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Ten-year-old Allie McMillan knew that she should not have gotten out of bed. It was two-thirty in the morning and her body was aching all over. Her trembling legs almost gave out as her pink socks slid from beneath the covers and touched the carpeted floor in her bedroom. She had a fever and a dry, persistent cough that echoed through the empty upstairs hallway. Her father, John, had taken a vacation day and picked her up from school early. She had been vomiting and complaining of a nagging thirst. It had started even before she caught the bus to Dusk Falls Elementary that morning. 

She wasn't the only one that went home early that sweltering Tuesday in May. There were at least three others in her classroom alone. She had counted at least five more children in the office before she left. Some of the younger kids were crying and she had felt like doing that herself. She was graduating in a few weeks and knew she was getting too old to cry so easily. It was the pangs in the stomach and the dry throat that hurt the most. She had taken twelve trips to the lukewarm water fountain just outside Principle Stanley's corner office while waiting for her dad.

That thirst was what woke her up. She sat up in bed, wiping away the tears in her eyes. Her chest heaved and her breath came in forced spasms. She coughed, a hoarse sound that only made the back of her throat ache more. Her tongue felt swollen and thick, like one of the dead rats she had found in the basement last fall. She shuddered at that idea and focused instead on getting a glass of water.

She tiptoed down the hallway, holding  her breath as she passed by the door to her dad's room. He may have taken most of the day off to help take care of her, but she knew he was tired and worried. Not only was his only daughter sick but  Avery's Lumber Mill , where he had worked as long as she could remember, would be shutting down by the time snow hit the ground. Her mother, Diane, had left him as well. Allie didn't pretend to understand why she left, she just knew that her dad had a 'spring cleaning" moment and cleared most of her things out of the house.

She missed her mom, but she guessed nowhere as much as he did. That idea sat odd on the pit of her empty stomach. The week that she left, there was a promise that when her mom had settled into her new house, Allie could visit anytime. The phrase "career opportunities" was the last thing she had said as she kissed her goodbye. That was two months ago. Her dad's cleaning efforts were three weeks after that. There was barely a trace of her mother left in the house and the dust in the hallway seemed to be creeping in the corners for control of the bare-bones decor.

Probably while we sleep, she thought. I'll wake up one day and find the living room filled with it. It will be a contest between Dad's saw-dusted floors at the Mill and the McMillan house. Who will win? Stay tuned.

She started to laugh. It was an odd noise, even to herself. Aggravated by the scratchiness of her throat, it became a whimpering cough instead. She covered her mouth. She could hear her dad mumble in his sleep, the bed-springs of his mattress creaking as he rolled over. She glanced at the lone chair by the bathroom door. Sitting lopsided and falling over was one of the last items that reminded her of Mom.

It was a stuffed teddy bear. Bits of stuffing were poking out of the arm sleeves of its navy blue shirt. "Sir Hugging-ton"  was stitched into the front. There had been a poorly-placed felt crown nestled between his over-sized ears originally, but years of carrying it with her had worn the threads holding it in place. Now, it sat sadly off to the left and falling forward into his large button eyes.

The bear was the first birthday gift she could remember fully. Given on her second birthday, she had slept with him nearly every night since then. When Mom left, her dad had tried to throw Hugging-ton away, along with many other things. Allie protested and after a night of pleading, he had allowed the stuffed animal to stay. Not in her room, though. In the hallway.

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