In the car on the way home, James looks in the rear view mirror to find Alexander staring at his drawing. His bottom lip is quivering.
“Alexander? Are you okay?”
Alexander raises his eyes. They are filled with tears.
“Are you going to die too?” he whispers. “Everyone dies, right? No one lives forever. Are you going to die, too?”
James’ knuckles turn white against his grip on the steering wheel. He pulls over to the side of the road and cuts the engine. It’s a fairly deserted road. No one seems to notice.
He gets out of the car and walks around to Alexander’s door. He opens it and takes off Alexander’s seat belt, lifting him up. He carries him away from the road and puts him down on ground, kneeling before him.
“Why would you ask me that?” he asks, fighting back tears himself. “Why would you think I’m going to die?”
“Everyone leaves me,” Alexander says, biting his trembling lip. “My mommy died and my daddy didn’t want me and my Aunt Jenna…” He chokes back a sob and meets James’ eyes. “Why does everyone have to go?”
“Alexander…” James starts, but he doesn’t even know what to say. He stares at his brave, amazing child who at the age of nine has lost more people and been through more than many people do in their entire lives.
“I’m not going to die,” he says finally, gripping Alexander’s arms. “I’m not leaving you. I’ll be with you forever.”
“You don’t know that,” Alexander says, shaking his head and crying freely now. “You don’t know.”
“Alexander, I –”
“It’s you,” Alexander sobs, pushing the hair out of his face. “In my dream. It starts as Aunt Jenna but then she turns into you and and and –” His sentence is cut off by his sobs.
All the blood drains from James’ body. He wants to kill that therapist. Rip him apart with his bare hands. Scatter his ashes and bury his heart.
Instead, he wraps his arms around Alexander and holds him close. “It’s just a dream,” he says softly. “It’s not real. It’s just a bad dream.”
Or maybe James is the one shaking.
He can’t tell.
“You can’t die,” Alexander sobs into James’ neck, winding his fingers into his hair. “You can’t go.”
James decides then and there to never go back to Dr Tate. To work through things themselves. Together. Just him and Alexander.
As it should be.
“You won’t lose me,” he whispers. “We won’t lose each other, okay? We won’t.”
Alexander sniffs. “Do you promise?”
James falters. He hasn’t made a promise since…
“Do you promise?” Alexander asks again.
He has no choice.
“Yes, Alexander,” he says quietly. “I promise.”
He prays that this is a promise he can keep.
Alexander burrows further into James’ arms and James holds him until he stops crying. Then, once he has calmed down enough, James helps him back into the car, puts on his seatbelt, and starts the long journey back home.
Alexander is asleep by the time James pulls into the driveway. Michael’s car is gone. Part of James is relieved. He doesn’t want to explain to Michael why Alexander won’t be going back to Dr Tate. Not yet.
He cuts off the engine and gets out of the car. He walks over to Alexander’s side and unbuckles him, lifting him into his arms. Alexander murmurs something incoherent and goes back to sleep. He’s still holding Astro. He hasn’t been without Astro since that night. He even takes him to school, hidden in his back pack.
Dr Tate tried to stop him from doing that, too.
James kicks the door shut with more force than necessary and locks the car. He walks to the front door and skilfully manages to unlock it and go inside without putting Alexander down. He goes straight to Alexander’s bedroom and gently puts him down on the bed. He checks the time. It’s only five pm. He knows he really shouldn’t let Alexander sleep in the afternoon, but he makes no move to wake him. Instead, he pulls off Alexander’s shoe. The movement wakes him up.
“Hey buddy,” James whispers. “It’s alright. You can sleep.”
“Is it bed time?” he asks groggily. James shakes his head and takes off his other shoe.
“No. It’s not. But if you’re tired, you can sleep.”
Alexander yawns and struggles to fully open his eyes. He can’t.
“Will you stay with me?” he asks, allowing his eyes to slide closed. James is fairly sure he’s asleep again already, but he answers anyway.
“Of course,” he whispers, taking off his own shoes and crawling onto the bed. He drapes his arm around Alexander, who automatically snuggles closer to him, even in his sleep. James holds him close, feeling his heart beat.
He starts to count Alexander’s heart beats, but he is asleep before he even reaches ten.
This time, there is no confusion about where it is coming from.
“Alexander,” he says, lightly shaking his shoulder. He tries to keep the panic out of his voice. “Alexander. Wake up. Wake up, buddy. It’s just a dream. You’re safe. It’s just a dream.”
Alexander gasps and sits up. He looks around the room.
“I’m here, buddy,” James says, sitting up beside him. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
Alexander dissolves into tears and flings himself into James’ arms.
“It’s okay,” James whispers, wishing he could say something better, wishing that he could do something, hating himself for being so inadequate, for being so useless that he can’t even help his own child when –
Stop it, he tells himself harshly. Just stop it. Now is not the time.
“It’s okay,” he murmurs again, resting back against the headboard with Alexander still in his arms. “You’re safe. You’re home. You’re safe.”
Fragments of the first few months after Alexander came home play in his mind. Waking up to the sound of screams every single night. To wet sheets and a hysterical child. They had just gotten past that. They had just begun to put their lives back together. He feels a rage so strong and so dangerous growing inside him that it almost scares him. He feels wild. He feels violent.
He stuffs the feeling back down.
There will be time for that later.
Alexander’s sobs dissipate into hiccups. He sticks his fingers in his mouth, fingering his lip. He sniffs. James closes his eyes.
“Do you want to tell me?” He feels Alexander shake his head.
“Do you want to go back to sleep?”
Alexander shakes his head again. “I’m scared to close my eyes,” he whispers.
James flinches like he’s been slapped. He opens his eyes. “Okay, he says softly. “Okay.” He checks the time again. It’s just after 9pm.
“How about we order some pizza and watch a movie?”
Alexander takes his fingers out of his mouth and nods.
“Can we watch Frozen?”
James rubs his back and rests his cheek on the top of Alexander’s head. “Of course, buddy. We can watch whatever you’d like.”
“Is snow cold?” Alexander asks, taking a bite of pizza and watching the movie.
James chuckles. “Of course it is. It’s freezing. You’ve never been to the snow?”
Alexander shakes his head. He’s calmed down, but James can still see the shadow behind his eyes. He’s not the bright, happy boy he once was. His innocence has been stolen.
The thought makes James want to punch something. Someone.
“Do you want to go to the snow?” he asks, pushing it away.
Alexander stops mid-chew. His mouth drops open. He turns to James.
“The real snow?” he asks through a mouthful of pizza. “With snowmen and ice skating and snowflakes?”
The look on his face makes James want to go out and wrestle a storm cloud into his living room and make it snow right then and there.
“Yes,” he says, smiling. “The real snow. With snowmen and ice skating and snowflakes.”
Alexander swallows his mouthful of pizza and puts the half eaten slice down on his plate. He puts the plate beside him on the couch.
“Really?” His eyes are wide and hopeful. “Really really?”
James pulls him into a hug, grateful to see even a glimmer of the happy and excitable child he once knew. “Really. Let’s go to the snow.”
Alexander starts to giggle. Then he starts to laugh. He wraps his arms around James and buries his face in his hair.
“Today??” His breath tickles James’ ear. “Can we go right now??”
James laughs. “Not today, no. It’s nearly eleven o’clock at night! I’ll make the plans tomorrow. We’ll go and stay for a few days. I’ll teach you how to snowboard.”
“And build a snowman!”
“Who’s building a snowman?” Michael asks, putting his keys on the table.
Alexander beams. “We’re going to the snow! The real snow! With snowmen and snowflakes and snowboards and ice skating!!”
“Really!” Michael looks at James. “When did you plan this?”
James looks at Alexander’s happy face – the first real happy face he’s seen since Dr Tate’s idiotic changes – and beams too.
“I haven’t yet. Going to make the plans tomorrow. Alexander can take a few days off school. We can take a few days off work. You in?”
Michael smiles. He can’t help it. All the smiling is contagious.
“The chance to show Alexander how much better I am at snowboarding than you are? You bet I’m in. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
James grins. For the first time in weeks, he feels it again. The thing he thought he had lost.