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A cry woke him from his sleep.
A young cry.
A girl’s cry.
Daniel Ash pushed himself up on his elbow. “Josie?”
It was more a question for himself than anything. His daughter’s room was down the hall, making it hard for her to hear his sleep-filled voice in the best of circumstances. And if she was crying, not a chance.
He glanced at the other side of the bed, thinking his wife might already be up checking on their daughter. But Ellen was still asleep, her back to him. He’d all but forgotten about the headache she’d had, and the two sleeping pills she’d taken before turning in. Chances were, she wouldn’t even open her eyes until after the kids left for school.
Ash rubbed a hand across his face then slipped out of bed.
The old hardwood floor was cool on his feet but not unbearable. He grabbed his T-shirt off the chair in the corner and pulled it on as he walked into the hallway.
A cry again. Definitely coming from his daughter’s room.
“Josie, it’s okay. I’m coming.” This time he raised his voice to make sure she would hear him.
As he passed his son’s room, he pulled the door closed so Brandon wouldn’t wake, too.
Josie’s room was at the other end of the hall, closest to the living room. She was the oldest, so she got to pick which room she wanted when they’d moved in. It wasn’t any bigger than her brother’s but Ash knew she liked the fact that she was as far away from Mom and Dad as possible. Made her feel independent.
Her door was covered with pictures of boy bands and cartoons. She was in that transitional stage between kid and teenager that was both cute and annoying. As he pushed the door open, he expected to find her sitting on her bed, upset about some nightmare she’d had. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
His words caught in his mouth.
She wasn’t lying in the bed. She was on the floor, the bedspread hanging down just enough to touch her back. Ash rushed over, thinking that she’d fallen and hurt herself. But the moment his hand touched her he knew he was wrong.
She was so hot. Burning up.
He had no idea a person could get that hot.
The most scared he’d ever been before had been when he’d taken Brandon to a boat show in Texas and the boy had wandered off. It took Ash less than a minute to find him again, but he thought nothing would ever top the panic and fear he’d felt then.
Seeing his daughter like that, feeling her skin burning, he realized he’d been wrong.
He scooped Josie off the floor and ran into the hallway.
“Ellen!” he yelled. “Ellen, I need you!”
He knew his voice was probably going to wake Brandon but, at this point, he didn’t care. Josie was sick. Very sick. He needed Ellen to call an ambulance while he tried to bring their daughter’s temperature down.
“Ellen!” he yelled again as he ducked into the bathroom.
Using an elbow, he flipped on the light then laid Josie in the tub. He wasted several seconds searching for the rubber plug, then jammed it into the drain and turned on the water, full cold. To help speed up the process, he pulled the shower knob and aimed the showerhead so that it would stream down on her and cool her faster.
Where the hell was Ellen?
He put the back of his hand on Josie’s forehead. She was still on fire.
He was torn. He wanted to stay with Josie, but the pills Ellen had taken must have really knocked her out, so that meant it was up to him to get help.
“Hang on, baby,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He raced into the hall and back to the master bedroom. The nearest phone was on Ellen’s nightstand, next to their bed.
“Ellen. Wake up.”
He shook her once, then picked up the phone and dialed 911. As he waited for it to ring, he glanced back at the bed.
Ellen hadn’t moved.
“Nine one one. What is your emergency?” a female voice said.
He reached down and rolled Ellen onto her back, thinking that might jar her awake. But her eyes were already open, staring blankly at nothing.
He flipped on the light. The skin around her mouth and eyes was turning black, and there were dark drying streaks running across her face from her eye sockets where blood had flowed.
“Nine one one. What is your emergency?”
“Oh, God. Help,” he managed to say.
“Are you hurt, sir?”
He touched Ellen’s face. It was as cold as Josie’s had been hot, and instantly he knew no breath would ever pass her lips again.
“Send help! Send help, please!”
He dropped the phone, not bothering to hang it up. It didn’t even dawn on him that he hadn’t given the operator an address. He was barely holding on to his sanity.
Back in the hallway, he tried to shove the image of Ellen’s cold and lifeless body into the back of his mind. He looked into the bathroom. Josie was still propped up in the tub, the water now several inches deep. He knew he should go see if she was cooling off, but he had to check Brandon first.
He threw open his son’s door and flipped on the light. Brandon had one of those beds that were raised in the air like a bunk, but instead of a second mattress underneath there was a desk.
Ash rushed over to the bed. His son was a long lump covered by a Spider-Man comforter. As was the boy’s habit, even his head was buried beneath the blanket.
Ash could feel the muscles around his heart tightening. With the yelling and the running and now the light on in the room, he was sure his son should have woken, but Brandon hadn’t moved at all.
He grabbed the comforter and pulled it back.
His son was lying on his side, his back to him.
Just like Ellen. Oh, God. Please, no.
Holding his breath, he put a hand on Brandon’s shoulder and pulled him onto his back.
His son’s eyes fluttered. “Dad?”
For the first time since Josie’s cries had awakened him, Ash was unable to move.
“Dad, are you okay?”
Maybe this was the dream part. Maybe this was the final blow. Maybe in a few seconds he’d realize that Brandon’s voice was only in his head, and his son was as cold and dead as his wife.
He touched Brandon’s forehead.
“You’re scaring me, Dad,” his son said, inching back a little. “What’s going on?”
Ash quickly pulled Brandon off the bed and held him tight against his chest as he ran out of the room.
“What’s going on?” Brandon asked again.
“No questions right now, okay, buddy?” Ash told him, trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re going to be fine.”
It was a lie, of course. How would either of them ever be fine again?
He carried his son into the bathroom and sat him on the closed toilet lid.
“What’s Josie doing in the tub?” Brandon asked.
The water was nearing the halfway point and was covering Josie’s waist and legs. Ash touched the side of her face, hoping her temperature had come down a few degrees.
Not only had it come down, it had plummeted.
No! No, no, no!
He yanked her out of the tub without turning off the water, and began stripping off her drenched nightgown.
“Brandon, get some towels!” he yelled.
“Dad, what’s going on? What’s wrong with her?”
“Just get the towels!”
By the time Ash had her clothes off, Brandon had retrieved three towels from the cupboard under the sink. Ash used the first to quickly wipe off what water he could, then wrapped the other two around her. Though she was dangerously cold, unlike her mother she was still breathing.
“Get behind her,” he told his son as he laid her on the floor. “Hug your body to hers. We need to help her get warm.”
Brandon surprised him by not arguing. He stretched out behind his sister and hugged her tight. Ash did the same in front, creating a cocoon of warmth with Josie in the middle. It was the only thing he could think of doing.
“She’s so cold,” Brandon said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Where’s Mom? Does she know?”
“I let her sleep.” Brandon would find out the truth soon enough, but at the moment Ash needed him to focus on helping his sister.
Though Josie’s breathing was shallow, he could still feel her chest move up and down.
“It’s okay, baby,” he whispered over and over. “It’s okay.”
“She’s not getting any warmer,” Brandon said after a few minutes.
“Just keep hugging her.”
They were still holding her like that when the front door of their house smashed open. Ash could hear people running into their living room.
“Who is it?” Brandon asked, fear in his voice.
“I called the paramedics before I woke you,” his father said. “Let’s just hold on to your sister until they tell us to move. Okay?”
Ash expected the EMT crew to come into the bathroom at any moment. But when no one appeared, he yelled out, “We’re back here! In the bathroom! We need help!”
Footsteps pounded in the hallway, but still no one came.
“We need help! We have a sick girl here!”
Finally, he could hear them approaching the bathroom door. He tilted his head back so he could see into the hallway.
First one person appeared, then two.