He gasps for air, but there isn’t any.
He screams, but the sound sticks in his throat.
Silence hangs in the air.
He gasps again, breathing in a lungful of seaweed.
He opens his eyes, taking a jagged breath in. He pulls Alexander’s hair out of his mouth and sits up, squinting into the darkness. He rubs his eyes, trying to make out the shadows in the moonlight and orientate himself. Michael is still asleep in the chair. Alexander is curled into a ball on his side, facing away from him. He’s shivering. James pulls up the blankets, intending to cover him. His fingers linger on the material.
He feels around, realizing with a jolt that the whole of Alexander’s side of the bed is damp. He looks up at the ceiling, searching the dark shadows for a leak. Beside him, Alexander whimpers. James puts his hand on Alexander’s back. His stomach drops.
He is covered in sweat.
Alexander mumbles and rolls over, turning towards James. James touches his face. His cheeks are even warmer than his back. James tries not to panic, instead scanning the room for the first aid kit. It’s still on the table beside Michael. He carefully gets out of bed, trying not to disturb Alexander or Michael. He stops beside his clothes and squeezes his pants in his hand, finding them dry. A quick check tells him all his clothes are dry so he tugs them on before getting the Tylenol out of the first aid kit. Alexander stirs and wakes up.
“James?” His voice shakes.
“I’m over here,” James says, getting out a pill and taking a glass over to the sink. “I’m just getting something to help you to feel better.”
Alexander pulls the blankets off his legs.
“No buddy,” James says, filling the glass. “Stay there. I’ll be over in a moment and we’ll see what we can do about those damp blankets.”
“I’m thirsty,” Alexander says, standing up. “And my tummy hurts. And my arm hurts too.”
“Lie down. I’ll bring you a glass of water.”
Alexander doesn’t listen. He shuffles forward. Sleepiness has made him clumsy and he bangs his knee into the corner of the bed, but he doesn’t cry out or react at all. He stops in front of James and stares at the glass in his hand. James sighs.
“Here you go, buddy,” James says, handing it to him. “Take this, too.” He gives him the pill. Alexander swallows it and drains the glass.
“Can I have more water?” he asks. James takes the glass and refills it. He hands it back to Alexander and brushes the hair out of his eyes. Sweat has plastered it to his forehead.
“Let’s get you dressed,” James says, going to get Alexander’s clothes. He crosses the floor and pulls them off the make-shift line.
“James?” Alexander whispers.
The tone of his voice makes the hair on the back of James’ neck stand on end. He whips around in time to see the glass slip silently from Alexander’s hand, shattering on the floor beneath him. Alexander wavers. James lunges forward, catching him before he hits the ground. Shards of glass slice his knees and feet, but he barely even notices. The commotion wakes up Michael.
“What’s going on?” he asks in a panic, tugging his leg off the chair in front of him and sitting up straight. He rubs his eyes. “What’s happening?”
James opens and closes his mouth soundlessly, unable to form a coherent thought. Alexander trembles in his arms. His eyes don’t focus on anything. His breathing is erratic.
“Alexander?” James whispers. “Can you hear me?”
“God,” Michael says, standing up so abruptly that he knocks over his chair. “What happened?”
“Alexander?” James whispers again, not hearing Michael. “Buddy?”
Alexander’s eyes roll back into his head. His body hardens and his fingers and toes curl over.
He starts to convulse.
“Alexander!” James screams. Terror ripples through him. “Alexander!”
“Roll him on his side!” Michael yells, coming over to help. “And make sure there’s nothing he can hurt himself with!”
James is immobilised by panic. He stares at Alexander, too terrified to think straight.
“Roll him on his side, J!” Michael repeats, awkwardly dropping to the floor beside James. A shard of glass cuts into his thigh. He ignores it and takes Alexander off James’ lap, avoiding the shattered glass and rolling him onto his left side. Alexander convulses for a few more seconds and then stops, becoming perfectly still. James holds his breath. His hands hover above him, too afraid to touch him.
Too afraid to even breathe.
“Alexander?” Michael says quietly. “Alex?”
James feels close to passing out.
“Alex?” Michael says again. “Alex!”
Alexander coughs. His eyes flutter open.
“James?” he whispers. His eyes roll around until they settle on James. “James?” he repeats. He bursts into tears. “I want to go home,” he sobs, sitting up and crawling into James’ arms. “Please can we go home!”
James holds him, feeling the after-tremors still rippling through his body. He squeezes his eyes shut and doesn’t say anything, afraid that if he opens his mouth he’s either going to scream or throw up. Or both.
“Come on,” Michael says, using the cupboard beside him to drag himself to his feet. “He can’t stay out here like this. He needs to get back into bed.”
Alexander’s cries intensify, becoming the kind of shuddering sobs that make it difficult for him to catch his breath. He starts to cough. James drags himself to his feet and shuffles over to the bed with Alexander in his arms. He stops, staring at the damp blankets.
“These are wet,” he whispers hoarsely. “Damp with sweat.”
He turns to Michael. Even in the pale moonlight, he can see the fear on Michael’s face.
“There’s no others,” Michael says as Alexander’s coughing fit intensifies. “You’ll have to—”
James doesn’t wait to hear the end of the sentence. He puts Alexander down on the dry side of the bed and helps him sit up, crouching before him and rubbing his back.
“It’s okay, buddy,” he says, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “It’s okay.”
It takes a few minutes for Alexander’s coughs to slow down and stop entirely. Tears roll over his flushed cheeks.
“My arm hurts,” he sobs, reaching for James. “And my tummy too. And my head. And I want Astro. Where is Astro?”
James’ heart sinks. Astro is out in the snow somewhere with the ice skates and Uncle Michael’s cane.
“Buddy,” he starts. “Astro is…”
Alexander starts to cough again, cutting off his sentence. James looks at Michael helplessly. Tears cloud his vision.
“Michael,” he starts, but he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what to do. Michael stares at him just as helplessly. He doesn’t know, either.
“Just breathe, buddy,” James says, turning back to Alexander and putting his arm around him. “Just breathe. Like this, see? In…” He takes a deep breath in. “And out…” He releases it. He wipes his face and moves around to make eye contact with Alexander. “Come on, buddy,” he says as steadily as he can. “You can do it. In….And out…In…And out…” He does this for several minutes until Alexander starts to breathe normally on his own. Every now and then a shudder still runs though him, but the coughing has stopped. He takes a fist full of James’ hair and closes his eyes. James swallows and turns to Michael. He doesn’t need to say it. The look on Michael’s face tells him that he already knows what he is going to say. They need to get out of there. Soon.