I apologize for the long wait for this chapter. I've actually had this chapter done for almost a year, but I wanted to get another chapter of either this or The Enemy Inside done before posting it here. Once again, my motivation has been elsewhere, namely with drawing and trying my hand at animation, the latter of which can be viewed on my newer YouTube channel WaterBat95. My art is still viewable on my DeviantArt account 13BatScorpion95. However, chapter 7 of The Enemy Inside is almost complete: I just need to go back and add a few more things to either it or the chapter directly before it so not everything is seemingly from out of nowhere.
On a sad note, I lost my rat Bianca to an almost year-long battle with tumors back in late October. She started showing signs of going downhill in April last year, and I thought the end for her was near when I last updated this story. However, she surprised us all and made it six more months, still upbeat and active until her last few days, then we knew it was time to let her go. Rest in peace, sweetie-kins.
A few weeks later, I got a new rat and named him Walterbridge (my dad's suggestion), but as soon as we got him home I realized something was off. I recognized symptoms of respiratory illness in him, likely from poor husbandry at the pet store I got him at (small tank with inappropriate food and pine bedding, the bedding being a very poor choice for rats because it can spark off respiratory illnesses). Wally is my tenth rat overall and the ninth one I got at that store, but this is the first time I've got a sick rat. Thankfully I convinced my mom that he needed vet attention (there was no way I was going to give him back to the pet store, as it would have been a death sentence for him), and we got him medicine for his condition. Unfortunately, it's a condition that's tough to get rid of called mycoplasma, which means he may need treatment for the rest of his life. On the plus side, though, we got him set up for nebulizer treatments before everything shut down due to COVID-19, so we've been able to keep him as healthy as possible. He's doing very well now (knocks on wood), and is constantly grabbing things from across my room to drag under my bed. Or to play tug of war with them when I try to stop him, as he seems to enjoy that. He's even watching me write all this while listening to Skillet.
Another life update: I have started job searching with help from a job coach, as vet visits and rat supplies cost money and I suddenly realized I wasn't happy with being stuck at home with chores and my hobbies while not making much money aside from the occasional art commission and going to my grandmother's house weekly to vacuum (which isn't happening right now thanks to COVID-19).
Any-who, let's move on to the chapter. As usual, please R&R and enjoy!
Coba was momentarily stunned upon impact with the rushing water. When that initial shock wore off, she swam hard and fast to break the surface. Her head bobbed up and under the rapid water. She tried to scream for help, but every time she opened her mouth it filled with water. Never mind that, she resolved. Find a way to get to shore!
While her head was still above the water, Coba noticed an overhanging branch from the nearest bank. Reaching her arms up, she grabbed at the strong branch as she floated by. Unfortunately, her hands missed the branch as her body was pulled back under by the current. No! she thought in despair.
Suddenly, something strong wrapped around her waist, holding her in place in the water, then heaved her upward until her head and shoulders were out of the water. Coba coughed up some of the dirty liquid before looking to see what caught her. She was surprised to see the familiar form of the last person she thought would save her gripping the branch determinedly while holding her firmly in his other arm. "Terry!?" she gasped.
Straining and yelling with effort, Terry swung himself and Coba towards the bank, shoving the girl in front of him. Coba managed to pull herself ashore, then helped Terry up the best she could, narrowly avoiding falling back in. The two crawled a bit further before laying on the ground, coughing up water that was still in their lungs.
"Thanks, Terry," Brooklyn gasped after a bit, her eyes wide with shock.
"Don't mention it," Terry replied. "You okay?"
"Yeah, just a bit shook. You?"
"As fine as a soaked person can be, I guess."
"Is Matt okay?"
McGinnis looked at her in amazement. "Last I checked, he was scared but unharmed. Thanks to you, I take it?"
Coba nodded somberly. "I didn't want any of you to lose him like I did my mom."
"Even if it meant getting yourself killed?"
Terry could not help but gape at her. Here was the girl his mother had inadvertently taught him to hate, putting others before herself. Sure, she was clearly shaken up by nearly drowning, but she still risked her life to save his little brother. Our little brother, he mentally corrected. But why did she speak as though he isn't her brother?
Before he could ask, however, Coba looked around. "We'd better get back to camp before it gets dark."
The boy scoffed at the obvious statement but nodded. "Which way, genius?"
She thought hard for a moment, looking around for any familiar landmarks. Coba noted the position of the sun before turning a certain way. "That way, I think," she said, at last, pointing in the opposite direction of the sun and river. "The sun was in front of us while we hiked. But I don't think we'll need to go by it the whole way; there should be a trail nearby."
"Let's get going, then," Terry grunted, standing stiffly. Once Coba got up as well, the two kids limped along through the trees, eventually finding a trail. "Oh look, you were right," Terry said with no enthusiasm.
Brooklyn looked at him quizzically. "Why aren't you excited? It means we're on the right track! Well... I mean, at least for now. There might be some forks in the road, we might take the wrong one and get even more lost—"
"Know-it-all," McGinnis snorted.
"Sorry," Coba apologized with a frown. "I tend to ramble on when I'm nervous."
"You mean you're nervous all the time?" Terry inquired, raising an eyebrow. "I get being nervous now, but other times?"
"I guess so." The girl sighed. "Part of it's because I'm afraid Dad'll send me to the orphanage if I can't fit in here. My mom was in one whenever she couldn't fit in with the foster families that took her in. She even said that she didn't want the same for me." She frowned. "I don't want to let her or Dad down."
He looked at her in surprise. "Dad would never do that! He's already made it clear that you're part of the family."
"But you, Matt, and your mom don't like me. What if he decides to get back together with your mom when she doesn't want me anywhere near her?" Coba teared up a bit. "But maybe it would be better if he did. I'd rather he and the rest of you were happy. I don't want to get in the way of that again."
Terry frowned. "Coba... you're not the reason why Dad and my mom split."
Coba looked at him, her eyes widening in confusion. "W-what? B-but you said—"
"I know what I said," he interrupted. "I was wrong. Dad explained that he and Mom just didn't work hard enough at their relationship. Why Mom dislikes you and says you're to blame, I don't know. But I do know you helped me earlier with the hornets, and you just risked your life to save Matt. If Dad were to get rid of you now, I'd call him out for being stupid."
"But Dad's not stupid!"
Coba paused, then realized what Terry was saying. That means Dad really won't get rid of me! But... "D-does this mean... you d-don't hate me?"
Terry shrugged but slightly grinned. "Pretty much. But I wouldn't say I like you just yet."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she inquired, raising an eyebrow.
"Just stating the facts, genius." He patted her shoulder. "Come on, let's get moving again."
Brooklyn nodded. "Good idea."
"There has to be something we can do, Dad!" Matt cried, struggling as Warren tried to get the rest of the dirt off of him to treat his scrapes. "We can't just sit here!"
Warren frowned. They were now back at the campsite, waiting for Ranger Muldoon to arrive. As much as he wanted to look for his children as well, he also had to watch Matt and keep them both safe. "We have to, Matty. It's too dangerous to go searching blindly. They could be anywhere. Besides, the rangers know what they're doing. They can trace Coba and Terry's location."
"But what if they're too late?" Matt frowned. "What if they're missing for as long as Mr. Grey was, or even longer? Or... or what if..." he paused, hanging his head while closing his eyes to try to stop tears from forming. "...what if they're gone?"
"Hey, easy," Warren said softly, gently patting the boy's back. "Let's try not to focus on that possibility. Until we know for certain, we should hold on to hope for their safety. Can you do that, son?"
The boy sniffled but wiped away his tears and snot. "...Yeah, Dad, I can."
"Good." The man smiled softly, though he felt a pang at being called "Dad" by the boy he once thought was his own. "Let me finish patching you up, okay? We don't want you to get an infection."
Matt nodded, though he was still stressed out. "Okay." He did his best to not flinch as Warren tended to the more tender of the injuries, and was relieved when Warren got done. "Hey, there's Ranger Muldoon!" Matt said just after getting a clean shirt on.
Warren turned to the ranger at Matt's announcement. He was relieved to see Muldoon, though also worried about what she might say. "Thanks for getting here so quickly," he said, shaking her hand. "Any news yet?"
"Not about their whereabouts yet, sorry," Susan answered grimly, frowning. "We've tried tracking down their tracking devices, but the tracers can only handle so much water. Their signals were too weak to pick up."
McGinnis frowned. "Is anyone else searching?"
"I've alerted all of the other rangers of the situation, as well as a man who tends to stay during the summer."
"Are you sure the man can be trusted?" Warren asked, raising an eyebrow. "Around kids, I mean."
Susan nodded sincerely. "Without a doubt. Over the years, he's helped us find many missing hikers as well as bust some illegal pot growers. He saved my life before I became a ranger; I even saw him punch a man for hurting a child at that time."
The red-haired man was taken aback. "Wow. Okay, he can be trusted. But how will we know if he finds my children?"
"He'll call us, and we'll call you," she explained. "From there, we'll figure out what their physical states are and see if they need a hospital or if they can be treated at the rangers' station."
"Sounds reasonable," he agreed. "Thank you, for everything."
"Don't thank me yet. We still don't know where they are."
"I know, but still. I appreciate your willingness to help. Not many people would nowadays."
"Especially because Terry used to be in a gang," Matt added, frowning. "They don't get that he's trying to do better."
Susan sighed sadly. "Yes, people are colder these days. But at least there are those trying to do better. My brother was in a gang as well, but not anymore. He works at a pet shop in Chicago now and enjoys it a lot. I still see him at family gatherings—oftentimes covered in fur and feathers," she added with a chuckle.
For the first time since Terry and Coba got swept away by the river, Matt busted up laughing. "Really? That's so schway!" He looked at Warren. "Hey, Dad! Think Terry could work at a pet shop too?"
Warren could not help but laugh. "I don't think he'd have the patience for it! But I'm sure there's still something he could do."
"Yeah, that's true," the boy said with a grin.
"I should get going," Susan stated after a moment. "I'll search for your children while it's still light out."
"Want us to help?" Matt asked hopefully.
"You can help by staying at your campsite," she replied gently. "Just in case they find their way back here."
Matt frowned at the idea of sitting around but nodded. "Oh, okay."
She patted his head. "I'll let you both know what I find. If anything."
"Alright," Warren nodded sagely. "Thanks again."
"You're welcome, Mr. McGinnis," Susan replied with a soft smile. "Hang in there. We'll find them." With that said, she got back into her SUV and drove back down the driveway.
"Come on, we gotta be getting close!" Terry groaned.
"None of this looks familiar," Coba murmured, mostly to herself, as she and Terry trudged on. Night had nearly fallen, and the two kids were getting antsy at the thought of being out in the dark and cold.
"What was that?"
"Nothing... wait, what's that?" Coba paused, seeing something up ahead. "Is that... fire?"
Terry looked in the same direction Coba was staring in and grinned. "It is. That's gotta be someone's campsite!"
"Hold on," the girl said, holding him back by his soaked shirt. "Mr. Grey said something about monsters. They could be bad people."
"He could've been talking about animals, Coba," Terry said, rolling his eyes.
"In any case, we should proceed with caution," Brooklyn explained. "We don't know if they're friendly or not—or if it's a forest fire." She paled at the thought of the latter. If it is a forest fire, we're doomed, she thought.
McGinnis sighed, though he realized that she had a point. "Yeah, yeah, alright. Stay close." Making sure Coba was still with him from time to time, Terry inched forward cautiously. Had this been the streets of Gotham, he would have charged forward and faced the challenge head-on. But this was the forest, a place the boy had no experience in, and his companion was an overly emotional girl instead of a tough young man. I wish Charlie was here, he mused, instead of being in prison. He'd be better company than this nervous wreck...
As soon as he had that thought, he immediately pushed it away. No, he wouldn't. He'd have no idea of what we could be up against out here, but Coba does, even if she is a bit annoying. And Charlie wouldn't have risked his life for Matt. Heck, he'd probably even try to steal from these campers... if there are any.
A branch breaking from the right and a small gasp from Coba made Terry stop. Forgetting his caution, he prepared to fight. "Who's there?" he challenged, standing protectively in front of his half-sister.
"I'd ask you the same thing," a tenor voice growled. A dark-haired, middle-aged man standing roughly six feet tall stepped out of hiding, a handgun in his right hand. His green eyes were narrowed, his moderately scarred face making his glare all the more intimidating. "Who are you? What are you doing at my campsite?"
Oh, yes! Introducing another character into the story! By his description, I'm sure some of you may be able to guess who it is. My dear friend TRON0602 may be able to guess, but I trust he won't say it outright. The next chapter (whenever that gets done and released) will reveal who it is—in both direct and indirect senses.
Please leave a review and have a great rest of your day! Thank you all for your continued support, even as I battle through writer's block. See you next time!