“James,” he whispers, wriggling closer to him. Since that day in Dr Tate’s office, he’s been in James’ bed every night. It’s made them both much happier. “James,” he whispers again. “Are you awake?”
James opens one eye. “No,” he mumbles.
Alexander giggles. “Then how did you say no?”
James tries not to smile. He opens his eyes long enough to check the time. It’s just after four.
“Go back to sleep,” he says, closing his eyes and putting his arm around Alexander.
Alexander lies still. James starts to drift off. They are due to leave at six am. The alarm is set for five.
This time he can’t help it. He smiles. “Hmmm?”
“Is it time to go yet?”
“Not yet, kid. The alarm will go off, okay? Go back to sleep.”
Alexander falls silent. James can feel his heart beating against his arm.
“James?” Alexander whispers about two minutes later. “What if the alarm doesn’t work?”
“It’s working, Alexander.”
“Yeah, but what if it’s not?”
James can feel him playing with his hair. “It is. And it’s going to go off really soon and we’ll get up and get ready to go. Okay?”
Alexander wriggles under the covers restlessly. James peeks through his eyelashes. Alexander has screwed up his face and shut his eyes.
“What are you doing?” he asks, laughing.
“I’m trying to go back to sleep.”
James laughs again and looks at the time. Four thirty.
“Come on, buddy,” he says, sitting up. “We can get a head start.”
Alexander sits up too. His face is full of hope. “Are we going now? Are we going to the really real snow?”
James ruffles his hair. It falls over his eyes. He needs a haircut.
“Yes, buddy. We’re going to the really real snow.”
Alexander’s entire being radiates joy as he throws his arms around James.
“Yessss!” he squeals. “Yes!”
He is out of James’ arms and out of the bed in a flash.
“Wait,” James calls, but it’s too late. He can hear him running into the living room.
“UNCLE MICHAEL WAKE UP IT’S TIME TO GO TO THE SNOW!!”
James chuckles and gets out of bed. He goes straight into the kitchen to make Michael some coffee. It’s the least he can do.
“Morning, brother,” Michael says, shuffling over to the kitchen bench in a long black bathrobe. His eyes aren’t even fully opened yet. James can hear Alexander doing something in his bedroom. Michael eyes the coffee machine as James puts in a double shot.
“Triple,” he says, yawning. James raises his eyebrow. “Don’t judge me,” Michael says, yawning again. “The sun isn’t even awake yet.”
James shakes his head and adds a third shot, smiling. Alexander bounds into the kitchen wearing every jacket he owns that is not already packed in the suitcase, what looks like several pairs of long pants, three beanies and two pairs of woolly gloves. He grins at James.
James laughs out loud. “Oh, buddy.What are you wearing?”
Alexander looks down at himself. “You said the snow was cold.” He looks back at James. “You always tell me to wear a jacket and gloves and a beanie when it’s cold. If it’s extra cold…I need extra clothes. Right?”
James laughs again. “Come on kid,” he says holding out his hand. “Let’s go get you appropriately dressed.”
“But I am dressed,” Alexander says, pouting.
“I see that. I said appropriately.”
Alexander groans and takes his hand. The coffee machine dings.
“Sorry, Mike,” James says over his shoulder as he is being dragged out of the kitchen. “You’ll have to finish up.”
“It’s fine,” Michael calls, yawning again. “I make better coffee than you anyway.”
An hour later Alexander is wearing only one set of clothes, the suitcases are packed and the car is loaded. James turns around in the passenger seat. Alexander is sitting in the back seat with Astro, watching Michael lock the front door.
“You ready, buddy?” James asks. Alexander turns to him and nods, grinning.
“Will you build a snowman with me?” he asks.
“And can we go ice skating?”
“And can we have a snowball fight and make snow angels and will you teach me how to snowboard?”
James reaches over to brush the hair out of Alexander’s eyes.
“We can do all of those things and more. We’ll be there for a whole week. We can do whatever you want to do.”
James smiles. “Anything.”
“You kids ready?” Michael asks, getting into the car and putting on his seat belt.
“YES!” James and Alexander yell in unison.
Michael laughs. “Okay then. Let’s go to the snow.”
About six hours into the road trip, James takes over driving. Alexander is asleep in the backseat, having exhausted himself after singing along to the entire Frozen soundtrack three times in a row.
“He seems a lot happier,” Michael says, careful not to wake him. James glances at Alexander in the rear view mirror. He’s snoring.
“He is,” James says, returning his eyes to the road. “It’s almost like having him back, you know? The real him.”
Michael taps his fingers on his knee, drumming out a pattern. “Has he been having any nightmares? I haven’t heard any screaming. From either of you.”
“Some. Less. It’s a lot easier to calm him down when I’m already right there. Most of the time I can wake him up before the dream gets too bad. Once he starts to whimper, I know what’s coming.”
Michael sighs and stops tapping. “Poor kid,” he says, looking back at Alexander. “It’s not fair, you know? It’s not fucking fair.”
James takes a deep breath. “Yeah. None of this is fair.”
It’s a few minutes before Michael speaks again.
“And what about you?” he asks, looking at James. “How are you doing?”
James’ hands automatically tighten on the steering wheel. He hopes Michael doesn’t notice.
“My concern is Alexander,” he says, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the road. “I don’t matter. Not right now.”
Michael shakes his head. “You gotta take care of yourself too, bro. You won’t be able to help him if you don’t.”
James self-consciously rubs the bruise on his jaw. It hasn’t quite faded. He can feel Michael’s eyes on him. He drops his hand.
“I’m said I’m fine, okay? Can we please not talk about it this week?” He turns to Michael, trying to soften his voice. “Please, Michael. Let’s just have fun this week. Alexander needs some fun. We all do.”
Michael looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t. “Alright, brother. Alright. I said I would support your decisions, so I will.”
James smiles. “Thank you. So what did your physio say?”
Michael’s face falls a little. “No snowboarding. No skiing. No ice skating.”
Michael sighs. “Yeah.” He goes back to drumming out a rhythm on his leg. “Ah well. It could be worse. I could still be in that God-awful wheelchair.”
James chuckles. “True. I still can’t believe you said fuck you to the surgeons who spent dozens of hours reconstructing you a new femur out of titanium.”
Michael shrugs. “They said I’d never walk again. Like fuck you, yes I will. Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
James shakes his head. “Lucky they liked your fighting spirit or you may have needed to find a new surgical team.”
Michael grins. “It’s all part of my charm, brother. It’s all part of my charm.”
James glances at the backseat. Alexander is rubbing his eyes with his fist. “Are we at the snow yet?”
He smiles. “No, buddy. Not yet. We’re about halfway there. We’re going to stop and get something to eat soon. You hungry?”
Alexander nods. “Can we have cupcakes?”
Both James and Michael laugh. “Sure we can, but how about we eat some real food first? Maybe some noodles or Subway?”
“Subway,” Alexander says, yawning. “Then cupcakes.”
“I’ve never met a kid who loves cupcakes as much as you do, Alex,” Michael says, still laughing.
“They make me happy,” Alexander says, looking out the window. “Like a hug for my tummy.”
“Okay then,” James says, looking out for an exit off the freeway. “Subway then cupcakes it is. Sounds pretty great to me.”
Five hours later, after they have eaten and Alexander has fallen asleep again, James sees it. The first glimpse of a snow-capped mountain. The sun is setting behind it, giving it an almost orange glow. He glances over at Michael. He’s asleep, too. He looks up at Alexander’s peaceful face in the rear view mirror.
“Alexander,” he whispers. Beside him, Michael stirs. James clears his throat. Part of him doesn’t want Michael to wake up for this. He wants it to be his moment and his moment alone. His moment with his boy.
“Alexander,” he whispers again. Alexander murmurs something James can’t understand and shifts in his sleep.
“Wake up, buddy,” James whispers. “Wake up.”
Michael stirs again. James falls silent.
James’ entire body lights up. “Hey, buddy,” he whispers. “Look out the window.”
Alexander sits up straight and pushes the hair out of his eyes. He rubs a clear circle in the condensation that has gathered on the window.
“Can you see it? James asks, trying hard to keep his eyes on the road. “Do you see it?”
“See what?” Alexander asks. “I don’t…” He takes a tiny breath in. “Is that it?” he whispers. “Is that the snow?”
James grins. “Yeah, buddy. That’s the snow. That’s where we’ll be really soon.”
Alexander stares at the mountains like they are the most amazing things he has ever seen. He presses his face against the glass, peering through the fog. James can’t help it. He pulls over to the side of the road and switches off the engine.
“Are we there??” Alexander asks, turning to him. “Are we at the snow?”
James laughs and gets out of the car. The ground is wet and covered in dirty slush like it has snowed then rained very recently. He knows they’ll need to put the snow chains on soon. He goes around to Alexander’s side of the car and opens the door. Michael is still asleep.
“No, this isn’t the snow. It does snow here sometimes, but not right now. But…” He grabs Alexander’s beanie and woolly gloves from the pouch in the back of Michael’s seat. “Here,” he says, giving them to Alexander. “Put these on.”
Alexander does and James helps him out of the car.
“You’ll see better this way,” James says, lifting up Alexander and putting him on his shoulders. His breath comes out in vaporous puffs. His un-gloved fingers go stiff and numb in the freezing air. He doesn’t mind.
“I can see it,” Alexander whispers. “I can see the snow.”
“The really real snow,” James says. “Your first look.”
Alexander breathes out in awe.
James wants to run up those mountains with Alexander on his neck. He wants to lie down in the snow and make a snow angel next to his boy.
He wants the Heavens to open up and pour snow on them right then and there.
James stares at it.
No, he thinks. No way.
He reaches out his hand. Catches it. It melts in his palm.
“Alexander,” he breathes. “Alexander, it’s…”
“…Snowing,” Alexander finishes. James takes him off his shoulders. He doesn’t want to miss this.
The snowflakes float down slowly at first. Insubstantial balls of fluff drifting down from the orange sky. Alexander holds out his palms, catching snowflakes with his fuzzy gloves and giggling. James watches him, feeling something beyond love swelling inside his chest. Something more. Love is too small a word to describe this, he thinks, watching Alexander giggle in delight as a snowflake lands on his nose. It’s not enough.
“James! James!” Alexander squeals,jumping as he tries to catch more snowflakes. “James!! It’s snowing! It’s really snowing! With real snowflakes!!”
James laughs and scoops him into his arms. “This is just the beginning, buddy. It’s only going to get better.”
Alexander’s eyes shine. “It is? You promise?”
Despite a small voice at the back of his mind telling him not to do it, he nods. “Yes, buddy. I promise. This is going to be the best week ever.”
Alexander giggles and throws his arms around James’s neck, burying his face in his hair.
“I love you James,” he says, still giggling. “You’re the best daddy ever.”
A lump forms in James’ throat. He tries to swallow past it.
He holds Alexander even tighter.
“I love you too, Alexander,” he says, closing his eyes. “More than I can even say.”
Alexander giggles again and moves his head back to look up at the sky. A snowflake lands on his eyelid. James laughs and brushes it away.
“Here, try this,” he says, putting Alexander down. James tilts his head back and opens his mouth, sticking out his tongue. A snowflake lands on it.
“Caught one!” he says, grinning. “You try.”
Alexander laughs and jumps around, opening and closing his mouth as he tries to catch the snowflakes drifting through the icy air. James smiles and turns away, quietly opening the car door. Michael is still snoring. James takes his phone out of the centre console and closes the door, careful not to wake him. He turns back to Alexander. The snow has started to fall faster now. James knows they have to get going before it gets too heavy. But first…He opens his camera app and switches to video. He records Alexander leaping through the air and whooping every time a snowflake lands on his tongue. He never wants to forget this moment. Ever.
He knows they probably look insane to anyone driving past, but he doesn’t care. He’s found his happiness. He’s found the thing that makes him glad to be alive.
He thought he was broken. He thought he was damaged beyond repair. First his stepfather, then a lifetime of personal demons...But when Alexander hugs him, it’s like all his broken pieces stick back together. It’s like he was never even broken to begin with.
Watching him playing in the barely-there snow and giggling like it’s the best day of his life, James finds the word he was searching for earlier. The word greater than love.
Alexander makes him whole.