He barely even notices when the pain begins to lessen. He's curled on the linoleum floor in front of the movie theater, bracing himself for further impact, but the hits stop coming. They rip open his jacket, muttering something that sounds too far away, underwater, not right.
The hands on his body disappear, and Ethan's only thought is Hannah.
God, he hopes she ran like he told her to.
His brain feels murky, like those men had reached directly into his skull and kicked his actual brain, not just the bone around it. Even so, Ethan forces himself to sit up, blinking lethargically as he looks around. There's a trail of blood leading away from him, toward…
Dragging himself to his feet, Ethan manages to take one step forward before he collapses to his knees,legs buckling under his own weight. So he crawls. He crawls over the blood trail, getting it all over himself, but he doesn't care. As long as it's not Hannah's blood, he won't care.
He doesn't get very far before even the strength of his arms gives out, and he lands on his chest, cheek in the blood, and passes out.
God knows how long he's out of it, but he's woken by a familiar voice calling his name, two sets of hands— much more gentle than his attackers'— gently moving him away from where he was trying to go. Where was he trying to go? Somewhere important, he thinks, but he can't quite remember. It's on the tip of his tongue. Lex and Hannah would tease him about this for sure, his memory's always been pretty sh—
He has to get to Hannah.
Ethan starts struggling against the hands, no matter how gentle they are, no matter how kind or honest their owners may be. He has to get to Hannah. That's all that matters. But he's too weak, and the owners' gentle voices cut through the fog in his brain.
It's Mr. Houston, Ethan's favorite teacher from school before he dropped out— before the teacher had dropped out— and Ethan finally stops struggling.
"Ethan, bud, calm down," Mr Houston says. His voice is a lot clearer than the others before it, but it's still not great. "You're hurt, we've gotta get you fixed up."
"H-Hannah," he stutters. There's a moment of silence, and Ethan sluggishly realizes that Mr. Houston and whoever's with him… they don't know who Hannah is. "Lex—" he tries.
"Ethan, calm down," a woman's voice says, and something in Ethan's brain shorts out. He's so tired, in so much pain still, and everything is still so hazy.
"Lex," he repeats, slowly relaxing into these people's arms. "I'll get ya to California, Lex… then you don't gotta cry so much no more…"
He passes out again.
Tom and Becky glance at each other, and she checks for the kid's pulse. It's weak, but it's there. She sighs in relief, completely forgetting about the doll beside her. Tom seems to forget about it, too. He gets to his feet and picks up the teen's limp body, and Becky leads him into the nearby theater for cover.
They leave the monster doll behind.
Tom gathers supplies for her while she patches the teen— Ethan— up, wiping away the blood and bandaging his bruised, if not cracked, ribs. He finds an ice pack, and they put that on Ethan's forehead. Luckily, most of the blood Becky wipes away doesn't seem to be his own. There's a small cut on his forehead, and a few more on his chest, but for the most part his injuries seem to be bruises. He seems to have a minor concussion, which could explain why he thought Becky was this "Lex" girl.
Ethan mutters in his sleep a lot— words like Lex, banana, and California.
Tom sighs, leaning back in the theater chair he's sat himself in, and runs his hands over his face.
"Christ," he mutters. "Fucking hell. We have to get him out of here, Becky."
"I know," she says quietly. "But how? They're blocking off the exits."
"We might be able to sneak him out the back door of the theater," Tom says. "There are so many doors in and out of the mall, they can't get 'em all, you know? There has to be one they missed."
"That is true," she allows. "But… what about the girls he mentioned? Are they here?"
"Lex is," Tom admits. "His girlfriend— she was one of the employees back at Toy Zone. She's the one who was at the register with the manager when shit started going down."
"Oh," Becky sighs. "Do you think she's still alive? It was so chaotic back there…"
"I don't know," Tom says honestly. "Lex has always been… she can take care of herself, for sure, but that riot might've been too much, even for her." He groans. "I have to go back there. I owe it to her— I'm apparently the reason she dropped out of school to begin with."
"You can't blame yourself—"
"No, it's true," he says. "I was the only teacher that actually gave a shit about her, about Ethan. When I left, they had no one else. I have to go find her."
Becky stares at him for a long moment, biting her lip as she thinks. I should go with him. But we can't leave Ethan alone…
"I'll stay here with Ethan," she finally says quietly. "Maybe once he wakes up, we can go find that other girl. Any idea who she is?"
Tom sighs, standing up. "Uh… Hannah… I'm not sure— wait! Lex had a little sister she always talked about. Special needs girl, I think. Could be her, I don't remember her name. Lex just always called her Banana."
Banana. Just like Ethan had mumbled in his sleep.
"I think that's right," Becky says, and tells him about Ethan's sleep talking.
He nods along. "Okay. I'll go find Lex, and you two can go find Hannah when he wakes up. I'll be back soon, okay?"
"Okay," she agrees, and settles into the chair Tom had vacated, resting her head against the wall behind her.
Tom runs off, and Becky is essentially alone.
Tom heads back toward Toy Zone, sneaking around and hiding when he sees the creepy Wiggly-obsessed bastards running around.
God, what had Tom been thinking? There's no way in hell Tim would ever want one of those things. It's pretty fuckin' ugly, and Tim doesn't even like dolls or monsters! He likes comic books and drawing and birds—
Tom makes it to Toy Zone, and sneaks in, focusing himself on the task at hand. Find Lex, get back to the movie theater. Find Hannah, get home. Just take it one step at a time.
Tom hides behind some shelves, keeping his eye on what's happening near the checkout counters. That blonde bitch from earlier— Linda, he thinks— is the center of attention. Half a dozen men or so are gathered around her, as she gives a speech about Wiggly and their new "religion" about him.
Jesus Christ. How ridiculous.
He sees someone slumped on the floor, a pool of blood spreading rapidly, but thankfully it doesn't look like Lex. It's her manager. Lex herself is on her knees, hands bound behind her, begging for someone's life that isn't her own.
Linda says something that Tom can't hear, then turns away. Two of the men start dragging Lex away, then Linda stops, turning back to glare at the teen once more. She says something else, a snarl forming on her face, and flicks her head toward the security officer nearby. The man pulls a taser from his belt and fires it at Lex, making her convulse on the ground repeatedly.
"I want you to suffer," Linda screams. "You will suffer before you die, you little brat. We will find your sister, and rest assured we will kill her, too. Too bad you won't get to live long enough to see it."
The electricity from the taser cuts out, and Lex screams and begs for Linda to let her go, but the blonde bitch ignores her.
Tom's heart is racing. He knows he should move, he should get in there, he should do something, but he can't.
What have I done?
Just like Jane, Lex is gone before she hits the floor.
Tom stumbles back into the theater just as Ethan's starting to wake up. Both are shaking, and Becky's not sure where to go first. Finally, she helps Tom sit down before helping Ethan sit up.
The teen flinches away from her at first, but relaxes when he seems to realize she's trying to help. God, those men really messed this kid up.
"Gotta find Hannah," he mutters. "Where's Lex? I thought—"
"She's not here," Tom says. "She's— I'm sorry, Ethan, I tried to get her for you. That blonde bitch, she—"
Ethan doesn't seem to hear him, and staggers to his feet. "Gotta find 'em… promised California. Their mom's gonna kill 'em if I don't get 'em outta there…"
"Ethan," Tom says firmly, and the kid looks over to him. "Lex is dead."
He shakes his head stubbornly, but his eyes are wet with tears. "N-no," he says hoarsely. "Can't be— I promised—"
"Ethan, sit down before you get yourself even more hurt," Becky says softly, and he doesn't even fight her as she guides him to sit in a chair.
He mutters to himself about promises, and California, and shitty parents, and a whole slew of curses that Becky doesn't think she's ever heard strung together like that before. How… creative.
"Ethan, I'm so sorry," Tom says quietly, and Becky rubs the kid's back.
"What about Hannah?" he asks, voice cracking. "Her sister— she's only nine. We were together when those guys showed up… did she get away?"
"I don't know," Tom admits. "Want me to go look for her?"
Ethan shakes his head. "I'll do it," he says. "She don't trust a whole lot, but she trusts me."
"You're not going out there by yourself," Becky says.
"I ain't just gonna sit on my ass here, neither," he snaps at her. Becky doesn't take it personally, doesn't even flinch.
"I didn't say you had to," she says evenly, ignoring his poor grammar. Tom had mentioned the kid had dropped out of high school, so it wasn't that much of a surprise.
"We're going with you, kid," Tom says. "Now come on. The faster we find Hannah, the faster we can all get out of here."
Tom helps Ethan to his feet, and Becky follows them out of the theater. Ethan points in the direction of that blood trail Becky and Tom had found him trying to follow earlier, and quietly tells them it's heading toward where he'd told Hannah to run and hide.
The trail isn't that heavy, but enough to not be able to miss. If this blood was coming from a nine year old, Becky knows, the chances of finding her alive isn't great. An adult, someone Becky's or Tom's or Ethan's sizes? They'd probably be fine. But a small child…
The trio approaches the indoor playground in front of Marshalls, and all three of them freeze in horror.
Ethan's heart races, and adrenaline kicks in. He surges forward, out of Mr. Houston's grip, and tackles the man they find. He's got a tie around his head like a drunken frat boy, and Ethan thinks he recognizes him as one of his own attackers from earlier. He returns the favor, punching and kicking the man senseless, until the guy goes limp under Ethan, blood everywhere.
Mr. Houston pulls him off the guy, and they turn to where he'd been crouched before. Becky's there now instead. She's hunched over a tiny, bloody, broken body.
Ethan limps forward, collapsing to his knees and cradling Hannah close. She coughs, blood trickling from her lips.
"Bad blood," she whimpers, and Ethan lets out a sob, touching his forehead to hers. She'd been right.
"I'm so sorry, Banana," he says. "I'm so sorry—"
Her shaky hand reaches up to pat his chest, just over his heart. She draws an X over it. Then she goes limp, her hand falling back down.
Cross my heart, hope to die.
The hat he'd given her is gone, laying upside down at the entrance to one of the kiddie tunnels. Mr. Houston picks it up with a small frown. Ethan sobs, rocking Hannah's body back and forth. He doesn't even let Becky close enough to check for a pulse. If she can't check, she can't not find one, right? That would mean Hannah's still alive.
He knows his own logic is bullshit, but he doesn't want to care.
Hannah's gone. Lex is gone.
Rage overwhelms him. This is his own goddamn fault, he knows it. He'd made a promise to protect these girls— his girls— and he'd failed. When he has no more tears left to cry, he lets go of Hannah's body and shakily gets to his feet.
He sees the green little fuzzball laying next to where his hat had been, and limps over to pick it up. Shoving one hand in his pocket, Ethan pulls out the lighter out of his pocket. It's almost empty, but he figures it's got enough juice for one more cigarette.
Or a Tickle-Me-Wiggly.
He doesn't even warn Mr. Houston and Becky, he just flicks the lighter on and brings the small flame to the green fur, and watches with dark eyes as it catches. He drops it, and steps back. The fire spreads surprisingly quickly, and Mr. Houston yanks him away from it. They make it out of the mall without much trouble, not running into anyone else.
He can hear the screaming inside, but it feels almost more like music to him, after what had been done to his girls. Anyone left inside the mall can burn to death, then burn some more down in hell.
Ethan feels numb, and doesn't pay much attention to anything else going on.
A car pulls up, but Ethan doesn't recognize the occupants. It's not his dad, and it's not Lex's bitch of a mom. Mr. Houston tugs on him again, forcing him into the car and buckling him up.
The teen snorts to himself. He never bothers with the seatbelt when he's on his own. Maybe he should, especially after hearing about what happened to Mr. Houston's wife, but he doesn't. What more does Ethan have to lose at this point?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
He passes out again, and half-hopes, somewhere deep in the fuzzy recesses of his mind, that he never wakes up— or if he does, it'll be to find out that this was all some fucked up dream, and that he's sprawled out in the backseat of his own car while Lex drives and Hannah navigates, and they're halfway to California already.
Hey there sleepyhead, Lex would tease him, glancing in the rearview mirror. He'd make a face like he's annoyed, but really he'd just be happy to see her smiling for once. She'd smiled that morning, when he'd told her how much the final buyer was willing to pay. Other than that (thanks to her mom), it's very rare. Ethan tries to savor it when it makes an appearance.
In this life, Hannah would mumble something, probably about Webby, probably about him sleep-talking again.
But that doesn't happen.
Instead, Ethan wakes up in the early hours of the morning, in a room he doesn't recognize. He's tucked into the bed, like his dad used to do when Ethan was little and still scared of the dark. Long before he'd met Lex, long before he'd learned that the things in the dark could fear him instead.
An older guy walks in after a few moments of Ethan internally debating whether or not he wants to get up, and he groans. It's his uncle, the one Ethan hasn't seen since his grandfather's funeral three years ago. He doesn't even know if his uncle recognizes him.
"Good, you're finally awake," Henry says lightly, helping him sit up. "Here, drink some water. That's a nasty concussion you've got there."
He hands Ethan a glass of water, and the teen silently chugs it before laying back down. Ethan rolls over, facing away from his uncle.
"Your dad was in the mall, you know," he says softly. "He made it out, don't worry. He's asleep in the living room. I'm sorry to hear about—"
"Don't," Ethan mutters. "Don't say it." Henry just sighs, and leaves.
Ethan closes his eyes, squeezing them tight, and tries not to cry. He's so tired of crying. He doesn't want to cry no more.