“It goes under his sweater,” James says, tugging at the collar of Alexander’s sweater to see underneath it. Alexander whimpers and moves away. “What could cause a rash like this? Has he been bitten by something? Have you seen any spiders around? Can spiders even live in the snow?”
Michael stands up to get a better look. “We’ll have to take his sweater off. We need to see how far the rash spreads and if there’s a definite start point. That will tell us more.”
James lifts up the bottom of Alexander’s sweater and the thermal shirt underneath.
“James?” Alexander whispers, struggling to open his eyes.
“I’m here, buddy.” James focuses on keeping the panic out of his voice. “I need to take off your sweater.”
“I’m thirsty,” Alexander mumbles, rubbing his eyes with his fist. James gets up and goes to the sink, returning with a glass of water. Alexander takes a sip and pushes it away.
“My tummy hurts,” he says, curling onto his side. “Can you hold me?”
James’ mouth feels like it is full of cotton. He puts the glass on the bedside table. “I will, but after I take off your sweater, okay?”
Alexander nods, but stays where he is. James crouches down beside him.
“You need to sit up for me, buddy.”
“My tummy hurts,” Alexander says again, cradling it with his unbroken arm.
James notices that he is taking short, rapid breaths. He tries not to show his fear. “I know, buddy. I know.” He turns to Michael. “Is there anything in the first aid kit that could help?”
James turns back to Alexander. “Okay, buddy. I need you to sit up. I need to make sure you’re okay.”
Alexander sniffs as James helps him sit up.
“Good,” James says once Alexander is resting against the pillows. He feels his forehead. It’s warmer than it was earlier. “Alright,” he says, brushing the hair from Alexander’s eyes. “I’m going to take your sweater and shirt off now. It might hurt your arm but it will be over soon. Are you ready?”
Alexander nods. James hooks his fingers around the bottom of Alexander’s shirt and tugs it over his head, thankful they didn’t try to pull the sleeves over his broken arm when they were dressing him. Alexander cries out as the sweater jostles his arm, but it’s over his head in a few seconds.
“There you are,” James says soothingly. “It wasn’t so bad, right?”
Alexander bites his lip and rests back on the pillows. The rash extends onto his chest, down his right arm and under the bandage. James runs his trembling fingers over it. It’s smooth. He leans forward to get a closer look. Each red spot looks like a tiny bruise the size of a pin prick. He tentatively pushes against one.
“Does that hurt?”
Alexander shakes his head. He coughs and closes his eyes.
“There’s nothing for stomach aches,” Michael says, coming over with the bottle of Tylenol. “But maybe these will help?”
James grabs the bottle and reads the label. “How long has it been since he last had these?"
Michael picks up his phone from the table and turns it on. “About four and a half hours.” He turns the phone back off.
James opens the pill bottle and takes one out. “Can you swallow this?” he asks Alexander. Alexander nods so James gives him a pill and the glass of water from the bedside table. Alexander takes it and lies back down. James’ gaze trail over the rash.
“What could cause that?” he asks again, staring at where the rash disappears under the bandage. “It’s not raised, it’s not painful, he’s not scratching it…Are you itchy, buddy?”
“No,” Alexander says in a small voice. He shivers.
“We need to see where it starts,” Michael says, voicing the thought James didn’t want to acknowledge. “We need to see if there’s a bite or something. We need to…”
“We can’t take off the splint,” James interrupts. “We can’t put him through that again. Not again.”
“We need to know what’s causing the rash.” Michael puts his hand on James’ shoulder. “It could be a bite. We might need to stop the poison from spreading.
James’ heart skips a beat at the word poison. He feels light headed.
“There was a first aid book,” he says, standing up and shrugging Michael’s hand away. “There was a first aid book in the kit. Maybe that can help.”
He walks over to the table and picks up the book. He goes straight to the index.
“Why don’t they have a section about rashes?!” he mutters, thumbing through in search of something useful. He stops on the section about venomous bites and stings. “There’s nothing in here that looks close to that,” he says after a few minutes, scanning through the information. He flicks through the pages, feeling increasingly desperate. Alexander coughs again and opens his eyes.
“Will you stay with me, James?” He seems to struggle to catch his breath. “Will you lie here with me?”
‘”J,” Michael says. “We have to do it.”
James clenches and unclenches his jaw. His heart pounds in his chest so loudly that it seems to echo in the room.
“Fine.” He turns to Alexander. He tries to smile, to keep his face from betraying him. “Uncle Michael and I need to take off your bandage for a minute, buddy,” he says as calmly as he can. “It might hurt, but—”
“No, Alexander says, shaking his head. “It’s going to hurt!” He coughs more, spluttering for air. James picks up the glass of water. His hands shake, spilling it onto Alexander’s chest. James uses his sleeve to dry it and swallows against the lump in his throat. He can’t lie to him. He won’t. That would only make it worse.
“It is,” he says once Alexander stops coughing. “It is going to hurt a little but I promise we will be as quick as we can.”
Alexander’s eyes fill with tears. “Please no,” he whispers. “I’m scared.”
James sits down on the bed and runs his hand through Alexander’s hair. “It’s okay,” he says, looking over the rash again. It is contained to his right side. “It’s going to be alright. We just have to find out what’s causing this rash so we can help.”
Alexander shakes his head.
James turns to Michael, who is staring intently at Alexander. He looks deep in thought.
“Michael? Mike? Are you ready?”
Michael doesn’t answer.
“I don’t think we need to take off the bandage,” he says softly.
James’ feels like a weight has been lifted from him. Just for a moment. The look on Michael’s face scares him too much to feel elated for long.
Michael shakes his head. “The coughing...The fever...I think…I think I might know what’s causing it all. I think I might recognise it. It’s been there this whole time, niggling at the back of my mind.”
James stares at him, waiting for him to go on. He doesn’t.
James’ body goes numb.
“What is it?” James asks, standing up. He moves closer to Michael. “Michael, what is it??”
Michael doesn’t take his eyes off Alexander. “My cellmate in juvie, he got a rash like that after he’d fractured his leg in a yard fight. He didn’t want to go to the infirmary, didn’t want to admit to fighting…”
“Michael!” James can hear the desperation in his voice. “What is it?? Michael!”
Michael focuses on James. He is even paler than he was before.
“The fever…The seizure…The coughing and his rapid breathing…I think it might all be connected. I think that rash, all of it…It’s because of his arm. I think…I think he’s leaking bone marrow into his bloodstream.”