Seth listened in horror as Taylor finished recounting his terrifying flight through the forest. The initial exuberance he had displayed upon first finding Seth, Gwen, and Lydia was now gone, and the traumatized little boy spoke in halting gasps. His eyes were wide as he glanced around the room, not letting his gaze settle or linger on anyone except Gwen, who stared at him with rapt dread. His hair was slick with sweat and peppered with twigs and leaves, and the dirt on his forehead appeared stark against his pale complexion. Seth resisted the urge to reach out and comfort the boy—suspecting that his unease with physical touches due to his autism might be heightened after such an ordeal.
“Could it be drugs?” Lydia asked Seth. “Some sort of hallucinogen, maybe?”
Seth blanched. “He’s ten years old!”
“Hey, don’t forget, when I first got here, talking about ghosts, you asked me if I was on drugs.”
Seth held up his hands in surrender. “Touché.”
“Anyway,” Lydia continued, “I don’t mean Taylor. We’d be fools not to believe him, at this point. I mean the people he’s talking about—the ones attacking each other. Could they have been drugged?”
“I guess.” Seth hesitated. “But I don’t see how—”
“It’s the pollen,” Taylor insisted, gasping for breath. “The goo is in the pollen.”
Seth glanced at Lydia.
She shrugged. “It’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard. When we first met, we both said how high the pollen count was, remember? And we’ve both seen weird stuff, too.”
“Yeah,” Seth agreed. “We have. And there’s mention of a black goo in the documents I’ve been going through, and the videos I watched.”
Gwen shuffled over to Taylor and put a hand on his shoulder. The boy flinched and tensed, but then relaxed, leaning into her touch.
“I feel it, too,” she whispered. “The goo you saw—it’s like the Creeper. I can feel it. Hear it, inside my head. It’s making those people hurt each other. It feeds off what they’re doing.”
Taylor slowly raised his head and met Gwen’s eyes. He opened his mouth, gulped, and then stared down at the floor again. “Harold . . . it . . . he . . .”
Taylor sobbed, trembling. Then Gwen began to cry as well. Seth hurried over and hugged them both. This time, Taylor didn’t react.
“Listen, we’re all upset about Harold. But Taylor, you’re soaking wet from the creek, buddy. Why don’t I build a fire so we can get warm?”
Gwen glanced up at him, sniffling. “But then we’d have to go outside.”
Seth smiled. “No, we won’t. We can build one in here. There’s a wide-open space over there. Concrete floor and walls and high ceilings. Nothing combustible or flammable around it.”
Taylor pushed his smudged glasses up his nose. “What about the smoke?”
“There’s a huge exhaust vent up there, and we figured out earlier that the air system in here still works.”
Gwen hesitated. “But what if we catch this building on fire?”
“Don’t worry,” Seth replied. “I’ll keep an eye on it. This was supposed to be a camping trip, right? Well, it’s not camping unless we have a campfire.”
Despite their fears, both children visibly relaxed, intrigued. Seth suspected that the fact that the suggestion came from an otherwise seemingly responsible adult made the idea all the more tantalizing to them.
“Okay, you two stay here with Miss Lydia. I’ll be right back.”
He left the room and walked down the dimly lit hall to a room marked STORAGE. The door was unlocked, and inside he found a jumble of rusting filing cabinets, threadbare office furniture, and moldering boxes of paperwork. He rooted through the junk until he found a metal wastebasket with a wide mouth.
He hauled that and two boxes of paperwork back to the room and placed them in the center of the concrete floor, just beneath the exhaust vent. Seth pulled the top off one of the boxes and grabbed a fistful of papers. He glanced at them and saw that they were old purchase orders.
“I don’t think they’ll need these anymore.”
He wadded up the invoices and dropped them into the wastebasket. Then he glanced back at the others and grinned. “Okay, who’s ready for a campfire?”
Gwen and Taylor hurried over, followed by Lydia. Still smiling, Seth patted his pockets. Slowly, his grin faded.
“What’s wrong?” Lydia asked.
“Um . . . I don’t suppose you have a lighter?”
She shook her head. “I don’t smoke. I used to vape, but . . .”