"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."
Con woke up from his slumber without any prompting. He hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep so deeply – usually, he only got a few hours of sleep in between periods with customers, and he was almost always awoken with Mike shaking him awake or one of the Other's kicking him or roughly shaking him to his senses. This last week, he'd gotten even less sleep, between customers in the day and working at night.
'So... why am I waking up, normally?' Con wondered. It was bizarre – he actually felt... rested, 'Did I sleep right through a customer? Nah – I'd have woken up or SOMEthing.'
"Con, are you awake, now?" He jerked upright at Mike's voice. Mike was still burrowed under the blanket in the corner, like he hadn't even moved from the spot he'd been when Con had returned.
'Wait... now? Was I doing strange things while I thought I was a sleep, again? Did Mike see me serve a customer while acting unusually, like last time?'
"Um... Mike..." Con started, unsure of what he was supposed to really say, since he had no idea what Mike must have seen him doing while Con thought he'd been sleeping, "There's nothing wrong with me, I swear."
Mike pushed himself up, into a kneeling position, and tipped his head with confusion, finally shrugging and looking away.
"As long as you're okay, I guess."
Which wasn't the reaction Con had been expecting. He'd thought it would be something like fear or panic, something closer to how Mike had been after Con's first experience of 'sleeping' peacefully during the day.
"Wait... did I do anything strange, again?" Con asked. Mike continued to blink, looking every bit as confused as Con felt. Personally, he thought that he had to look pretty stupid, as well as feeling like it.
"Not that I saw – you fell asleep after we finished talking, so I stayed awake, just in case they brought in a customer... Nothing happened. I haven't heard anything from outside, the Others haven't come in... they haven't even brought us food or anything yet." Mike paused, his forehead creased just as deeply as the lines on his palms.
Con had almost forgotten what Mike looked like when he was thinking. Maybe it was because there'd been so little to actually think about, in terms of problem solving, these last two years.
"Maybe it's been less time than we thought..." Con offered. After all, who was to say that Con had really been sleeping this whole time? And maybe he just felt rested because he'd woken up on his own, instead of being woken up. That didn't mean it had been a full eight hours or whatever.
"I kind of doubt it." Mike muttered, "But there's no way we can know, since there's nothing that really gives us any indication of time in here."
Now that Con thought about it, he hadn't realized how much he'd depended on the Others to give them some measure of time – always in periods between customers, stretches between the times they pushed the food trays through the door, and the recent times when Con would be taken out for the night to hunt.
Over all, it didn't seem like there was much he or Mike could do, aside from wait and see what would happen, next.
With irritable restlessness, Con got to his feet and started prowling around the room. He'd almost never realized how small the room was, since he'd rarely stood fully up inside it. The ceiling was just a short distance over his head – Con only had to raise his arm and his hand pressed fully against the grating. He wasn't even really reaching or stretching his arm that much. Fingers running along the surface as he walked, Con paced the whole length of the floor. It wasn't even two strides across, and he only had to take three to cover the depth of the room. The mat creaked with each step, and seemed to expel a burst of sweaty and musky odor, like the thin padding was giving out heavy, smelly breaths every time Con put his weight on it.
"Con?" Ignoring Mike's muttering, Con prodded the wall and ceiling, looking for something that might at least be interesting. Something that might lead outside, or to another room, or give him access to outside enough that they could get some bearings. In spite of the grating and how pliable it was, the ceiling was unrelentingly solid, and the walls, thin as they were, were sturdy. Con couldn't even smell anything from them, save for the mold that was growing on the plaster. There were pockets that Con could tell were hollow by tapping on them, but it didn't seem to have any real use.
"Con, what are you doing?" Mike asked, as Con continued to examine the walls, looking for any kind of little kink or hole.
"Just looking." Con answered, running his fingers down one corner. Closer towards the floor, Con could feel a little crumble in the plaster. It was barely big enough for him to fit a finger into, but it was enough – maybe a mouse hole, or something that termites got in through?
"For what?" Con peeled the plaster away until the hole was big enough to get his finger free.
"Mike, what do you think this is?" He asked, kneeling down and examining the puncture as best he could. Over his shoulder, Con heard Mike shift, as though attempting to move, again. Keeping his eye on the peculiar feature, Con crawled over and moved Mike as cautiously and quickly as he could.
With just a moment of examining, Mike pulled back, putting a hand over his mouth as he coughed.
"It used to be mice, but it's too clean for them to still be there. It's just dust and spiderwebs, now. And those are abandoned, too." He muttered, pulling away from the opening. Con sighed – he'd been hoping that there would be at least mice in there. If worst came to worst, he'd be able to kill some food for himself and Mike until they could think of something better.
"We just have to wait it out. By yourself, you're too valuable for Pappa or the Others to ignore." Mike finally said, leaning back on his feet.
Con didn't have anything to say in reply to that – he'd known it was true, but it was something much worse to hear Mike say it.
The church bell chimed for eleven o'clock, just when the adult service was supposed to end. The yard was noisy with a cluster of children playing tag closer to the fence, while three or four girls played hopscotch on the brick path up to the door. Another group of boys were all busy chasing each other with sticks, saying they were swords and proclaiming each other to be monsters that needed slaying.
Everyone's faces were glowing and rosy with the late morning sun, and all the pent up energy that nobody could use when they were sitting still through mass. There was the smell of grass and dandelions just starting to seed, and under the sounds of the church bell and the children running and screaming, there was a further off sound of birds that had built nests in neighboring trees or on rooftops, and people in the streets who didn't go to church.
Hanging over it all, from a high branch in the tallest tree in the yard, were two little pairs of shoes, swinging from the branch they were sitting on. At least, Mike's were swinging. Con's feet were still, as he was clinging to the trunk of the tree. Mike had coaxed and dragged him up through the branches, but Con was still dizzy from the height.
"Look, Con – there's a crack in the bricks that looks like a rabbit from up here." Mike pointed towards the path, tracing the shape with his finger in the air. Con looked up to see what Mike was pointing to, then shut his eyes and cowered against the tree trunk.
"Mike!" Under their feet, two of the boys playing war were waving their sticks up at them, "We need one more to make it even. Could you be a commander?" One of them called. Mike kicked his feet a few times. The shoes he wore were just the littlest bit loose on his feet, enough that he had to wear two pairs of socks so they didn't fall off. The previous year, they'd been two sizes, too big. Next year, they'd fit fine, and he'd probably have to use them for the following year, too. Between himself and Con, Milo complained that they had to be their church's single biggest expense.
"Why don't you ask Jacob? He's been playing with you guys for longer, and you know him better." Mike called back down. The older of the two groaned.
"But you're GOOD at the game. It's like being real army generals."
"I'm already playing with someone else." Con heard the two grumble as they walked away, so it was enough to make him look way from the tree and down to the ground. It was enough to make him dizzy, so he went back to staring at his shoes. Like Mike's, they were still too big on him, but he only wore one pair of socks. He didn't run or climb or do anything that would risk him losing a shoe, so he didn't need to really worry about them falling off.
"Why don't you go play with them? They like you and you're good at their games."
Mike grinned right back at Con. It was actually a funny change to see him scared of being high up in a tree, when Con was scared of absolutely nothing else. He wasn't even scared of the hospital, and Milo seemed spooked every time they went there.
"That's because they play really simple games. You'd probably be good at them, too." Con rubbed his shoes together, watching the laces come loose.
He knew just as well as Mike that they were both ignoring Con's pathetic physical state. When they did chores, Con usually lagged and often couldn't do as much at a time as Mike. Before Mike had appeared, Milo and the other priests had tolerated the little that Con could do – after all, he was a kid and a kid offering to help with chores was always something to appreciate. Now that Mike was there for a comparison, Con couldn't help but feel that Milo was always sighing under his breath that Con was, comparatively, useless.
That was why Con had wanted to try climbing a tree, today. Mike had showed him how to do it, and even reasoned that it would be good for Con to try to strengthen his heart. Of course, as soon as he'd gotten as high as he was, Con had looked down and realized that he was terrified of heights.
"Not as good as you." Con muttered, sullenly. It was something else that Milo had done, whether he realized it or not: Mike was definitely smarter. School, chores, games they played, or even occurrences that just happened every day, everyone acknowledged that Mike was impressive for his age.
Not that Con would admit he was jealous.
...Maybe, just a little.
"They're just games, though – you'd probably have a lot more fun, playing them. I always get caught up in winning, and if I can't be sure the strategies will work, I always chicken out. If Milo'd just let you play, you'd probably have the most fun out there, just to get out and do it."
Con let his eyes slide over to Mike. It was just the kind of thing that he'd say. Even though he knew that Con was upset and left out, Mike would always stick with him. He never went to play with the other kids, never went talked to anyone else unless they included Con, always sat next to him in church, in class, during everything they did. And what did Con do? He moped, he argued, and made trouble. The only thing he'd really done was find Mike and brought him back to the church.
"That doesn't mean I'd be good at them."
"You'd have fun. And so would the other kids. That's the point of games – having fun. So, because you wouldn't get obsessed over them, that means you'd be good at them. What if someone wrote a book that was totally ridiculous? I'd spend my whole time reading trying to understand what it was all supposed to mean, and if I couldn't figure it out, I don't think I'd be able to ever reach the last page. You'd read, enjoy, and when you reach the end, it would make more sense to you than to me." Mike had started frowning. He always frowned when he argued with anyone. Maybe that's why he always won.
What? He was trying to get Mike to leave him in the tree and actually have fun, for once, and Mike was going on and on in circles about... whatever he was saying. And Con wouldn't have minded, except he was fairly certain that Mike was just making up whatever he was saying, just to confuse Con.
At any rate, everything that Mike had said, Con just plain didn't understand it.
"Can we go climb another tree? See what everything looks like from up there?" He asked. Mike started to grin again. The argument was over.
"Like the pear tree, over by the chapel? We can try climbing onto the roof." Mike said, dropping from the branch and onto the one under it. Still clinging to the trunk of the tree, Con slid down, second. Mike made it seem so easy – like climbing up and down a ladder. Con kept feeling like he'd lose his grip on the branches, or that the thing might start moving and throw him off like a bucking horse at any moment. And every time Con looked down to see the branch he was trying to climb onto, the ground, so far below him, seemed to jump up through the branches, as though it were a car on the road, pelting full speed towards him, meaning to splatter him on the pavement.
Con could see Mike on the ground already, and here he was, still stuck up on a branch. Looking down made him feel like he was going to puke, and everything was spinning. Con curled up around the branch, resting his forehead on the trunk as he tried to keep himself from falling into the pit.
"Con, it's just another branch! You can make it." Con's insides shivered, just hearing Mike's voice. Maybe he really was going to be sick – he could feel a churning pain in his stomach, rising up through his chest, and battering against his heart and lungs. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't stay up straight. He couldn't stop the world from spinning. He couldn't stop himself from shivering.
"I-I... I c-can't..." It hurt to talk. If he tried moving his arm to hold onto the branch, there was a dull ache in his shoulder that made the pain in his stomach and chest turn into a screaming fire.
"You can do it! I'll catch you!" Mike continued to call. Without hearing that, Con had known that he'd be fine – after all, he got hurt all the time, but he never seemed to stay that way for very long. Con's grip on the trunk was coming loose, anyway. He'd fall no matter what he did. But he couldn't fall – everything below him was spinning, and it would just swallow him up if he touched it. It was coming to get him. It was a whirlpool, a hurricane, a bottomless pit. It was going to reach up and snatch him out of the tree...
"CON!" He felt Mike's arms go around his shoulders. How had Mike gotten back into the tree? Or had he fallen out, already? The tree did seem to be swimming away, but he didn't really know where he was – he felt too sick and too tired to really care. And why was he sick? He'd thrown up, before, but it was almost never this bad. And everything inside his chest was spasming. What WAS this?
"...'mfine..." He had to be okay – he was just overreacting. He couldn't breathe... but that was because he felt so sick. Con tried to take a deep breath. It would make the pressure go away. And if he could just relax, he was sure his arm would stop aching... and once everything stopped hurting, then maybe he'd stop feeling so sick. After all, everything hurting so much was only making it worse.
"Yeah. You're okay. Just take your time. Keep breathing, imagine that everything inside you is floating, perfectly still... that someone's reached in and smoothed out all the rough spots, and pulled out everything that hurt..." Con's head wouldn't stop spinning, and the burn in his chest just wouldn't go away.
'Still, listening to Mike talk, I don't feel sick anymore.' And, even though he could see, it was all blurry. And there was something on his chest – it hurt, but it felt better than the burn. It actually relieved it, like pressing on the side of his head which had a headache.
"Mike, what's going on here?" It sounded like Milo's voice. Wait, where'd the pressure go? Why did his chest start hurting, again? Why did he feel sick, again?
"Doctor Riki said this is what happens during a heart attack. Is there an ambulance coming?"
Attack? Like a fight? Like what they did in wars and stuff? Something was attacking him? Or was he attacking somebody? Is that why everything hurt so much? Was that why he couldn't breathe? He didn't want it. Con didn't want it. He wasn't strong enough to fight. He had to get out of there.
"Calling an ambulance wouldn't be as quick as if we just carried him there, ey?" What were they all talking about? And why wasn't anyone talking to him? Why couldn't he know what was going on? What... what... WHAT? "That's why we're just next door."
"Con?" Well, everything had stopped hurting. There was a dull pain in his chest, but it was the same kind of sting as when he'd cut himself and it was healing up, "Con, are you awake?"
When Con opened his eyes, he ended up squinting at fluorescent bulbs glaring into his face. It took him a moment, but when he regained his bearings, Con recognized the room as an emergency room in the hospital. The last time he'd been here, he'd passed out because his... heart... had stopped.
"I am, now." Con sat up. Doctor Riki was hanging over him with a stethoscope ready. He was even smiling – the last time that Con had had a heart attack, he'd woken up to see Milo, Doctor Riki, and two nurses hovering over him, and none of them had even cracked a grin. Not even of relief. That had to mean that something was good this time. But... what?
"You sure gave us a scare – what if you'd fallen off a higher branch when that attack came, ey?" The sticky static of Doctor Riki's gloves on his skin made Con want to scratch, and the stethoscope was icy cold. Con didn't mind – it wasn't as bad as getting shots, or blood drawn... or any of the big machines they used to look inside his body. And all of those weren't really that scary compared to... oh, if he was stuck inside a garbage truck or something REALLY bad, "Even if Mike had caught you, the both of you'd be in trouble, here."
Mike? Con blinked, then realized that, indeed, there was a chair next to the door. And Mike was in it.
And he was too far away, in that chair.
"You can come over – Con's not going anywhere on us." Doctor Riki gestured for Mike to get out of the chair and come over. Con hadn't seen it when Mike was sitting, but he was shaking all over, and as soon as Mike had crossed the floor, he almost jumped right on top of Con. Actually, he did; Con felt Mike's knee land right on top of his shin. It was only because Mike was moving so much that the pain faded as quickly as it did, because the next thing Con knew, Mike had his hands on Con's shoulders, squeezing.
"Are you really going to be okay?" He demanded. Con could count Mike's eyelashes, he was so close and wide-eyed, "You're not going to pass out again? It's not going to come back and make you throw up? You can breathe? You can see fine?"
Con wondered exactly what had happened during this attack? He didn't remember Mike panicking like this when Con had actually fallen out of the tree... well, okay, Con didn't really remember falling out of the tree, but he definitely remembered hearing Mike talk to him. And he'd been really calm, almost relaxed.
"Y-yeah... Yeah, I'm fine. I feel great." He managed. Mike's fingers stayed firmly gripped on his shoulders.
"Really, really, REALLY?"
"Really, really, really..."
Doctor Riki coughed. When Con glanced over, he could see the doctor holding a hand over his mouth, but it didn't really look like he had to cough. He'd always said that doctor's had to change gloves if they coughed on them.
"Mike, we've already had one of you two go through the ICU. I kinda doubt Milo would want both of you having heart attacks in the same day." And then, he went back to writing whatever he was on the chart. Mike let go of Con's shoulders and sat back on his ankles.
He was still shaking. Con could feel it through the bed.
"...Doctor Riki said... that when someone's having a heart attack... that... that the best thing you can do is stay calm... because... because... if you panic... if you panic, it makes it harder for... for..." Mike couldn't finish, but Con understood – Doctor Riki had given Con and Milo the same lecture about taking deep breaths, staying calm, and other things to do if you had a heart attack until you could get to a hospital.
Mike was still stammering and chewing on his lower lip. For a moment, Con wondered if he was going to cry.
"I wasn't scared." Con said it before he could really think about it, but it sure seemed like it did the trick, "I could hear you talking to me, so none of it was really that scary. And I'm okay, now. Even if it does happen again, I know nothing bad'll happen to me, so I'm not afraid." He kept smiling. Mike was still staring at him as though Con was babbling in a language other than their own.
'It's the least I can do – If I can't do anything useful, then at least I won't be a whiner or a baby. At least I can be a real man about this.'
Mike's hands wrapped around Con's and squeezed. No, not just squeezed, almost crushed Con's hand.
"So, you're really going to be okay?"
Con kept grinning back.
Con squeezed Mike's hand back, as best he could.
It could have been minutes, it could have been hours, it could have been days. Con didn't want to admit it, but this lack of anything to keep track of time was getting to him. Maybe they were overreacting, or maybe it was a legit concern that the Others were just leaving them, abandoned, in this room. On the floor, Mike watched Con pace, as though it would answer a question of vast importance.
"Maybe they'll be here in just a few minutes. Maybe we're overestimating the time." Con said, out loud. Mike didn't seem convinced.
"You've been pacing for a whole half-hour." He replied. And, that was enough. A half hour, without hearing from the Others, without seeing a customers, without even being able to hear the other children – and they always did, whether they wanted to or not – was disturbing.
"Then... maybe... maybe it's just a one-time thing. Maybe there just aren't any customers today."
"It's not going to do us any good, just thinking about it. If we can find some way to keep track of time from now on, that'll give us a clue to what's going on."
Con blinked at Mike for a moment. It had been so long since Mike had really... well, done anything. Con hadn't forgotten anything... well, maybe he had, but it was more that he'd sometimes thought that, with passing time, Mike might have lost his edge.
It was... a relief to see him actually thinking again.
"We can't count on any outside noises or visual cues, so we'll have to work with something that we've got on hand..." Mike muttered, finally glancing over at Con with a much more focused look on his face. Con was surprised how much older Mike looked – maybe it was the light, or maybe it was because the way he frowned accented the creases around his eyes, but Con almost thought he was looking at a different person, "What do you have with your Hunter gear? We might be able to come up with something from that."
Without questioning, Con pulled off his cloak and unloaded his belt. It was only his hunting gear, but he didn't use it much on hunts, anyway, and if Mike could figure out something to do with it, it was all fine by him.
Of course, the first thing that Mike noticed was Con's crossbow, but he quickly put it back down, turning to look at the darts. Con had never really bothered to notice how large they were – about four fingers wide, and probably as long as those fingers. Mike picked up two empty ones and examined the ends with their needles side-by-side.
"Our best bet to keep time would be an hourglass." He mumbled, passing the darts back to Con to pull one of the needles out and connect them with the remaining needle. Meanwhile, Mike studied Con's flask, finally prompting Con to fill one end of the bulbs with the water that Con hadn't drunk from the inside. With the opposite end stopped up, it still seemed to take forever for a few drops to filter between the two connected darts. Con almost fell asleep again, watching it drain, until Mike poked him and prompted him to pour more water in.
By the time they were finished, Con felt as though hours must have passed.
"How long was that?" Con asked. Mike just shrugged, pressing Con to seal off the end of their makeshift hourglass.
"We'll have to count each of them, from scratch." He answered, proceeding to flip the contraption over and beginning to count, "One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand thr-" A drop fell, and Mike flipped it back upright, forcing the drop to flow backward and drip back into the full end, "So, each drop takes about two and a half seconds to fall... There might be about two-thousand drops in here. About two-thousand times two and a half is..." Mike paused. Con just waited – he'd never been good at math, but it still stunned him how good Mike was with it, after all this time, "Five thousand... and that divided by sixty... is about eighty-three..."
Con blinked and shrugged, but Mike stared at the tiny hourglass they'd made, as though he couldn't believe such a thing.
"That can't be right." He mumbled, now talking more to himself than anything. Con stretched and lay back down – honestly, it suddenly seemed no longer interesting how long they'd been here, nor how to measure it, nor how long they might be here. Maybe the whole jump from being helpless to at least capable of figuring it out had been enough, "There's no way this could measure a whole eighty-three minutes."
Con rolled onto his side and watched Mike mull it over.
"...So, anything in the thousands is too much." Mike kept muttering, picking the handmade timepiece up and examining it at eye level, "Maybe it's closer to five-hundred drops in here. That would be closer to twenty-minutes. Much more realistic, but that still seems like a bit much. Probably closer to three hundred drops, then..."
Mike flipped the dropper back over and Con heard Mike starting to count as his brain slowly started to drift away, thinking about other things. About how late in the day it might be, about if he was supposed to join them for Hunter duties at night, if it was even close to nighttime yet...
"One... two... three... four... five..." About what Pappa and the Others were doing at the moment, about what the other Hunters were doing, "Six... seven... eight... nine... ten..." About what Silus and his father were doing, about what Lu and her pack were doing, about what Tom was doing...
"Eleven... twelve... thirteen..." About what Mike was thinking, how he was able to think, how he was able to stay so calm, how he was so focused...
"...twenty... … twenty-three... … twenty-seven... … thirty-one... … thirty-five..." About if Lu and Tom and Silus even remembered what he'd said about Mike, about if they were thinking about the both of them right now.
"...Forty-eight... … fifty-two... … fifty-six... … sixty-three..." About how gray Mike's hair had turned.
The sun was hot and burning. That much, Tom knew.
He knew because it was a very simple concept to be aware of. He also knew because he was so unfamiliar with it at this time, and in this place. The broad daylight was a wholly unnatural place for him to be – at any rate, if he ever went anywhere, he was accustomed to going alone. Maybe Silus or Lu or both would tag along. When he'd been younger, Kake or one of any of the twins, or... well, the point was, when he was a kid, he might have company.
But any of those instances would be during the night. Almost everyone was more active at night. Tom was used to being able to work during the day, but it had taken time to do, and he was always, always, ALWAYS alone. Under the hot sun.
"So, this where you took the Human back into their forest." One of the elders in his tribe called down to him. Tom didn't answer back.
It wasn't his place.
"We couldn't possibly get in through here." Called another member of the tribe – lower ranking, probably even one of the lowest.
"What do you think we do, Human-spawn?" Another one called. Tom didn't answer. He knew that, even though he was the Head's child, he was still the lowest of the Tribe. Even the lowest of low members were higher than he was.
Thinking like this was very simple. Tom preferred things that way – the Ape tribe was simple, so thinking simply was just fine. He'd always been very careful. So, if he didn't understand something, he usually just shrugged and said he didn't need to understand – if Silus or Pip or someone wanted to understand, that was fine, since the Tigers or the Deer weren't simple.
But it was still hard.
"I say we try and break it – the Humans wouldn't be able to do a thing with their forest destroyed." Another member insisted.
"Maybe, if we knew how to start a fire." A different one said, "If only you'd stolen us something useful from the Humans."
That might have been true or not, Tom knew, but he also knew it wasn't place to argue or agree. Some of the other Apes said that fire was the poison that made Humans what they were. Even more others said that if they could only get their hands on fire, they could be as strong as the Humans and defeat them. And still others said that fire was something for the Gods, and either the Humans had stolen it from them or had been given it as a gift, and either way, it wasn't the place of the Apes or any other tribe to bother with it.
And Tom knew – even if he was the Head's child – it wasn't his place to deal with that. It wasn't simple.
"Human-spawn!" Screeched a different member of the tribe, this time throwing a stick down and hitting the back of Tom's head.
Tom also knew better than to try and fight back. That would only get him in more trouble.
"How else are we supposed to get into this place?" This was followed by a rock.
Tom turned to the east and started to walk. He knew they didn't want him to answer – they just wanted him to get to it.
It was very simple, and Tom could live with that. Just like the heat of the sun.