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Wade surveyed the scene with a heavy heart. He hated seeing kids in a bad way. Some people have a soft spot for dogs or cats or cars. His was children. He hoped one day to have a whole bunch of, what he often called, the little critters. But to see the small ones like this, Wade shook his head and lowered his gaze to the ground.

Most of the time, when his group came across Sick children, they were with adults who, Wade and the others assumed, were their parents. It had given him some strange sense of ease knowing they were keeping a family together even in that condition. But this was clearly not a family. There was no ease to be had here.

The oldest of the children was in his early teens, and the youngest, Wade guessed, to be around six. It was eerie, watching young ones that should be running and squealing, wander aimlessly, silently, those vacant expressions on their faces. Wade shivered.

Most of the tiny Sick had at least one hardened, unwieldy limb. Some pulled a leg along causing them to have an odd, haltering limp. Others had an arm that hung uselessly alongside their small bodies. Almost all had bloody drool hanging in thin ribbons from their open mouths.

Wade scanned the children's blue-tipped fingers and lips, thankful they were in the last stage of the disease. Soon, their suffering would be over. He couldn't imagine the fear they had gone through up to this point. But maybe now, at least, they could get some help so that their last days wouldn't be so harsh.

He hoped that wrangling these kids into the truck wouldn't become a nightmare. Some of the Sick would herd along real good, but others fought. He didn't want to battle a little kid. And there was no reason to believe that they would fight any less than the others.

Scratching his scruffy cheek, he surveyed the down-hearted men. Well, they were here to do a job. They'd better get to it. The back of his throat hurt as he got their attention, and gave instructions to make their way to the other side of the Sick children. If they could herd them back into the field, it wasn't much further to the cargo truck.

Once they got into their hidden positions, the men rattled the brush and made low noises to push the children in the direction they wanted. It alarmed them. Some whimpered, some growled, but most moved along in the direction Wade intended.

Gradually, they all managed to get to the edge of the forest. But once the men stepped out of its cover, the Sick agitated.

With their tormentors in full view, the children aggressively moved toward them. Their once blank faces now angry and wild. Wade and the others came back at the children, loud and threatening with arms and weapons raised, as if attacking them. It frightened most of them into a tight little ball that a few men could handle, but some had strayed.

Wade took off after the oldest boy. He was almost as tall as Wade though had none of his bulk. The boy was skinny. He had been before he got ill, and the AgFlu had done him no favors, now he was all bones.

The boy ran awkwardly on his long, thin legs. He didn't have a full-blown case of unyielding limbs yet, but it was coming. It slowed him, and Wade easily caught up with him.

The boy swiped at Wade as he closed in. Wade leapt back, giving the boy a moment to sprint ahead. Almost instantly, Wade regained his lost ground and tackled him.

The boy fell face-down onto the grass with a huff and a groan. He clawed at the cold dirt and grass trying to drag himself out from under the big man on his back. But it was useless. Before he took a second breath, Wade had zip-tied his hands together. "No!" the boy said.

Wade's mouth fell open. A word had snarled out of the boy's mouth. Maybe he was wrong. He couldn't have heard what he thought he heard.

He whipped the boy over. The boy raised, his teeth snapping when they got close enough for Wade to feel and smell his rancid breath. Wade grabbed his hair and held his head to the ground. He leaned over and peered into the boy's face, his eyes.

The boy was vicious, but his eyes held regret. After a moment another struggle, his body slackened and relaxed a bit. He locked eyes with Wade and in a guttural voice said, "I tried."

"I know you did, son." Wade put a hand to his shoulder.

The boy and Wade looked at each other for a moment longer before the disease had its way. The boy's muscles tightened, and he thrashed against the ground. He brought his face up, once again, in an attempt to rip the flesh from Wade.

Wade sat up and easily pushed the boy back to the ground, but gently this time. He knew this was the disease talking, not the boy. Something twisted in Wade, and he grieved. This day was not one he would likely forget, and he'd want to, that he knew. Easier to believe all reason was gone once they reached this stage than to think they were still in there somewhere, somehow knowing what was going on and powerless to stop it.

"It's okay, boy. We're gonna get ya help. You and all the others."

The boy didn't respond in any way other to to snarl and snap. Wade could only hope on some level he had heard him.

When Wade looked up, he saw that things were well in hand. All of the Sick and the men were at the cargo truck. He was the only straggler. "Come on. You're okay now."

They fought their way over to the box truck. The boy didn't come along easily. When they finally got there, Wade loaded him up. He stood at the back of the truck for a minute, looking over the cargo of Sick children.

His mind's eye stripped away the effects and actions of the disease. All he could see were terrorized children. "It's okay," he said. The children growled and wailed at this new development, people didn't talk to them like this anymore. His own men looked confused. "It's okay. I know you're scared, but it's gonna be okay. Ya don't have to be roamin' in the woods anymore. We're gonna get ya help."

Wade rolled down the box truck's door and jumped into the front seat with Tom. "I'd like to see this one through, if that's okay with you, Tom."

"Sure, I could use the company. I think the other men are going to come and scavenge out that way as we go anyway."

Wade nodded, then looked out the truck window as Tom started the vehicle. "He talked to me, Tom. He knows. He's aware of what's happenin' around him. This is the second time. There was this couple Dylan, and I found in the woods. Now this."

"Yeah," Tom said his voice hesitant and disheartened.

"They said that wasn't possible when the disease was this far gone. 'Wasn't possible.' That's what they said." Wade ground his teeth. "They lied."

"Yeah, they did."

"Ya knew?" Wade's scathing look told Tom what he thought of that. "Ya didn't tell us?"

"I figured it out. I was just as shocked as you. I didn't—What good would it've done you to know? It doesn't change anything. We gotta do what we gotta do or we all die."

Wade blew out a long sigh. "I guess. At least, they'll be gettin' some help."

Tom was silent for a moment. "Have you not seen where they're keepin' them?"

Wade slowly shook his head.

Tom looked at him before letting his gaze trail to the truck floor. "It's not a place like that, Wade. You better prepare yourself."

Something in the corner of Wade's eye got his attention. He turned to look through the glass to the hold of the truck. A small girl, torn, dirty and defeated, gradually slid down the side wall of the vehicle onto its floor. Her long, brown hair knotted around her head and down her shoulders. Though her jeans were intact, her shirt had holes in several places. Blue had crept from her fingertips up onto her hand, and spit slid down her chin.

Wade saw none of that. All he saw were the tears slowly slipping down her little face. 

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