(27) What Doesn't Kill You

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The first thing I need to do is figure out what's up with Patrick. And not just what's tearing him up right now: I already suspect that's from near-drowning a second time, though I wouldn't be surprised if being able to control the Redding freaked him out more than a little. He got a far stronger response than I did when we gave the marauding murder-wave the same order. If we have something in common that lets us boss it around, that's our first clue on how to survive whatever it's planned next.

Calico J puts a hand to Patrick's shoulder, but Patrick flinches away.

"Don't hurt me," he whispers.

My heart plunges right to the ground. I ease around in front of Patrick, where he'll be able to see me when he lifts his head. "We won't," I say, and it comes out a lot more gently than I expected. "I promise."

Calico J gives me a look of thanks. He murmurs something to Patrick, too, probably corroborating my reassurance while I fish around for what to say next. The first thing to come to mind is, of course, what I've been trained to respond to. "Are you hurt anywhere, though? From the Redding, or from before?"

"I'm not sick yet. Please don't hurt me."

By the way Ditzy and even Calico J draw back reflexively, I know we've all had the same realization. My heart finds a new low to sink to. A whole pit of it. I hope it doesn't stop beating altogether, because it's somewhere six feet under us by now, and I have a sneaking suspicion it's not going to stop anytime soon. There's probably more than one reason, then, why Patrick has never undressed around any of us.

I know better how to respond to this, though. And if I have even honorary leadership here, my word carries weight. "Patrick, I promise none of us are going to hurt you. We're not like those other guys. I mean, just look at me. I'm not sick yet, either, and nobody here is hurting me. Until one of us turns feral and actually tries to kill the others, we stick together."

There's something powerful in speaking from experience. Even if the others disagree, I can take Patrick's side. But I already know that's not going to happen. We're not the Anport Rescues. We've survived in part because we've stuck together, worked together, and had each other's backs since the day I let Calico J into my room at the university. I'm still terrified of losing control of myself. I don't want to die. But I trust that nobody here is going to kill me before I turn, either, and that's a trust I hold without a trace of doubt.

"It's the red patches, isn't it?" I say quietly.

Patrick hugs his knees like he'll fall apart at any moment. It's as good as an open answer.

"It's okay," I say. It's not okay. Nothing is okay, and it's not getting any better, but that's not Patrick's fault. "You don't need to show us. I'm not going to make you. But please, can you tell me if you're hurt? If you're not sick yet, I only care about whether or not you're hurt."

He whispers something I don't catch. I shoot a helpless glance at Calico J, who's scooted up beside Patrick again.

"He said they were spreading," he says.

Oh, that's something I can speak to. "Patrick? That happened to me, too. While we were underwater, right? But I'm serious. If you're not sick, we really don't care. I mean, I care because I'd really like to figure out why we can both control this stuff, but right now it looks like we're at least resistant to these red patches. Are you hurt other than that? That's all I care about."

Finally, Patrick shakes his head. I think our reassurances are working, because he then looks up for the first time. His face, like Ditzy's, is tear-streaked. "You're not going to kick me out?"

"If we're in the business of kicking people out, I'll be out, too—and then we'd still be together. We're not kicking anybody out, though. You're one of us, Patrick."

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