It takes him less than a second to fight through the sleepy fog in his head and locate the source.
He hurls himself forward, intending to run to him, intending to save him and kill whatever or whoever is making him scream like that.
But he can’t.
Someone is holding him down.
An inhuman sound bubbles in his throat as he kicks and punches in the dark, fighting against whatever unseen force is stopping him from getting to Alexander, stopping him from getting to his boy.
The light turns on. Michael stands in the doorway, covering his mouth as he yawns.
“J?” He looks concerned. “Are you alright?”
In the light, James recognises the room. His bedroom. He stops thrashing and looks down at himself. He is tangled in the bed sheets.
The screaming has stopped.
“Alexander,” James says, freeing himself from the sheets. “Where is Alexander??”
Michael frowns in confusion. “Alex? He’s asleep in his room. Are you oka—”
James pushes past him and sprints towards Alexander’s room down the hall. A few weeks ago Alexander’s therapist had insisted that Alexander start sleeping in his own bedroom again. He said it was time to start living life as normally as possible. James had wanted to punch him in the face when he said that. Now he wishes he had.
He rounds the corner into Alexander’s bedroom and flicks on the light. Alexander is sleeping peacefully, hugging his stuffed Astro Boy to his chest.
“It was just a dream,” Michael says behind James, making him jump. “Whatever it was, whatever you think you saw or heard…It was just a dream. Alex is fine.”
James walks towards Alexander’s bed and kneels down in front of him. He needs to touch him. He needs to know he is really there.
He brushes the hair off Alexander’s forehead. Alexander stirs, but doesn’t wake. He squeezes Astro tighter.
“He’s here?” James whispers.
“Yes,” Michael says from the doorway. “He’s here. He’s home. He’s safe. You both are.”
James rests his hand on Alexander’s back, feeling him breathe. He counts his breaths, barely whispering the numbers.
The floorboards creak as Michael enters the room. He puts his hand on James’ shoulder.
“J,” he says quietly. “He’s okay. I promise. Go back to bed.”
“I need to know he’s breathing. I need…”
Michael wraps his hand around James’ arm and gently pulls him to his feet. James doesn’t resist.
“I know,” Michael says. “I know. But it’s been over a year, J. Thirteen months. You can’t stay in here every night listening to him breathe.”
“It was easier when he was sleeping with me,” James mumbles, not taking his eyes off Alexander. “When the only time we were apart was when he was at school. It was better then. We were happy then. I knew he was safe.”
Michael sighs. “Yeah, I know. But you heard what Dr Tate said. He can’t stay in your room forever. He can’t be too scared to go places and see his friends without you. It’s not healthy. He needs to get back to normality. You both do.”
Alexander stirs again.
“Come on,” Michael says. “Let’s go before we wake him up.”
James follows him out of the room and into the kitchen. Michael fills a glass with water and hands it to him. He takes it, checking the time on the microwave. 3:17am. He drains the glass and puts it in the sink.
“You okay?” Michael asks.
James nods. “Yeah. I think.” He clears his throat. “Thank you for staying here the last couple of weeks. For checking on him. On me.”
Michael smiles. “Of course, baby bro. I’ll be here as long as you need me. I know it’s been hard with the changes. Letting Alexander catch the bus to school, having him in his own room, letting him go over to friend’s houses…”
James tightens his jaw. He knows Dr Tate is right, that his paranoia negatively affects Alexander’s progress, but still…Being away from him is pure hell. He involuntarily remembers the first sleepover Alexander went to, two weeks after his ninth birthday. Alexander hadn’t wanted to go, but Dr Tate pushed him into it. Said it would be good for both him and James to spend the night apart. So Alexander had gone…And called James in hysterics at two am, begging him to come pick him up.
He pushes the thought away.
“Anyway,” he says to Michael. “I’m sorry for waking you up. Again. You’d better get back to bed.”
Michael looks at him skeptically. “I’d better get back to bed? Or we’d?”
James clears his throat again. “We.”
“Yeah? You going to bed too, or am I going to wake up to find you in Alexander’s room again?”
James holds his gaze. “I’m going to bed.”
Michael doesn’t seem convinced, but he turns to leave the kitchen anyway. James follows him. Michael walks him right to his bedroom.
“I’ll be down the hall if you need anything. Anything. Even if you just want to talk.”
“Thank you,” James says. “I appreciate that.” Michael hesitates. “Well good night.”
Michael narrows his eyes. Just a little. James pretends not to notice. “Good night,” Michael says. “Sleep well.”
James watches him go down the hallway and into the living room. He’d offered to turn his new study into a bedroom for Michael – Alexander’s bedroom was where his old study used to be – but Michael had refused. He’d been sleeping on the couch for weeks. He’d offered to stay after James told him how he was struggling with the changes suggested by Dr Tate. And James is grateful for it. He is.
But he also needs space.
He closes his bedroom door and sits down on his bed. Flashes of his nightmare play in his mind. Alexander’s scream still rings clear in his ears.
He knows he’s not getting any sleep tonight.
He pulls on a pair of jeans, a sweater and his shoes and creeps down the hallway to Alexander’s room. He can hear Michael snoring in the living room. Alexander is still sound asleep. His brow is crinkled, like he might be having a bad dream. James smooths it over with his fingers.
“It’s okay, buddy,” he whispers. “You’re safe.”
Alexander’s face relaxes.
James watches him for a few minutes, counting his breaths. When he gets to one hundred he tugs the blankets over Alexander’s exposed arm and tip-toes out of the room. He sneaks out the back door before Michael has a chance to wake up and stop him.
He doesn't have to wait long.
A man stumbles out of the bar and staggers over to the gutter. He keels over and pukes, filling the cool night air with the acrid stench of cheap spirits and nachos. James’ stomach twists and he fights against his gag reflex. He watches as the man loses every five dollar shot he's taken that night. Watches as he swears and spits and curses under his breath. Watches. Waiting. Anticipating.
Like clockwork, a slight young woman leaves the bar a moment later, rushing over to the man keeled over in the gutter.
James’ heart skips a beat. He shuffles closer, straining to hear. Straining to see. The man straightens up and grunts something incoherent in reply. James catches a flash of red hair.
Grady was blond.
And Grady is in prison.
He closes his eyes and repeats that to himself.
Grady is in prison.
"Are you okay? Gary!”
Gary. Not Grady. Gary.
The woman reaches for Gary, who is wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I told you it wasn't a good idea to have that last round of shots. You know how..."
The sound of flesh slapping against flesh drowns out her voice. She whimpers and stumbles back, rubbing her already reddening face. Gary raises his hand again.
"I told you to mind your business," Gary slurs, bringing his fist down towards her face.
James catches it before it reaches its target. Gary calls out in surprise.
"What the fu..."
"Go home," James instructs the girl, who is still rubbing her face. "Go home and make better decisions about who you choose to invite into your life."
The girl looks bewildered. Gary twists out of James’ hold. James allows it.
"Who the fuck are you??" Gary slurs, squinting at him.
James ignores him, stepping in between Gary and the girl. "I think you should apologize to your girlfriend then remove yourself from her life."
Gary stares at him for a moment, then laughs.
"Are you serious??" He cranes his neck around to look at his girlfriend. "Hey Andy -- is this clown serious??"
James feels a surge of rage. He wants to make this man hurt. He wants to set the world on fire.
He wants pain.
He turns to the girl.
She looks between him and Gary nervously.
"Hey. Hey," he says gently. "Look at me. Do you live with this man?"
She looks at Gary again.
"Andy." James touches her face, forcing her to look at him. "Do you live with this man?"
Andy shakes her head. He focuses on her. She can't be more than twenty-five.
"Okay. Good. Here's what you're going to do. You're going to go home and lock the doors. You're going to call a friend and ask them to come over. And then you're never going to let this piece of trash near you again. Do you understand?"
"Who the fuck do you think you are??" Gary slurs, taking a couple of unsteady steps towards James. He shoves him. James’ hands curl into fists as he turns around.
"You need to learn to keep your hands to yourself," he says, meeting Gary's eyes. Andy takes a step back. Gary's eyes narrow into slits.
"Fuck you, old man," he spits. James sees it coming a second before it happens, but he is a moment too slow and Gary's fist connects with his jaw. Behind him, Andy screams. He hears her footsteps as she runs away. He hopes she is smart enough to take his advice, but deep down he knows better. You can't make someone leave a bad situation. They have to want to do it for themselves.
His mother taught him that.
He ducks as Gary swings again, twisting at an unnatural angle and hurting his back. He takes a sharp breath in. Gary cackles.
"What's the matter, old man? Arthritis got you down?"
James grits his teeth and plants his feet firmly on the ground. "You want to hurt someone?! You want to hit someone?!" He punches Gary in the nose, feeling a sick rush of pleasure as the bones and cartilage splinter and crank, sending a wave of warm blood onto his knuckles.
"Hit me," he growls, trembling in anticipation. "Hit me! Hit someone who can fight back!!"
Gary's hands fly to his nose as he attempts to staunch the flow of blood and snot.
"You're a freak!" he mumbles through his fingers. He stumbles backwards. "You're a goddamn freak!"
James kicks him in the knees. Gary lunges for him, punching him in the stomach. The pain of being winded temporarily blocks out the pain in his back.
"It's not as much fun to beat on someone who can defend themselves, is it?" James spits, punching him in the jaw. "It's not as satisfying when your victim doesn't cower away, is it??" He kicks Gary's legs out from under him. Gary falls to the ground. James grabs the scruff of Gary’s t-shirt and uses it to wipe the blood off his knuckles. He looks down at him, this pathetic mess of a man bleeding from his nose into his own mouth. His features distort. Twist.
"What do you want from me??" Gary shrinks back, cowering. "What do you want??"
I want to kill you for what you did to Alexander.
Not Grady. Grady is in prison. He’s not Grady.
The image of Grady fades. Gary whimpers and shields his face.
"You think this is pain?" James spits, looking at him in disgust. "You don't even KNOW pain. You don't have a fucking CLUE about pain."
Gary looks like he's going to cry. James glares at him.
"This is what I want, you punk-ass little kid. Go home. Get cleaned up. Get your ass into rehab or something, and then -- now this is important -- Never contact Andy again."
Gary's eyes widen. "What??"
"You heard me. You have two choices. Either I kill you right now," -- Gary lets out a sob -- "or you promise me right here and right now that you will never raise your hand to a woman again. Ever."
James knees him in the stomach. He splutters for air.
"I don't recall giving a third option called but."
Gary coughs and spits out blood. James tries to find it within himself to feel guilty.
"Do we understand each other, Grady?"
Gary looks confused. “My name’s not Grady, it’s…”
James knees him again.
"I SAID, do we understand each other?”
"Good." James bends forward and reaches into Gary's pocket. Gary flinches as James pulls out his wallet. He thumbs through and removes his driver’s license. He reads over it then replaces it.
"I have your address now, Mr 3749 Markland Drive. I'll be checking up on you from time to time. Making sure you are a man of your word. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Gary nods again.
"Good. Now get the fuck out of here."
James tosses his wallet at him and turns to leave. He hears Gary scramble to his feet and run in the opposite direction. He breathes out heavily and pulls a bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket. He squeezes a generous amount into his palm and replaces the bottle before rubbing his hands together. He rubs his jaw, feeling a bruise already starting to form. He sighs. Another injury to explain. Just like the cuts on his knuckles. The split in his lip which required stitches. The black eye which took over a month to heal. Part of him wishes Michael would just ask, just call him on his lies of I fell off my bike, I was boxing at the gym, I tripped but what would he even say? How would he even begin to explain that the only way he can deal with the pain on the inside is to hurt on the outside? How could he explain that every scumbag kid-beating-woman-hitting abuser becomes Grady? Becomes Alexander’s father? Becomes their stepfather? He shakes his head, looking up at the stars.
Michael doesn’t ask for the same reason James didn’t ask about his drinking for so long: Sometimes it is just too difficult to take on someone else’s demons when you’re barely managing to fight your own.
As he starts to walk home, he thinks about Michael. How strong he’s been. How he wouldn’t lay down and take it when the doctors said he may never walk again after the bullet shattered his femur. How he’s risen to every challenge so far, and overcome it. He’s been so strong. So strong.
A cold dread fills the pit of his stomach.
Sometimes it’s too difficult to take on someone else’s demons when you’re barely managing to fight your own.
No, James thinks, breaking into a run. No. He couldn’t be. No.
He arrives home in minutes and sneaks in through the backdoor. He goes straight into the living room, ready to wake up Michael, ready to tell him he’s sorry, ready to beg him to go back to rehab…
Michael is still asleep on the couch. He looks peaceful. He looks like Alexander. James stares at him, searching his memory for any indication that he is slipping.
He comes up blank.
Just because I’m falling apart, doesn’t mean you are too, he thinks, feeling ashamed of himself. You’ve always been the stronger one. Always.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, backing away. “I’m sorry.”
He finds himself in Alexander’s room. Alexander is still asleep, curled up with Astro. His nightlight throws shadows on the wall. Guitars. Musical notes. Drum kits. Even though he knows he’s not supposed to, James kicks off his shoes and climbs onto the bed. The movement wakes Alexander.
“It’s just me,” James whispers, lying down behind him. “You’re safe.”
Alexander sniffs and rubs his eyes.
“Yeah, buddy. It’s me. Go back to sleep, okay?”
Alexander nods, not needing to be told twice. He turns around and snuggles up against James, fitting perfectly against the curve of his body. James puts his hand on Alexander’s back, feeling him breathe.
Counting his breaths.
Convincing himself that he is there.
That he is safe.
That he is alive.