White light pierced Iziah’s eyes.
He squinted as he slowly came to himself, lifting a weak hand in front of his face. His brow furrowed. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was. Then, his memories drifted back, and he started to feel sick. His head throbbed so badly that he could hardly move, and pain lanced his body.
As Iziah’s eyes adjusted to the brightness, he realized he was in the hospital. A blue curtain hung around his bed to the left, and to the right lay a wall with a large window. It was evening, yellow rays of sunlight filtering between the surrounding buildings and skyscrapers. It fell on his bed and blinded him. His body felt heavy and numb, and a soft wrap was fastened around his chest. Several blankets were laid across him, laced with I.V. Tubes that led to needles in one limp arm. The wrist that stung before was wrapped with gauze. His broken fingers were splinted. Every labored breath was accompanied by a wheezing sound, but when he lifted his hand to touch it, his throat didn’t seem swollen.
Iziah remembered one of the men choking him when he managed to land a punch. Remembered the huge fingers wrapping around his neck and cutting off his breath. He had been so afraid they would kill him.
And yet, death was so sweet a prospect.
Iziah tried to lift his head, but a sting ran through his chest, and he relaxed again.
He remembered every second of the torment he’d received from the Crimson Serpents, but after that things got fuzzy. Just a vague image of Nick walking toward him, stunned, and the interior of the man’s car. He must have taken him to the hospital.
Iziah looked over. Several chairs sat next to the wall, and what he assumed to be Nick’s coat lay on one of them.
How long had he been out?
Iziah stared at the white ceiling, trying to shut out thought.
The pain felt muted by whatever drugs they’d pumped into him. And yet...a trembling sense of shame and anger began to drown him.
He didn’t want to be here.
There was a faint rustling behind the curtain. Iziah’s hands clutched the blankets as his heart pounded wildly inside him. After a moment, a man appeared, dressed in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck. His face was grizzled with age, and he had shrewd eyes. A jolt ran through Iziah’s body as he thought of the man with the yellowish eyes. Iziah tried to relax, but he couldn’t summon his usual grin. A faint resentment coiled up inside him. This man knew what happened. He would sit here with his shrewd eyes and cold stare and ask questions Iziah didn’t want to answer.
And then, they would make him talk to the police, and the process would start all over.
“Ah, you’re awake,” the man said.
“You were out for three days, but you seem to be recovering.” He walked to the edge of his bed and picked up a clipboard, flipping through it. “Concussion, fractured ribs, multiple lacerations... You’re quite lucky.”
Iziah let out a bitter, bark of a laugh. Lucky? This was lucky?
Being so hated that a group of men dragged you off and beat you and... That was lucky?
Iziah was so angry that he wanted to shout at the man and call him every insult and curse in his vocabulary. Heat rose to his cheeks.
“How do you feel?” the man asked.
“Fine,” Iziah snarled. “Just great.”
There was no way he would talk to the doctor about what happened. Not the police either. This was his problem. What had these people ever done for him? He had to leave. It was as simple as that. They couldn’t keep him here now that he was eighteen. The police complicated the matter, but he could sneak out before they noticed.
That is...if he could stand.
Either way, he wanted the doctor to leave. He closed his eyes firmly and said, “I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.”
“I need to—”
“I’m going to sleep,” Iziah repeated.
The man sighed. For a moment, Iziah thought it wouldn’t work, but then he heard the man’s footsteps receding.
Without the bright light piercing his eyes, he felt almost comfortable. A wave of sleepiness washed through him. He felt himself slipping into a daze of exhaustion and opened his eyes. The prospect of moving was a daunting task, but he braced his arms into the mattress. Instantly, he felt the individual aches and pains throughout his body. He hauled himself into a sitting position, wincing as his broken ribs shrieked in protest. Dizziness. Iziah swallowed hard and shifted, easing his legs off the bed and slowly putting weight onto them. They shook beneath him but didn’t buckle. A tugging on his arm reminded him of the I.V., and he pulled it out.
It was then that he felt a breeze along his back. The hospital gown was open, one side slipping down his bruised shoulder. His gaze wandered to the door. Did he really want to walk home, half-naked, after what happened? For a moment, he considered staying, but then he swallowed his pride, pulling the gown shut and covering himself.
Keeping a hand on the bed, Iziah limped forward and picked up Nick’s jacket. He pulled it around his shoulders, steeling himself, and staggered through the door.
In the hallway, nurses bustled about and talked to one another like workers in a giant hive. Everything reeked of antiseptic. A desk sat nearby with a woman working behind it. Iziah knew he wasn’t on the first floor, so he needed to find an elevator. He looked to the right, then the left, and spotted a sign. No one noticed him at first. He kept a hand on the wall to make sure his legs didn’t give away and the other held the back of his gown in place. The effort of walking made him sweat, but he couldn’t stay here.
“Mister Mallory? What are you doing out of bed?” a female voice. “Mister...?”
Iziah kept his gaze on the elevator, putting one bare foot in front of the other, hauling air through his swollen windpipe.
“Mister Mallory!” A hand touched his shoulder, making him jump. A nurse in green scrubs looked at him through concerned eyes. “You shouldn’t be out of bed. Please come with me.”
“I’m leaving,” he snapped.
“You can’t. You’re not...”
“I can and I will. I feel fine.” The moment he reached the elevator, he punched the button.
“Please, just let us help. The police are coming up to ask questions. You need to stay.” She looked around, as if for help, and spotted someone at the desk. She started toward them, calling out.
The elevator doors opened, and Iziah slipped inside, pressing the button for the first floor. Before anyone could stop him, the doors slid shut. Iziah leaned against the wall and wiped the sweat from his face. He just wanted to shut off his brain. A lump lodged itself in his throat, and he took a deep breath. Since when was he unable to control his own mind?
At last, the doors opened. There was a hall, then a reception desk and waiting area. Beside that, a pair of double doors. Iziah didn’t see the police, so he staggered forward, swallowing back nausea. The pounding headache made it difficult to see, and he squinted through black clouds. Had one of the I.V.s in his arm been giving him pain killers? The aches and pains felt more amplified with every passing second. He lifted his free hand and clutched his broken ribs as he walked, desperate to stay upright.
“Mister! Hey Mister!”
Iziah didn’t stop, heading for the double doors. His bare legs were cold. It would be quite the task, walking across town to his apartment. For a moment, he considered giving in.
The voice was closer now. People gave him odd looks.
Let us help you.
Iziah pushed the thought away. He couldn’t talk about it...he couldn’t think about it. All he wanted was to be left alone!
“Go away!” he shouted.
Iziah pushed through the double doors.
That evening, Nicolas drove to the hospital to visit Iziah. He knew he shouldn’t get involved, but he had checked on the boy every day since he was attacked, just to make sure everything was alright.
Iziah was unrecognizable. The smug smile had dropped from his bloodied, split lips. Dressed in a hospital gown and hooked up to equipment, he looked small and frail. There were stitches on his swollen, discolored face, and his oxygen mask hissed. Bruises marred his arms and crept beneath his collar.
It seemed pointless, sitting there in silence and listening to the heart monitor, but he couldn’t stand the thought of the kid being alone. On occasion, he would reach over and rub the boy’s uninjured hand, trying to warm it. Iziah had been unconscious for three days, but the doctors said he would pull through. Those expressions the doctors wore when they looked at Iziah... They were so...piteous. They knew what happened.
His heart twisted when they told him he was the boy’s only visitor.
Nicolas went up to the fifth floor and headed toward the reception desk. Since he wasn’t a relative, he couldn’t see Iziah without supervision. While that annoyed him, he was glad they were being cautious. After all, whoever attacked him might come back.
“Hey.” He put his hand on the desk.
The tired-looked woman glanced at him and smiled.
“I’m here to see Iziah Mallory.”
A frown spread across her face. “I’m afraid you can’t. He left.”
Nicolas’ brow furrowed. “What?”
“Mr. Mallory checked himself out a few hours ago.”
Confused, Nicolas looked down the hall, sure there had been some mistake. Iziah can’t have left. The doctors practically brought him back from the dead a few days ago. Hell, he couldn’t have been awake that long!
“He can’t have checked himself out!” Nicolas protested.
“Well, he did. He’s eighteen. The police were looking for him, but he got out before they found him.”
“Damn it.” Nicolas pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. What was the idiot thinking? It wasn’t safe out there. He turned and headed for the elevator, cursing under his breath. He knew he should go home and mind his own business. After all, he needed to do more research on his current target.
But...how could he leave Iziah? He obviously wasn’t okay. The words Iziah whispered in the car echoed through his mind. Just let me die. Please.
The elevator started its descent, and Nicolas glared at the wall. He didn’t like Iziah. The boy was arrogant and annoying. But every time he looked at him, all he saw was Micah’s best friend. No matter what he did, he couldn’t break that connection. Nicolas let out a frustrated sigh, leaning against the elevator wall. He wouldn’t get involved in the gang issues, but he had to help.
He had to help him get through this.