“Ok. Do you remember which hospital? What floor you were on?” Dr. Vega asked.

Spencer coughed a bit, his stomach tensing up as he leaned forward so far that Dr. Vega almost had to catch him to keep him from falling off the table. “Room 603. I was on the sixth floor.”

“Ok, ok. Let’s just…ease you back here for a moment. Deep breaths.” He looked over at me, “If he’s talking about the university hospital downtown Chicago, that’ll be the floor they use for diagnostics. Meaning, they might not even know what his illness is or how to treat it. Maybe if I can find a way to get in contact with them, I can get some kind of idea of what they were looking for…”

Spencer coughed again, even harder this time. “…Not there…” We both gave him a strange look, and he mumbled, “Fire…all burned up. Everything. I think it’s all gone…”

“Fire? In your hospital room?” I asked.

But as Spencer laid back on the counter, closing his eyes as he began to writhe around with distress, he said, “Everywhere. All gone. All gone.”

Wait…so what the hell does that mean?

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