I strongly suggest you all quit reading now and go read something happy. Go before it is too late. Save yourselves.
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“Where’s Uncle Michael?” Alexander repeats. He huddles closer to James. The frigid air bites James’ exposed skin, and his thermal shirt is doing little in the way of protecting him from the bitterly cold wind. He wonders how long he will survive without shelter. How long any of them will survive.
He pushes the thought away.
“Uncle Michael?” Alexander calls in a small voice. “Uncle Michael?”
James shuffles forward despite his protesting limbs. He scans the horizon. The fog has lifted, but there is nothing to see. Nothing but snow and pine trees.
“There!” Alexander yells. He points into the distance. James follows his gaze.
He sees it.
A jacket, shining in the moonlight.
Huddled under a tree.
His heart leaps into his throat and he moves as quickly as his frozen limbs will allow, gripping Alexander’s hand.
“Michael,” he says, barely loud enough to be heard over the wind. “Michael.”
His legs give way just as he reaches him and he collapses onto his knees, sending fresh waves of pain though his spine. Alexander whimpers. James lets go of his hand and reaches out towards Michael. His heart is beating wildly in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. He puts his hand on Michael’s back.
“Michael?” he whispers. “Mike?”
His hand sinks. It takes him a moment to understand. His eyes adjust to the dim light in the shadow of the tree.
The jacket is wrapped around a mound of snow.
Michael is not there.
Michael is not
He grabs the jacket anyway, hoping that somehow, maybe, maybe, Michael will be underneath it.
“He’s not here,” Alexander mumbles. James looks at him. He’s crying. “Uncle Michael is not here. Is he under the snow? Is he buried under the snow??” Alexander drops into the snow and starts to dig with his unbroken arm. “UNCLE MICHAEL!” he screams, clawing at the snow. “UNCLE MICHAEL!!!”
“Alexander,” James chokes out. He feels dangerously close to falling apart, but he knows he can’t. He has to be strong. He has to be.
Michael is the strong one.
Michael has always been the strong one.
“Alexander,” he says again, forcing his voice to be steady. “Buddy, Uncle Michael isn’t…He’s not…He’s not…” He can’t even say it. The thought is too awful to bear.
“He’ll be so cold!” Alexander sobs, attacking another mound of snow. “He’ll be so cold and it will be so dark and he’ll be all alone and then the masked men will come and then and then and then…” He is overwhelmed by sobs, making it impossible for him to speak. James fights his way over to him through the thick snow and against the pain in his spine. He collapses beside Alexander and gathers him into his arms, stopping him from digging. Alexander cries harder.
“He can’t be under the snow!” he sobs, shaking his head vigorously against James’ chest. “He can’t be!”
James doesn’t know what to say. He holds Alexander against him and continues to scan their surroundings, holding his breath. A gust of wind blows ice under his thermal shirt, causing him to gasp. He grabs Michael’s jacket from beside him and puts it on. It’s cold, but relatively dry due to the waterproof material.
“We can’t stay here,” he says, more to himself than to Alexander. “We need to find help. We need…”
James takes several deep breaths and stands up. Alexander clings to him and shakes his head.
“NO! NO! WE CAN’T GO! WE CAN’T LEAVE UNCLE MICHAEL!!”
If we stay here we’ll die.
“We aren’t leaving him,” James says out loud. His voice is constricted by fear and grief. He tries clearing his throat. It doesn’t help. “Alexander, I promise you we aren’t leaving him. We have to keep looking. He’s not here. He’s somewhere else. He’s not under the snow. He’s looking for us. We have to find him. Do you understand that? We have to find him.”
He’s not under the snow.
Alexander continues to sob, but he relaxes his grip on James, allowing him to move. James steels himself and fumbles in his pocket for his phone. He was afraid to check before, afraid to confirm what he already knew in his heart. He pulls it out, already feeling the cracked screen against his fingertips. He tries to turn it on.
He tries four more times before hurling it into the snow in frustration. Tears gather in the corner of his eyes and he bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He is barely holding it together.
“Can you walk?” he asks, turning to Alexander. Alexander wipes his face and nods. Involuntary sobs burst out of him every few seconds.
“Let’s go,” James says, starting to walk. He stops to pick up his phone and put it back into his pocket. Just in case. “Come on, buddy,” he says, pretending he can’t hear the way his voice wavers. “It will be okay. I promise you it will be okay.”
Despite himself, James glances at his bent pinky. A memory flashes in his mind of the last time he promised Alexander that everything would be okay. And, like he did that time, he thinks of the lyrics to a song he heard a lifetime ago.
They look like lies.