Half an hour later, Kyle was in the alley behind Tanya’s house, crouched beside some garbage cans. He could see the tree house from where he was, and the back of Tanya’s house as well. He had been there for about five minutes, watching, but had seen nothing unusual. That didn’t mean much, however. For all he knew, Tanya’s house could have been full of CIA agents, watching his every move.
He glanced over his shoulder, up and down the alley, also afraid he might have been followed, but he had taken a long, zig-zagging route to Tanya’s neighborhood and hadn’t seen anyone following him.
After a few more minutes, he gathered his courage and slipped out from behind the trash cans, still crouching. He crawled down the alley, keeping himself hidden behind a sagging, vine-covered chain link fence. When he reached the end, he was only ten feet or so from the base of the big oak where the tree house was. He squatted there for a minute, peering around the edge of the fence at Tanya’s house again. If he ran over to the tree, he would be out in plain sight.
He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Brie!” he called in a loud whisper, directing his voice towards the ramshackle plywood and tin structure. The tree house was built in a three-way fork in the trunk about twenty feet above the ground.
There was no reply.
He called several more times, his voice growing louder with each attempt. If she was up there, she either didn’t hear him or was in no condition to answer. He wished they had their cell phones.
He decided that he had no choice but to take the risk. He assumed a sprinting position, took a deep breath, then dashed across the grass and scurried up the ladder as fast as he could. He climbed through a hole in a plywood platform, the “porch” as they used to call it, and quickly pushed the makeshift door open.
“Brie?” he whispered, crouching as he entered. It was dim and dank inside.
“Kyle?” a voice said in a weak whisper. He looked to his left and saw a mound inside a sleeping bag, a wisp of blonde hair sticking out of it.
“It’s me,” he said, crawling over to her.
She propped herself up on one elbow, squinting at him. “What time is it?”
“It’s around noon.” She was still wearing the State T-shirt. There was an open can of soda and a half-eaten plate of what looked like pork chops and mashed potatoes next to her. “Are you all right?”
She clutched at her stomach. “Not so good. It started wearing off again a little while ago.” She pulled up her shirt and exposed her abdomen. The wound didn’t look as bad as it had the day before, but it was still shocking, even in the dim light. It looked like a fresh knife cut.
“I felt great until early this morning,” she said. “I think maybe if I just drink more next time, it will last longer.”
Kyle swallowed, feeling sick. “You have to go back to the lake right now and get some more,” he said, but he wasn’t sure that would work this time.
“Yeah, I have to,” she said, lying back down. The enthusiasm she had showed the day before was gone. She looked utterly exhausted.
They sat there for a moment in silence. Kyle considered telling her about the government agents, but decided it would do no good and only scare her more. “Listen, are you sure you don’t want to go to a hospital?”
She thought over his question briefly, chewing on her lip. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“They could sew you up, at least.”
“I know, but they would have to wait until the water completely wore off, and then...” What little color she had in her cheeks disappeared. “Kyle, if I hadn’t found that cave, I know I would be dead right now, whether you took me to a hospital or not.”
Kyle didn’t respond, but he thought she was probably right.
They were both quiet again. The silence of the tree house seemed to engulf them. Kyle rose to a squatting position. “Come on, we better get going.”
She reluctantly let him help her out of the sleeping bag.
He looked at the plate of uneaten food. “Don’t you have any appetite?”
“Not much. I haven’t really eaten anything since it happened.”
She was normally slim, but now he thought she looked a little bony, even through her jeans and T-shirt.
“I’ll go first,” he said, and stepped outside the door. But when he looked down into the yard, his heart felt like it leaped up and slammed into his breastbone.
Brawn and Brains were standing there, hands in their pockets, looking up at him.
“The game’s over, son,” Brawn said.
“Who is it?” Briana whispered.
He turned to her. “Some government agents. They came and talked to me today at school.”
“Come down from there right now,” Brawn called in an authoritative tone.
Kyle looked down at the big man. His blue suit jacket was unbuttoned. Kyle could clearly see a brown leather holster peeking out from under the left side of it.
“No funny business,” Brawn said.
“What should I do?” Briana whispered from behind.
Kyle turned back to her. She was kneeling on the floor, holding her stomach. “You don’t have any choice. You have to go with them.”
Before Kyle could answer, Brawn started climbing up the ladder. “Stand back, son,” he said. “I know your friend is up there. We’re not going to hurt her.”
Kyle reluctantly moved aside.
“Kyle, don’t let them take me!” Briana whispered. She pushed the door shut and locked it from the inside. But Kyle knew that the makeshift lock wouldn’t stop a brisk wind—it was nothing but a scrap of wood with a nail in it.
Brawn made his way up onto the porch, huffing and puffing. For a few seconds, Kyle thought about kicking him in the face. But that would be pointless—it would just get him into even more trouble and only delay the inevitable by a minute or two. He was sure Brains had a gun, too.
Brawn glanced at Kyle suspiciously, then pushed on the door.
It didn’t budge.
He rapped on the warped wood a few times. “Come on, honey, we’re not going to hurt you. We’re just going to take you to have some tests and make sure you’re all right.”
Briana didn’t answer.
He looked over at Kyle. “Tell her it’s all right.”
“I already did.”
“Then do it again.”
Kyle sighed. “It’s all right, Brie,” he said. “These nice men won’t hurt you. They work for our government, and they only want to help y—”
“Shut up!” Brawn said.
Kyle closed his mouth.
“Open the door right now, miss,” Brawn said. “I’m through playing around.”
There was still no answer.
Brawn gave the door a shove, and the “lock” snapped off and dropped to the floor, spinning across the plywood. He cautiously pushed the door open wider and crouched, peering inside.
“Get away from me!” Briana hissed.
“Come on, now,” he said in a soothing tone, moving into the doorway. “There’s nothing to be afrai—OWWWWW!”
He jerked himself back outside the door and almost lost his balance, grabbing a thick branch to keep himself from tumbling over the tree house’s wobbly railing. “That little bitch bit me!” he yelled, holding up his hand. There were teeth marks in his thick forefinger, one of which was rapidly filling with blood. He turned and looked down at Brains, his eyes wide, holding his finger in the air. “Do you think there’s any danger from this?”
Brains rolled his eyes. “Do I have to come up there and help you?”
Kyle couldn’t help laughing..
Brawn looked over at Kyle. “What’s so damn funny?”
Briana slammed the tree house door shut, in Brawn’s face. Brawn started to push it open again, then changed his mind. “Get your butt out here right now!” he bellowed through the door at Briana.
“Don’t yell at her,” Kyle said. “She’s just scared.”
“Move!” Brawn shouted, ignoring him.
“Brie,” Kyle called, “you better just come out. They’ve got guns.”
Kyle and Brawn both watched the door. Inside, the wooden floor started creaking. Brawn backed away a little bit.
After a few seconds, Briana emerged, teetering, and grabbed onto a branch to steady herself. Kyle stifled a gasp—in the bright daylight, her skin looked milky white and her eyes had a dull green sheen, almost like algae, which contrasted sharply with her pallor.
“She doesn’t look too good,” Brawn called down to his partner. “You better call an ambulance.”