His eyes opened.
That was a surprise in and of itself. The last thing he remembered was being shot. By his own brother. Danny had shot him. Admittedly, Brian had talked his little brother into doing that. But he’d never truly expected to get a bullet in him. He’d been so careful. Tried to keep all of them safe. He’d been responsible for the three of them, after all. But despite all of his efforts, all of his attempts to keep them safe….
A slow, steady beeping interrupted the train of his thoughts. He blinked and the white canvas he was staring at resolved itself into a ceiling. His body ached, like he’d just run a marathon, or gone through a strenuous training exercise. And there was a dull, nagging ache in his right arm. He tilted his head down, with some difficulty, and glimpsed an IV drip attached to his skin.
Just that small movement tired him out and he dropped his head back onto the pillow with a nearly soundless gasp for breath. His chest didn’t hurt. Did that mean he hadn’t been shot? That he’d hallucinated his little brother turning the gun on him? That thought was almost scarier than anything else he’d experienced.
Gradually, his sense of smell began working; enough to allow him to scent out antiseptic and disinfectant. They were sharp enough to make his eyes water, or maybe that was just because his senses had been deadened for however long he’d been unconscious for.
He lifted his head enough to take in hospital beds all around him, each of them with an occupant. But not one of them was someone he knew and keeping his head raised was exhausting. He let it drop back down onto the pillow and breathed in deeply.
He wasn’t sick. He didn’t feel sick. And that was confusing. People didn’t just recover from the virus. Once you were infected, that was it. Game over. So did that mean he was dead? Or perhaps caught in a fever dream?
The two words were accompanied by a slight weight dipping down on the bed. Brian opened his eyes and blinked at the small blonde form that was sitting at his feet. She wasn’t wearing a mask and her eyes were bright and alert. She didn’t look sick either. “I’m dead,” he muttered. “I’d guess I must be in hell, but there’s no way you’d be stuck in hell with me.”
“You’re not dead.”
He snorted softly. “I left you behind. You were sick. Are sick. Just cause you don’t look it. But if you’re a creation of my own deranged mind, who knows what you’d look like in my subconscious?” He paused, his voice growing hoarse, and coughed, then licked his dry lips in an attempt to moisten them.
Jodie slipped off the bed and disappeared from view. Before he could wonder where she’d gone, though, he felt a straw pushed between his lips. Opening his eyes again (he didn’t even remember closing them), he focused on the plastic cup the girl held below his chin. “I’m hallucinating this. There’s not water in that cup. Hell, there’s not even a cup.”
She cocked her head to one side. “What does hallucinating mean?”
“Seeing things that aren’t there.” But he couldn’t help it. His mouth was so dry and he wrapped his lips around the straw, drawing cool liquid into his mouth and down his throat. He swallowed rapidly, a stab of disappointment going through him when the water was all gone and all he was sucking up was air. “More? Please,” he added.
She disappeared from view for a few minutes longer this time, but returned with the cup filled again and he drank from it greedily, draining the contents before he let his head flop back against the pillow once more. “If you’re real…where’s your dad?” he muttered. “He wouldn’t let you sit here with me, after what happened.”
“I’m right here.”
The familiar voice had Brian turning his head to one side; but slowly, because his neck ached. His eyes met those of Frank’s and then he groaned and .closed them. “Now I know I’m in hell.”
“You aren’t dead.” Frank stepped closer to the bed. “Not for lack of trying, though. When you were brought in, I was expecting you to be sick from the virus. Not nearly dead from a gun shot wound. What happened? Were you attacked?”
Brian opened his eyes and frowned, hearing the strange note in the older man’s voice. Worry? Concern? Instead of answering the question, he asked, “Why are you so concerned about what happened to me? I left you and her behind.” He cut himself off before he could finish that sentence. To die. He’d left Frank and his daughter behind knowing that the kid was sick with the virus. He’d made the decision to try and keep the others with him safe, it was true. But that didn’t change the facts.
“I know.” Frank’s arms were crossed over in front of his chest. The expression on his face was stern and unsmiling. “You did leave us behind.” Then, he shrugged. “I knew you would, though. And I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if our positions had been reversed.”
It wasn’t forgiveness. Not exactly. Then again, he wasn’t sure he would have accepted forgiveness. Understanding was something different and that was what Frank was offering.
“I’m not sick anymore.”
Brian’s eyes were drawn to the little girl still standing next to his head. He had to admit, she certainly didn’t look sick. “Did they find a cure?” His eyes shifted towards Frank once more.
“She is the cure,” Frank answered. “The first one to recover from the virus. The first one to create antibodies that could be used to create a cure. They did rush through it, though. There weren’t a lot of doctors and scientists left. At least not enough who had the strength and minds left to work on a cure.”
“So it wasn’t properly tested?” Brian looked down at his own body, searching out where the injection mark had been. He couldn’t immediately spot it and instead lifted his head enough to glance around at the rest of the occupied beds. “Is everyone here in the same position as me? They’ve all been given the cure?” he whispered. How did that even work, exactly? He wasn’t a scientist, but was fairly sure they hadn’t been able to just inject him with blood from the little girl. Even if they’d rushed through the testing, they had to have done something to make it safe.
“I don’t know all of the details, but she’s spent a lot of time having blood taken and tested,” Frank stated. “What’s important is that there’s an antivirus. And Jodie might have been the first one to recover, to beat the virus, but she wasn’t the only one to do so. You aren’t the first person to be given the cure. Once your body is recovered enough, you’ll be asked to donate some blood, but then will be free to leave. Go and do whatever you want.”
Brian stared at him and then found himself laughing weakly. “Where would I go?” He shook his head. “Find Danny and Kate? Bobby….” His voice trailed off and his gaze darted between the two of them. “Bobby, she…she’s sick. Who brought me in? Can they retrace my steps? She can’t have gone far. She wouldn’t have gone far.” He swallowed, turning a pleading gaze onto Frank. “Can you ask someone to find her? Please? She was the only one who was willing to help you out.”
“She did,” Frank agreed. “But you pushed back when I asked for your help. Many people would say I’ve fulfilled any obligation I had to you. You’ve recovered from the virus and that wouldn’t have happened without my daughter.”
“You’re right.” Brian nodded. “I don’t have any right to ask for anything from you. But I’m asking anyway. I know Danny’s safe. He….” He paused and closed his eyes, curling his hands into tight fists at his sides.
A small hand took hold of his and he opened his eyes to look into Jodie’s. He forced a smile to his lips that he didn’t really feel, then rolled his head to the other side to look at her father. “Danny and Kate don’t need help, but Bobby does. I…I made her leave. I knew she’d infected me too. Thought maybe I could deny it, but it didn’t work. Obviously.” He took a deep breath and wrapped his hand around Jodie’s, holding on. She was only a child and it wasn’t fair to take strength from her, but he’d had to be the strong one for far too long. He was tired of being the rock for everyone else to lean on.
Was that so wrong?
“There are volunteers going out every day, bringing back people who are sick,” Frank said. “If you tell me where you left her, or where you forced her to leave, I’ll pass it on to them.”
“Thank you,” Brian whispered. “How long have I been here for?”
“Four days,” Frank replied. “It’s about the average time for the cure to work. But there’s not a hundred percent survival rate. The cure isn’t some magic fix-all.”
“I could have just as easily died.” Brian winced as the words escaped his lips and then glanced sideways at Jodie, who held onto his hand still. “Sorry.”
“Momma died from the virus,” the little girl said somberly. “I could have died from it too. I dunno why I didn’t. But I know that people die.”
“You’re far too young to have to go through that,” Brian muttered.
Frank stepped closer to the bed. “I would say you’re also too young to have faced what you have. You didn’t shoot yourself. Did you?” He paused and then lowered his voice. “It doesn’t matter what you say, because no one’s going to look at prosecuting anyone for a good long while.”
Brian stared into Frank’s eyes, but couldn’t hold eye contact for long before he glanced away again. “I shot myself.” The older man was probably right, but he wasn’t going to let Danny get punished for what he’d done. He’d asked his little brother to shoot him, because he’d been expecting and prepared to die. And at the end of the day, who would have cared if a victim had been claimed by the virus or by a gunshot?
But he wasn’t dead. He was alive, but alone. His parents were gone. Danny had gone on without him. Bobby was suffering somewhere alone, scared, sick. And even if she was found and brought in, there were no guarantees that the cure would work.
But still. It was a chance. It was more than she had when he’d forced her to leave after seeing she was infected and knowing that he must be too.
Frank rested a hand on his shoulder and Brian’s eyes widened, shocked at the touch from the older man. Outside of Bobby, when was the last time someone had touched him? Even his brother had kept his distance after their parents had died. After Brian had killed them. He swallowed, feeling himself relax at the touch. Tried to stop himself from actually leaning into the older man. Frank wasn’t his father, after all. “Why are you still here?” he asked, breaking the silence; and then winced, because it sounded too much like a rejection. At least to his own ears.
The older man didn’t pull away, though. Instead, he gripped Brian’s shoulder a bit tighter, a bit firmer, and then said, “Like you, we have nowhere else to go. And at least here, there’s a chance we might be able to help the people who need it the most.”
“You could stay here with us,” Jodie suggested. “You and Bobby, when she’s brought in. We could be a family here.”
The smile that touched Brian’s lips was hesitant and he glanced towards Frank before saying to the little girl, “I don’t think your dad would like that.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss her idea,” Frank said. “We’ve all lost a lot since the virus hit. It seems to me that choosing a family in these times might be good.”
Brian glanced at the older man’s hand on his shoulder, then at Jodie, who still held his hand. And he couldn’t help but smile; a real smile, this time. “Well. If you’re sure I’m not dead and I’m really here…I think I might like to have a family,” he admitted quietly. His eyes were threatening to close and he blinked them rapidly, trying to stay awake.
“Go to sleep, son.” Frank squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll pass on the information to the volunteers, so they can try and find Bobby. You just worry about recovering the rest of the way.”
“Yeah…okay.” Brian stopped fighting and let his eyes close fully. Within seconds, he was fast asleep.