Alexander looks at James. James gives him a small smile. “It’s okay, buddy,” he says, squeezing a homemade stress ball he spotted on the table when they arrived. “It’s alright.”
Alexander swallows and hugs Astro.
“It’s the same every time,” he whispers, staring straight ahead. “I’m asleep in my room. The doorbell rings. It wakes me up. I go to see who it is. Aunt Jenna opens the door, and it’s a policeman.” He hugs Astro tighter. “He…” He drops his chin to his chest and falls silent.
“If we know what the dream is about, we can help take the fear away,” Dr Tate says gently. “What does the policeman do?”
Alexander shakes his head.
“Enough,” James says, crushing the stress ball in his fist. “He doesn’t want to say any more.”
Dr Tate takes a measured breath in and turns his attention to James.
“Mr Axton. May I see you privately for a moment?” He turns back to Alexander and pushes a stack of paper and a box of crayons towards him. “Alexander, you can draw me a picture while I’m gone.”
“James,” Alexander says.
“What?” Dr Tate says.
“I want to draw a picture for James.”
Dr Tate smiles. “Of course. Draw a picture for James. We’ll just be behind that glass.” He points to a mirror behind them.
“Like in the movies?”
Dr Tate chuckles. “Yes. Like in the movies. If you need us, just walk up to the glass and say so. We’ll come straight back.”
Alexander looks to James.
“I’ll be just next door,” James says, brushing the hair out of Alexander’s eyes. “I’ll be able to see you through the glass. Just like the movies. Okay?”
Alexander hesitates, then reaches for the crayons. Dr Tate clears his throat. James stands up and follows him into the next room.
“Mr Axton,” Dr Tate starts when the door closes.
“You’re pushing him too hard,” James says, cutting him off. “You are expecting too much.”
Dr Tate sighs. “I’m hardly pushing at all,” he says, watching Alexander through the glass. “Look, until Alexander faces his fears and owns them, they will continue to control him.”
James squeezes the stress ball. “No you look,” he says, working to keep the anger out of his voice. “You’re meant to be the best child psychologist in California. We travel over an hour each way to get here. But so far all I’ve seen you do is push my kid to breaking point and take away the things that are actually helping him.”
Dr Tate turns towards him. “I’ve taken away his crutches,” he says, meeting James’ cold glare. “That is necessary for Alexander to move on from what happened to him. He has to learn to be independent again.”
James laughs humourlessly. “Yes because all nine year olds are independent.”
“That’s not what I meant. Alexander is afraid to be away from you. He defers to you every time I ask him a question. He looks to you in every situation.”
“That’s called parenting!”
“No,” Dr Tate says calmly, “that’s called co-dependence. And it’s not healthy. If you want Alexander to start dealing with what happened, and I mean really working through it so he can get past it, you need to stop working against me and start working with me.”
“I have done everything you’ve asked!” James’ voice booms in the tiny room. “He’s in his own room, he catches the bus to and from school, he went to that fucking sleepover and we all know how well that went –”
“Please calm down, Mr Axton.”
James takes a deep breath in. He squeezes the stress ball hard enough to pop it. A puff of flour explodes from the hole he has created.
“We were fine,” he says once he is sure he can keep from yelling. “We were coping. We were happy. His nightmares had all but disappeared. He was doing well at school. He was happy. Why did we have to change things if they were working? Is it really so bad if he sleeps in my room or if he doesn’t want to go to other people’s houses?”
Dr Tate looks at him sympathetically. “Yes, unfortunately. It is. The longer he has these habits, the harder they will be to break. They were fine at first…Expected, even. But now…It’s been over a year, Mr Axton. How long can you keep it going? Imagine him at fifteen still wanting to sleep in your bed. Being too afraid to go out with his friends. What if you have a romantic partner come over and –”
“That’s not an issue.”
Dr Tate doesn’t miss a beat. “Fair enough. It’s not an issue now. But what about later? Do you really want him to be afraid his whole life?”
James watches Alexander through the glass. He’s drawing a picture. Astro is sitting on his lap. The Astro Boy pendant dangles from his neck.
“And while we’re talking about it…” Dr Tate continues, “do you really want to be afraid your whole life?”
James’ back stiffens.
Dr Tate presses on. “I know you’ve said no in the past, but Mr Axton, please…It would be hugely beneficial for both you and Alexander if you would consider getting some treatment yourself. What you both went through was traumatic. I understand your desire to put his needs first, I do, but…” Dr Tate looks at Alexander. His tongue is peeking out of the corner of his mouth. Concentration. “…You can’t help him heal if you are broken yourself.”
James’ gaze falls to his right pinky. The break didn’t heal properly, and since then it has been permanently stuck at a slight angle. A constant reminder of his broken promise.
“There are worse things to break,” he says quietly.
James clears his throat. “I can’t think about me right now,” he says, returning his gaze to Alexander. “I can’t.”
Alexander looks up. He stands up, closing his hand around Astro.
James goes straight to the door and opens it. “I’m here, buddy,” he says, entering the room. “I’m here.”
Alexander walks over to him and James picks him up.
Alexander nods, twisting his fingers in James’ hair. “I drew you a picture,” he says, burying his face in James’ neck.
James walks over the table and picks up the drawing with his free hand. A crayon family smiles back at him, all holding hands. He recognizes himself, Alexander, Michael and his mother. There’s a large bird in the sky.
A lump forms in James’ throat.
“Let’s go home,” he says, folding the page in half.
“The hour is not up yet,” Dr Tate says from the doorway to the other room. “We’re not finished.”
“Yes we are,” James says without looking at him. “We’re done.”
He puts Alexander down and helps him put on his jacket and beanie.
James rounds on him. “He was doing better,” he whispers through clenched teeth. “He was happy. He wasn’t drawing pictures of his dead aunt.”
“Sometimes you have to go backwards in order to go forwards. It’s good for him to face what happened so he can overcome it.”
James’ hand trembles. In his mind’s eye, he sees it. Hears the crack as his fist collides with Dr Tate’s skull.
Alexander takes his hand.
“James? Can we go home?”
It’s enough to pull him back from the edge.
“Sure, buddy,” he says, maintaining eye contact with Dr Tate. “Let’s go home.”