14 - The Gasp

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I

Garrett's body surged. Stiff then loose then stiff again. On fire and on ice all at once. It was as if he'd been thrown into an oven, or into the cold that was so cold it burned. He imagined this was what dying felt like, going up in flames when at the same time there was no heat. He caught one glimpse of Mikie's face, white with shock, before all he could see were the inverted stars on the ceiling. No, not stars. Just the ceiling above him. And all he could hear was the hissing of the Viral at his back and the whooshing as his pulse sped through his veins. He could hear his body ripping, tearing. Falling apart and rebuilding itself all at once. He didn't know what to do, and so he fell with it.

Down. Down. Down until he hit the rocks at the bottom of a black tunnel. It was a cage, he knew, his very own cage built between his ribs. And he would live there to escape the fires and the rage around him. To hide from the red that tainted the light up above. Because he could not face it, not that monster he felt himself becoming. He didn't know how long it had been since the fires started. Days maybe? Minutes? Seconds, even? He couldn't tell. All he could hear was the whoosh and thud of his pulse and the snap and crack of his bones breaking, rearranging.

"Garrett!"

The voice sounded so far away. Stuck somewhere above him, out in the blaze.

"God, he's burning up." There was a pause, then louder as if she was shouting after him, into the well. "What the Hell did you give him?"

A laugh then. The red light, the sun, laughed. "Like you don't already know."

He struggled, clawed at the walls, desperate for the coolness of water, snow, anything to tame the flames. A single breath of rich mountain air. That's all he wanted, the night sky and mountain air. It's all he needed. And so he built it around himself. Decorated the cage walls with caves and the forest trees. If he couldn't be there physically he'd go there alone, in his head. In that quiet spot of his mind. Like he was the narrator of his own story. He'd simply shift the camera angle. Jump cut to the mountains. And hit pause. He would stay there forever and the burning, the fires, would all fade away.

At least that's what he hoped. Even if he knew, deep into his shifting bones, that it wasn't true. He had to try to get there anyway. Because if he couldn't, if he was stuck in his own body as it destroyed itself, he was useless. And he refused to be trapped in this burning hell. He refused.

And so he found himself in the mountains. Sucking down deep breaths of winter air. His father in his head saying winter was about to settle in. They should start to look at other camping options, head to the south. All Garrett could answer with was, "Not this year, Dad. Not this year."

He kept repeating it. In order to stall the film of his memories and make this one his life. He would live there in the mountains of his own mind. He would wait out the storm until he could see again. He would. He needed to.

Otherwise, this would be his punishment, the fires. The burning. Standing too close that he was swallowed by the sun. This was his punishment for asking questions he didn't want to know the answers to. For fighting against his father. For he hated the man. Because he was always right. He laughed. If the man could see him now.

I can see you, son.

He blinked. That was the wrong voice. It was too deep in his head. That was not his father.

I am your President.

But the world was in ruins. And so Garrett kept up his own winter storm. He pictured what snow in the mountains must look like. Not that he'd ever experienced it himself. Just that snow was white and crisp and cold and beautiful.

Hold onto the snow. Your sister thought of the moon.

And there it was again, that voice that didn't belong. He pressed his hands over his ears but it was no use. The voice persisted. Seemingly for days. And then others joined. New ones, introducing themselves all at once. A full chorus of visitors in his head, people he didn't know and didn't want to know. He wanted to remain in the mountains by himself. With his family.

We are your family. They told him.

He shook his head. These voices were not his family. He knew his family. It was West and Maria and his mother. And then Mikie and Andy. Some days. Some days Mikie belonged in his head. Others she kept her thoughts to herself. But he saw her there, standing with her back to him on the mountain, just out of reach. He wanted to go to her, hear her speak. But every time he tried to move, she took a step closer to the edge of the cliff, watching the snow flutter down into the abyss below. He didn't know where that drop led. He didn't know that he wanted to find out or to sacrifice Mikie to a drop like that. So he held still if only to hold on to her that way.

Sometimes the fire started to die off. Sometimes the cold started to seep in, the coolness he yearned for. He kept waiting, eyes on Mikie through it all. She'd promised him this would end soon. There were no outside voices now. Just the ones in his head that never seemed to want to go away. Hissing and slithering around with his thoughts. Like they were linked. He didn't want to become a monster. She had promised she would end this soon. He'd seen it in her eyes.

What was taking so long?

The mountains were starting to warm with each return of the flames. A little more snow melted, disappeared into the abyss. He couldn't stop any of it, either. It didn't matter how many storms he called up in his mind. He could not stay cool. He could not win. And so, he started to weep.

He wept because his tears were the one thing he could control as Mikie wavered on the edge of a cliff. As his sister stayed silent and staring, two warring images. One blink and she was a human girl. The next she was a monster, crouched low and ready to pounce on her latest prey.

Had she wanted this? For him to fall prey to the monsters of the earth? Would she have fought for him if Hailey hadn't sent her off?

Hailey.

His image of her seemed different. Brighter than he'd ever wanted it. Too bright. As if she was a beacon in the dark space of his mind. A light all her own. She seemed to whisper, asking him to reach out and follow her. He wanted to.

And then he'd think of something else, someone else. Anyone else. They would take her place. And he did this as long as he could until the only thing filled his head was not Mikie, not Maria, not his mother or his father, but the comforting light that seemed to revolve around Hailey Jameson. It was as if she was a sun within the universe, his own personal torchlight. He could see a path around her, beneath her. His feet ached to follow it.

And when he could think of no one else, he did.

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