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Skyler moaned, pain throbbing in his skull. He felt wet and cold, but it wasn't raining anymore. He grunted and rolled onto his back. His arm splashed into a puddle, and he realized he was laying in a big puddle of water.
Skyler groaned again and forced himself to sit up. He winced when the throbbing intensified, and he grabbed his head, leaning forward.
After a minute, the throbbing dulled a little. Skyler carefully got to his feet and stumbled. He caught himself against the lamppost. It felt wet and grimy under his hands.
The stench was almost overwhelming down here. It smelled of rotting meat and sour milk, and maybe human waste. It was awful.
Skyler gagged and pressed the crook of his arm over his nose and tried to climb the hill. But it was too slippery, and the second attempt made him hit his head on the hill on his way back down. He gave up on the hill and staggered down the street, determined to get out of this part of the neighborhood.
The smell was getting worse the further he walked, so Skyler turned around and went the other way. But eventually the smell got worse again. If his body had had anything inside it he would have thrown up.
But the really unnerving thing was the silence. No one was in the streets. No dogs barked, no TVs played. He didn't hear any cars, either. The sky was dark now. Dark gray clouds concealed the moon and stars, threatening more rain later.
Another hill blocked his path when he turned down a street. This one was as steep as the one he had fallen down, but Skyler tried anyway. The slick ground made it difficult to find holds, but he made it halfway up the slope.
Skyler reached up to dig his fingers into the dirt and pull himself up further, but a hidden shard of glass pierced the palm of his hand. Skyler yelped and yanked his hand back, but he dragged it over the glass, cutting his hand open. He lost his balance and skidded back down the hill, rolling to a stop at the bottom.
Skyler bit his lip to keep from crying. It looked like blood was gushing from the wound, and Skyler pressed his other hand over it. The pain flared, and a distressed moan escaped him.
Then he heard footsteps.
Skyler looked up quickly, peering into the darkness to try to make out the approaching figures. Beams of light scanned the road as they walked. He stood quickly, but there was no place to go. He inhaled sharply, then choked. The stench had gotten worse.
Skyler's legs buckled. He was tired, cold, wet, and hungry. He stood no chance against whoever was coming. He sank to the ground, trying to make himself appear small. He could barely breathe, which didn't help his panic.
"Hey," a voice spoke to him. Skyler jerked back when a hand touched his shoulder. "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you."
Skyler looked up at the owner of the voice, but he couldn't see his face. It almost didn't look human. Something stuck out from its face, like a mini elephant trunk. Skyler tensed.
"Here," the voice said calmly. "Put this on, it will help."
Skyler felt something plastic close over his nose and mouth. He thrashed in alarm. They were trying to kill him!
"Hey, easy." The voice tried again. "I'm not here to hurt you. I want to help."
"Cody, we can't stay here," another voice, female, said. "Just get him and let's go."
"He's freaking out, Claire," Cody replied. "He's going to yell and struggle if we do that, and our cover will be blown. He isn't getting enough clean air for him to think straight." He looked at Skyler. "Put this on, mate, alright?"
The mask came back. Skyler struggled, but Cody held him firmly in place. Skyler yelped and tried to pull back.
"I need some help here!" Cody barked. Skyler felt more hands restrain him. Panic set in. Skyler shouted, but the mask muffled his cries. He jerked his head back, and the mask came away. He was free from it for only a few seconds before it came back. Someone grabbed a fistful of his hair to hold his head still. Skyler yelped, tears of fear and pain springing to his eyes.
"Easy, kiddo, easy," Cody soothed. "Breathe, breathe! Just relax."
Skyler jerked again, but he barely budged. His breathing was rapid and short.
"Deep breaths, kid," Cody instructed. "You're not keeping the oxygen in you long enough. I know you're scared, but right now you need to concentrate for me."
Skyler began to calm down. Silence pervaded the street. Skyler was still crying, but he had given up fighting. He was so tired.
"There we go," Cody said. "Deep, easy breaths, kid. That's it." Skyler obeyed. The air he breathed was cleaner somehow. It cleared his mind. "Let him go, guys."
The hands were removed. Skyler tried to pull away, but Cody kept him in place. He started to struggle again.
"No, don't. It's okay. You're okay," Cody told him. "Just take it easy."
Skyler slumped where he sat. After a few more minutes he looked around. There were about four people surrounding him, not including Cody. Two of them were guys, he guessed, and two were girls.
Skyler reached up to touch the mask.
"It's just plastic," Cody chuckled. "Here." Skyler's hand was placed over a small metal canister attached to the mask. "That's where the air you exhale is recycled back into oxygen. It has enough in it right now for you to breathe normally, but after a few minutes you'll need to pause for a second or two after every exhalation for the air to recycle."
"He's not gonna understand that, Cody," another voice, male, told him. "Look at him. He's exhausted. He'll be fine until we get out of here."
"Alright." Cody nodded. He looked at Skyler. "I'm gonna strap this over your head, okay? Hold still." Skyler felt too tired to do anything but obey. He flinched when the rubbery straps pulled on his hair, but when they were on, the mask settled nicely. "There, see? Not so bad."
"Hannah," Skyler whispered. "Where's Hannah?"
"Who's Hannah, kid?" Cody asked.
"Hannah," Skyler repeated. "She... my sister... those people..."
"We've gotta go, Cody," Claire urged. "He's sick. He's gotta be the one the girl told us about."
Skyler was helped to his feet. He kept mumbling about Hannah. Where was she? Was she alright? Skyler's mind was fuzzy, but whirling with these questions. Cody stayed right beside him, assuring him he was safe.
They snuck through the streets silently. Two people ahead of them a ways, and two nearby, watching their backs. Cody and Skyler were in the middle. Cody kept a firm arm around Skyler, keeping him moving.
After winding through so many streets Skyler felt completely lost, they arrived at a tall chain-like fence.
Skyler gaped as the two people ahead of him ran at the fence, jumped, and clambered up and over, vaulting over the top and landing neatly on the other side.
Skyler jumped when someone from behind ran and jumped at the fence, doing the same thing the other two had done,
"Your turn, kiddo," Cody said. "I'll give you a boost."
Skyler started for the fence. He jumped back when a girl ran past and vaulted over. But instead of dropping to the ground she clung to the top of the fence, as if waiting. Cody leaned against the fence turned his back to it, cupping his hands for Skyler.
"C'mon," Cody said, "You'll be fine. Grace will catch you and help you over."
Skyler hesitated, then stepped forward, planted one foot on Cody's cupped hands, and reached out to grab the fence when Cody lifted him up high. Skyler moaned when his cut hand rubbed against the cold metal as he tried to secure a hold.
The girl on the fence gripped his arm.
"Hey there." She smiled at him. "Swing your leg over and straddle the fence. That's it."
Skyler paused on the fence, catching his breath. Cody watched them. Shouting suddenly came from further away on Cody's side of the fence.
"Nabbers!" One of the other kids hissed.
Cody and the three others dropped flat on the ground. Skyler felt Grace yank him over the fence.
Skyler hit the ground on his back, knocking the air out of him. Skyler's cry of pain was cut off when someone yanked off his mask and clamped a hand over his mouth.
"Easy, kid," a voice whispered in his ear. "Keep still."
Skyler was gasping, struggling for air. Someone turned his head away from the fence just as a faint beam of light panned briefly along the fence. Skyler felt tears on his cheeks as they lay still. Panic was taking over. He needed to run.
But he was quickly restrained, his arms and legs locked together.
Eventually the light moved on. No one moved for another few minutes, then Cody cautiously got to his hands and knees.
"Everyone alright?" He asked. "How is he? Grace?"
"I'm fine." Grace sat up as the others nodded. "He's really scared, Cody."
"I know." Cody climbed over the fence and dropped. He knelt by Skyler. "Hi, kid. How're you feeling?"
"Can't breathe," Skyler rasped. Cody smiled.
"You'll be alright in a bit," he promised. "That was close. We gotta get out of here."
Skyler flinched back when Cody grabbed his arm.
"Hey," Cody's tone softened. "Kid, you're okay."
"No." Skyler staggered to his feet. He jerked back when Cody reached for him. "Stay back!"
"What's wrong?" Cody frowned.
"What's wrong?" Grace huffed, standing. "I just hauled him over a fence and let him drop on his back, Cody. He's terrified."
"Leave him then!" Another boy said in exasperation. "He's just going to slow us down!"
"Shut up, Wes," Grace snapped. She walked to Skyler, who backed up. He had to get away from these people. They weren't safe. He had to find Hannah.
"Hey." Grace smiled at him. "You're okay. You don't have to be scared of us. We want to help you."
"Stay back." Skyler tried to focus. His back hurt, and he hadn't quite regained his breath. "I have to find Hannah. Stay back!"
"Okay." Grace raised her hands. "I'm not moving. Hannah's safe. Our friends took her to a place where she'll be safe. We can take you to her--"
"What did you do to my sister?!" Skyler shouted, able to comprehend just enough to know what Grace had said. They had Hannah. "Where is she?!"
The kids were looking at the fence worriedly.
"Shh," Grace said quickly. "Calm down. Your sister is safe with our friends--"
"Where is she?!" Skyler screamed. "Where is Hannah?!"
"Wes, don't!" Grace exclaimed. Skyler recoiled when Wes, a good two heads taller than he and twice as big, rushed him. The world went black.
* * * * *
Skyler groaned. His head hurt something awful. He felt dizzy, too.
With a jolt Skyler realized his feet didn't touch the ground. He tried to sit up.
"Whoa, don't move!" Cody said. Skyler felt himself be placed on the ground. "Easy, kiddo, easy..."
Skyler didn't move. He hurt too much.
"Are you alright?" Cody asked.
"My head hurts." Skyler squeezed his eyes shut.
"You have Wes to thank for that one," Cody told him. "I'm sorry it had to happen, but we couldn't get caught with your shouting. We almost did."
Skyler didn't answer. He was so done with this day. All he wanted was his sister and someplace to sleep, away from these people, away from everything that had happened.
"Hannah," Skyler said. "Where is she--"
Skyler nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of a shrill whistle. He heard Cody and nearly everyone else gasp with relief.
Wes whistled back. He looked at Skyler. "Sorry, kid. But now you can see your sister."
Skyler sat up. He saw two people emerge from the shadows. Skyler realized they were in an alley way. It was dark, but empty. Another fence stood between them and the newcomers.
"Cody? Wes?" A female voice asked, sounding shocked as her friend opened a side gate. "My word, guys, you had us all worried sick!"
"Is everyone alright?" A boy asked. "Grace, Claire? Stephen?"
"We're fine," Cody said. "We brought a friend."
"You found him?" The girl asked. "Thank goodness. His sister hasn't stopped fretting for him."
"My sister." Skyler registered the words. "Hannah."
"He's not well," Grace explained as Cody pulled Skyler to his feet. "We found him in the poor district, like his sister said."
Skyler was led through the gate. He nearly tripped over the threshold of a door as the group passed into an abandoned, nearly roofless warehouse.
Then they went down a trap door hidden under trash and a dusgusting rug. The two kids who had come to greet them stayed above to replace the garbage.
Skyler found himself in a tunnel. It was lit by what looked like Christmas lights. More tunnels branched off from the one they traveled down, more lights strung along their walls.
"Where's Hannah?" Skyler asked anxiously, looking down the tunnels.
"Just ahead," Cody promised.
Skyler tripped and stumbled through the tunnels to a large cavern. More tunnels stretched on at intervals around the cavern. Campfires were sprinkled throughout the room, crackling warmly.
The whole cavern had kids. Some Skyler's age, some older. There were even a few who were younger the he was. They were laughing, talking, and sometimes roughhousing.
"We're back!" Cody announced. The kids all looked up and cheered. Skyler hung back warily. He looked up at Grace when she took his hand.
"We're all friendly," she assured him. She looked ahead and smiled. "Is that your sister?"
Skyler looked. It took him a minute to find her, but he finally spotted her emerging from a tunnel at a run, followed by an older, dark-haired man.
"Skyler!" Hannah shot forward. Skyler pulled away from Grace and stumbled into her arms. Hannah sobbed, clutching him as hard as he held her. Skyler buried his face in his sister's shoulder, as if to hide from all that had happened.
"You're okay!" Hannah was sobbing. "You're alright! Oh, Skyler, I'm sorry."
"Hannah..." Skyler murmured, hugging her tight, his tears unchecked.
"Are you hurt?" Hannah asked, pulling away but keeping hold of his shoulders. Skyler shook his head, wiping away his tears. "Skyler, your hand!" Hannah grabbed her brother's injured hand. He had forgotten about that.
The older man stepped up. Skyler looked at him. Hannah turned and looked up at him too.
"He's hurt," she said, her voice shaky.
"We'll get him patched up." The man smiled. He looked at Skyler. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Sore," Skyler replied. He looked at Hannah, relief almost overwhelming him.
Skyler wasn't sure what happened after that. Someone led him away to take care of his cut. Hannah was with him the whole time. When the girl tending to him poured alcohol over his cut, Skyler cried out in pain, and Hannah wrapped an arm around him.
Hannah coaxed him to drink something after that. Skyler realized too late it was a sleeping drug. Someone helped him into a bed in a small, quiet room before he fell asleep. Hannah sat on the edge of the bed as he slipped into unconsciousness.