It became a joyful routine for Zac. Every evening, when the others had gone to sleep, he pocketed his key, and journeyed to the basement employee lounge, to spend the evening with Tally.
That the situation was unexplainable didn’t bother either of them. They were children. It was magic. They were enchanted and delighting in every moment of it.
It wasn’t until several nights had passed that Zac began to notice.
“Tally?” He had his feet up on the face of the machine, idly wondering what housekeeping would think of the bootmarks on the plexiglas.
“How come you sound like that?”
“Well…” He paused, wondering how to word it. “Out of breath sort of. Like talking makes you tired.”
She paused, longer than he was comfortable with. He’d begun to wonder if she was gone, when she finally answered. “Zac, I’m tired a little bit. But it’s no big deal. How are things going on that end? Everyone in your family still down?”
He thought about it, surprised to find that he didn’t know. What was his family doing? How were they? He couldn’t remember.
“Out of order… perfect.” Sighing, he headed back to the elevator. Figured. Well, there was always the next floor down.
By the time he’d reached the lobby, Zac began to suspect that someone was messing around with him. How could every single coke machine be out of order? There were 42 of them in the hotel. And as far as he could tell, at least 39 of them were out of order.
He hadn’t tried the top three floors yet, preferring to go as far away from germ central as he could. Scowling, he headed for the lobby.
Sighing again, he looked out the window, watching the reporters and the fans milling about, out on the sidewalk. He remembered coming home that first afternoon, his chest tightening as soon as he saw them. His voice, slightly panicky, higher pitched than usual, out of breath. “Why are they still here?!” After six months, they knew he was coming home, and well… he was news. It had been a rough moment, the weight of memory heavy on him, breathing far too rapidly, hyperventilating. He’d been too dizzy to get out of the car on his own.
But he survived it. By himself. The nervous voice and momentary dizziness the only signs of tension.
As she gathered up the old linens, her mind drifted back to that afternoon, six months previously. Poor Zac, curled on a ball on the couch, coughing and feverish, smoke from CC’s cigarette burning her eyes, shouting voices, people crying, Taylor’s voice, hurling accusations, her own voice, raised in anguish. “That’s not FAIR! How can you…” Flash of remembrance of the horrible feeling of knowing someone had hurt one of her children, and she hadn’t been there to protect him. Guilt… Sighing, she shook it off, and started the washer. Water under the bridge, and the sessions with CC and the staff at Livingston had put a great deal of it into perspective. Wandering back upstairs, the echo of a question, recently asked, in her head. “Are you ready to have him come home?”
Taylor didn’t raise his eyes from Zac’s sleeping face. So much peace there. Had he ever felt like that? He had to have. He knew he had. God he loved him, how could he have hurt him? Sighing bitterly, he ran his fingers through the boy’s hair. “I love you so much, I never meant to hurt you.”
He didn’t see the eyes fastened on him. “It wasn’t even you I saw, Zac.”
He sighed again, that bitter, hopeless breath, and finally looked up.
“I never even saw him, do you know that? Until right at the end, I didn’t even know it was him. None of you ever understood.” His tone became scornful, faintly accusing. “You told me it was safe. How come you told me it was safe?!” His voice rose a little, but the hand stroking Zac’s hair stayed gentle.
“How come none of you were there to stop him?! WHY WEREN’T YOU THERE TO HELP ME?!”
“God, my head hurts.” Zac stared at the call bell, rubbing it between his fingers. “That was dumb, she’s mad at me, now she’ll never come back in. Why’d I say that anyway?” He wanted her to come back. “I can’t call her. Not after I yelled at her like that…” He felt tears again, and swore softly at himself. “What’s wrong with me? God, I’m so useless…”
He curled up, call bell in hand, wishing he dared ring it, wondering if he thought at her hard enough, she’d hear him and come back.
Sighing, he shifted a little, and caught sight, for the first time, of the hospital gown he’d thrown on, jumping out of the tub.
“Oh my God, WHAT am I wearing?” He gazed in horror at the baby deer, baby rabbits, baby skunks, frolicking across the face of the gown.
“Bambi. I can’t believe I’m wearing Bambi. This is just…” Sighing, he weighed it in his mind. His head was killing him, his stomach was queasy, he was seconds away from bawling like a baby, and he was wearing Bambi. And alone, he couldn’t do a darn thing about any of them.
“God, get away from me!” Reality had ceased to exist. Taylor’s mind took him back, dropping him into a nightmare he’d never really awakened from. The nightmare of the past. The man on the bench slid closer, and his hand slid up Taylor’s leg. “You’re so much more… photogenic… than your brothers.” Taylor shook him off, and slid away…
“I didn’t wander off!” His father’s face, sympathetic but frustrated, “I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything!!”
“Do yourself a favor, come with me…” That hand, on his neck, “God let me go!!” He jumped off the bench, foot touching pavement… His voice, lost in a scream, as something hit him, and hit him hard.
CC’s mind was a whirl “Oh no, not now. He’s losing it…”
Dull eyes, slurred speech. The boy was retreating, and after the retreat would come the explosion. Whatever he had dreamed, it had brought everything to the front. It was right there, seconds away from the crash. “I have to get him inside. I have to get him where it’s safe. God, past all these people. All these cameras, Jesus Christ…”
“Tay, we have to get past them, is there a back way?”
“What? Just lemme ‘lone.”
“No, Taylor, now come on! You have to stay with me! How can we get in? Do you want to walk through all those people?”
Blink, and the scene changed, and Zac was sitting up smiling at him.
“It’s about time, Tay.”
“Where are you? What is this place?” He walked up to the bed.
“Watch out, don’t step in that.”
He looked down, and saw a floor puddled with blood. “Zac…”
“That’s yours Tay, I’m not the one bleeding here. You’re putting your own self into this. Listen to me.” Zac’s voice, suddenly almost angry. “I can’t do this much more. It hurts, and I’m already sick. You’re going crazy, you can’t help me much longer. I told you where I was, you never came to find me. You’re bleeding all over my bed, Tay.”
Taylor stepped back. “Sorry. Where are you? I’ll come get you.”
“I don’t know. But I’m okay. All I wanted to do was tell you I’m okay.”
“Is this where you are, or where I am?”
Zac looked around, “The hospital?”
“It’s where I am. Where you should be. I got a really nice nurse too.” Zac grinned, and Taylor saw he had teeth missing. “What happened to your teeth?”
“My teeth? Nothing. Tay, you need to get out of here and wake up. Things aren’t good for you right now. Tell them that I’m okay.”
A mumble from the bed brought Karen’s attention from the care plan she was writing, back to her charge. His brow was knit, face scrunched into a frown. Smiling slightly, she set down her pen, and moved closer to the bed, reaching out to gently brush an errant lock of hair from his face.
“It’s alright, Zac…” Her voice was just above a whisper. She gently lifted the O2 mask from his face, frowning at the red imprint it had left. “Everything’s okay.” Her soft voice and gentle touch smoothed the furrowed brow, and he turned his face toward her slightly, pressing his face against her hand.
She heard a gentle whimper then, and the word “Mom” on a breath.