“J.” Michael shuffles outside holding a mug. Steam rises from the top. “Here.”
James barely acknowledges his presence. He pushes the shovel back into the mound of snow. His back hurts and his shoulder feels like it might slip out of place for a third time, but he doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.
It has to be here. It has to be.
“James,” Michael says, louder this time. “I made you some cocoa. You’ve been out here for hours. You need to take a break, brother. Come on; I used the generator to make us some of that canned soup. Come inside for a while. You need to eat something.”
James tosses a shovelful of snow onto the increasing pile a few feet away from the cabin and returns to the mound. He pushes it into the snow with more force than is necessary.
“It has to be here,” he says, carrying away another shovelful. “It has to be.”
“I can’t stop, Michael. I have to find it before it starts to snow again or gets dark. I can’t stop.”
“You have to eat, J. You can’t do this again. Last time –”
“Last time??” James laughs bitterly. “Oh, you mean the time my kid was kidnapped and beaten half to death by some sadistic bastard? You mean the time I almost got him killed and got you shot? That time??”
“This is my fault,” James spits, shoveling more snow. “Everything he’s been through is because of me. All of it. He was kidnapped because of me. It was my idea to come to the snow. I thought it would help to get him away from that fucking brain-dead doctor and take him to do something fun. Me. Every single decision I make just makes things worse. Every move I make only serves to hurt him more. Honestly, it might just be the best thing for him if I starve to death out here.”
Michael takes a sharp breath in. “James, you can’t mean that. You can’t believe that.”
“Why not? His life has been hell since we met. I thought I was helping him; I thought I was saving him, but I’m the one he needs saving from. Me.”
Michael limps over to him and steps into his way, stopping him from shoveling.
“Move, Michael,” James says flatly. His dead, robotic voice scares Michael even more than anything he’s said.
“You have to stop this,” Michael says, putting his hand on his shoulder. “Remember what I said yesterday? You can’t fall apart. You can’t…”
“Fall apart??” James interrupts. He clenches his fists around the shovel. “Fall apart?? Look at me, Michael! I’m in fucking pieces!! There’s nothing left to fall! There’s nothing left!”
“James, you –”
“And you can get down off your fucking high horse, Mr Let Me Go,” James snarls, shoving Michael off him. “You can stop pretending like you’ve got your shit together because I know you’re just as fucked up as I am. Why else would you have done that, huh?? Why??”
“I explained that, J, I wanted…”
“You wanted this to be over!” James yells. His dispassionate determination dissolves and everything he’s been holding in comes rushing out. “You wanted to stop feeling this way! You wanted the nightmares to stop! The fear that when you open your eyes he’ll be back at the boatsheds with that psychopath using him as a human shield! The terror every time you get a goddamn letter! You wanted to stop feeling like if you take your eyes off him for even a single second, he’ll disappear! You wanted to stop needing to count his breaths and heartbeats just to know he was alive and with you! You wanted it to stop and you were ready to take the fucking easy way out!!”
He takes a jagged breath in, realising what he has said.
“Is that what it’s like for you?” Michael asks. “Is that how you feel?”
James doesn’t answer. He looks down at the shovel.
“Is that how you feel? Like you want an out?”
“Of course not,” James says roughly. “I mean not really. But sometimes…” He meets Michael’s concerned stare. “Sometimes…”
He looks over Michael’s shoulder. Alexander is shivering beside the cabin. James is by his side in a second.
“Buddy,” he says, picking him up. “What are you doing out here?”
Alexander coughs and nuzzles into his neck. “I woke up and you weren’t there. Then I heard yelling.”
“I’m sorry, buddy,” James says, rubbing his back. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
“Are you angry at Uncle Michael?”
James swallows uneasily. “No, buddy. I’m not angry at Uncle Michael.”
“Are you angry at me?”
“What? No! Of course not! Why would I be angry at you?”
“Then why are you yelling?”
James bites the inside of his cheek. “Because…”
“Because you’re scared?” Alexander asks. “My teacher said that sometimes people yell when they’re scared.”
James feels sick. “Yeah, buddy,” he says softly. “I was yelling because I was scared.”
“What are you scared of?”
“Come on,” he says, avoiding the question. “Let’s get you back inside where it’s warmer.” He glances over his shoulder. Michael is still standing by the mound of snow. “Come on, Mike.” He feels weak. Empty. “Let’s go inside.”
James carries Alexander inside and puts him straight back into bed. He sits down beside him.
“How are you feeling?”
Alexander lies back against the pillows. “My throat hurts. And my head. And my arm. And my tummy.”
James puts his hand on his forehead. He’s warm, but not as hot as he was earlier, which is just as well. It’s too soon to give him another Tylenol.
“Are you hungry?” he asks as Michael comes inside. “Uncle Michael made some soup. Do you want some?”
Alexander shakes his head. “Is someone coming to find us. Is someone coming to take us home?”
“What about come cocoa?” Michael says, coming over with the mug James rejected. “It’s sweet and chocolately and delicious. How about you drink some?”
Alexander shakes his head again. James takes it from Michael.
“Come on, buddy,” James says. “Can you just drink a little? For me?”
Alexander sighs and reaches for the mug. He takes a couple of sips.
“It tastes funny,” he says, giving the mug back to James.
“There’s no milk in it,” Michael says from across the room. “It’s just water. Still good though, right?”
Alexander hesitates, but nods. Michael chuckles. “Yeah. You don’t have to lie to me, kid.”
Alexander settles back onto the pillows and turns to James. “Can you stay with me? Please?”
James looks out the window. The storm clouds that were gathering in the morning have gotten denser. He wants to say no. He wants to keep searching for the car.
He wants to stay with Alexander.
“Can you hold me?” Alexander asks. “And tell me a story?”
“Of course,” he says, taking off his gloves, boots and jacket and climbing onto the bed. “Of course I will.”
A small voice at the back of his mind tells him that he’s making another terrible decision. That he should be out there digging through the snow, not sitting around doing nothing. Alexander crawls into his arms and rests his head against his chest.
“I can still hear your spirit,” he says softly. “He’s even louder today. Is he angry? Is he trying to get away?"
James wraps his arms around him. “No, buddy.” He rests his cheek on top of Alexander's head. “He’s right where he wants to be.”