“He was asleep when I left,” Violet says as the elevator doors open. “I didn’t tell him you were coming. I thought you might want to surprise him.”
James can’t find the words to answer her. He can’t find the words to express what he is feeling.
They reach Alexander’s room. Violet stops in front of the door and looks at James.
“He’s missed you in a way that I’ve ever seen a child miss their parent before. He didn’t cry for you. He just sat and waited for you. He wasn’t interested in doing anything except waiting. Watching the door. Hoping you’d walk through it.”
James puts his hand on the door knob.
“I’m glad you’re back together,” Violet says softly. “He was breaking my heart.” She pauses. “You both were.”
James opens the door.
The sight of Alexander lying there close enough to touch takes his breath away. He takes a few hesitant steps into the room, terrified that he is dreaming and daylight will soon arrive to rip Alexander away from him.
It’s happened many times before.
“I’ll give you some privacy,” Violet says. “I’m done for the day but I will see you both tomorrow.” She smiles and closes the door.
James stands in the middle of the room. He is afraid to move. To breathe. To blink. To do anything which may wake him from this dream.
Alexander stirs. James notices that he is wearing the nasal cannula. He was wearing the oxygen mask in the last video Violet made.
Alexander’s eyes open. He blinks against the afternoon sunlight and turns towards James. He smiles.
“James,” he says softly. “I knew you’d come.”
James takes a few more steps towards him.
Alexander looks at him sleepily. “Read me a story,” he says curling over onto his side. “Read me a story before I wake up.”
“Before you wake up?”
Alexander closes his eyes. “I hate waking up. You disappear when I wake up.”
James swallows. He’s not convinced that he’s not dreaming. He wants to touch him. He needs to touch him. He needs to know that he is more than a mirage conjured up by his desperate subconscious.
He crosses the floor, stopping at the foot of Alexander’s bed. Alexander yawns and rubs his eyes with his fist.
“Can we go ice skating today?” he asks, struggling to open his eyes. “And build a snowman?”
James tries to find his voice. He forces his legs to take him to the chair beside Alexander’s bed. He sits down. Alexander yawns again.
“Or maybe we can go home today,” he says, snuggling down under the covers. “I like it when we go home.”
James’ hand hovers in the space between them.
Please don’t let it be a dream.
He touches Alexander’s hand.
“I can feel you,” he whispers. “You’re here. You’re real. You’re here.”
Alexander smiles. “Of course I’m real, silly.”
James squeezes his hand. “I missed you so much, buddy,” he whispers, blinking away the mist in his eyes. “I missed you more than I can say.”
Alexander looks at their hands. “Do you have to go?” His voice is soft. Tentative. Like he is afraid that speaking too loud will break the spell and James will disappear. “Do I have to wake up? Can’t I just sleep forever?”
James half laughs and half sobs. “Look at me,” he says, squeezing his hand. “Look at me, buddy. You aren’t asleep. You aren’t dreaming.”
Alexander’s eyes widen. He sits up on his knees and pulls his hand away from James. He reaches out and runs his hand down the side of James’ face and into his hair. He twirls a lock of James’ hair around his finger. His lower lip trembles.
“Are you really real?” he whispers. “Are you really here?”
James nods. “Yes.”
Alexander scrutinizes him like he is trying to decide if he can believe him or not. Suddenly he launches himself into James arms. He knocks into James’ shoulder, but James hardly feels it. He can’t feel anything but Alexander in his arms.
Back where he should be.
“Daddy,” Alexander sobs, winding his fingers into James’ hair. “You’re here. You’re really here. Don’t go. Don’t leave me again. Please don’t leave me again.”
James holds him as tight as he dares. “I won’t,” he says, feeling Alexander’s tears slide down his neck. “I’m staying right here.”
Alexander wriggles closer to James, disconnecting the heart rate monitor from his finger and making it squeal. The door opens and a nurse rushes in.
“What happened?? Is—” She stops when she sees James and Alexander. She shoots James a disapproving look and comes over to the bed.
“You need to lie down,” she says, trying to pry Alexander away from James. “Let go.”
Alexander grips James tighter and shakes his head. James bites his tongue to stop himself for telling her to get her fucking hands off him. The nurse glares at James and reattaches the heart rate monitor to Alexander’s finger.
“He can’t be tugging on his drip and putting stress on his arm,” she says sternly. “He’ll hurt himself.”
James looks down at Alexander. “She’s right, buddy,” he says, even though he already hates this new, unnamed nurse. “You need to lie down. I’ll still be here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Alexander sniffs and refuses to let go.
“If you upset him too much I will have to ask you to leave,” the nurse says brusquely.
“GET OUT OF HERE!” Alexander screams, burrowing further into James’ arms. “GO AWAY!”
“Excuse me, but—”
“GO!” Alexander loosens his hold on James enough to turn around and face the nurse. “Go away,” he says with more venom than James knew he was capable of. “I don’t like you.”
The nurse puffs out her chest. “Well it’s not my job to be liked. It’s my job to make sure you are safe.”
“James will keep me safe,” he says, glaring at her.
The nurse looks at James as if to say control your child. James doesn’t trust himself to speak, for fear that the string of expletives swimming around inside his head will burst from his lips the second he opens his mouth.
“Is everything okay in here?” Violet asks, peeking in. She’s changed out of her scrubs and is carrying a handbag. She looks over at the nurse, who is red in the face. She reminds James of a raging bull.
“This man needs to leave,” the nurse says, spinning around to face Violet. “He is upsetting my patient!”
“No YOU’RE upsetting me!” Alexander yells.
Violet looks between the three of them. “What’s the problem, Trina?”
The raging nurse – Trina – narrows her eyes. “The boy is going to pull out his IV and his cannula if he keeps trashing about. He’s already pulled off his heart rate monitor and done God knows what to his arm!”
Violet comes into the room. “Why don’t you go check on your other patients for a moment,” she says, glancing at James. “I’ll handle this.”
Trina’s nostrils flare and she puts her hands on her hips. “This is my patient,” she says, scowling at Violet. “I won’t be told to leave.”
Violet smiles sweetly. “You’re new here,” she says without a hint of condescension. “One of our hospital’s philosophies is that a happy patient is a healthy patient. The boy hasn’t seen his father in four days. I’m not so sure that coming in here and demanding he leave is the best thing for your patient.”
Trina blinks. Her face turns even redder and she storms out of the room without another word. Violet blows out a long breath.
“Wow,” she says, shaking her head. She looks at James and Alexander. “I’m so sorry about that. She’s old school, you know. She only started here yesterday and there’s already been so many complaints…” She shakes her head again. “I shouldn’t be telling you that. I can speak to the head nurse about switching her off your service if you’d like.”
James nods. “Yes please.”
“Violet,” Alexander says. His voice has changed. It is full of wonder. “My daddy is here.”
Violet laughs and picks up Alexander’s chart. “I can see that,” she says, smiling as she checks his monitors and writes something down. “It’s pretty great, huh?”
Alexander nods. His hand is still in James’ hair. Violet puts the chart back.
“You do need to lie down, Alex,” she says, coming over to them. “Or sit up. But you can’t stay where you are. You’ll pull out your Frankenstein tubes.”
Alexander giggles and looks up at James. “Violet calls me Frankenstein. She says I’m a monster!”
“You are a monster,” Violet says, plumping Alexander’s pillows. “Now come on. Lie back so I can make sure all your tubes are okay, okay?”
Alexander takes a deep breath and reluctantly lets go of James long enough to get back into bed. He grabs James’ hand as soon as his head hits the pillow. Violet smiles as she checks Alexander’s IV, nasal cannula and his arm. James watches silently. His arms feel empty.
“Can I sit next to him?” he asks, mentally measuring the width of the bed. “If I’m careful?”
Alexander’s face lights up. “Please, Violet?” he begs. “Please?”
Violet looks at the bed thoughtfully. “I can’t see why not…”
James is already halfway into the bed before she finishes the sentence. Alexander practically dives on top of him, resting his head against James’ chest and wrapping his unbroken arm around James’ waist.
“This is the best day ever,” he says, closing his eyes. “I never want it to end.”
A lump forms in the back of James’ throat. Violet checks that everything is where is should be before turning to James.
“I’ll let the head nurse know you’re here. You can stay as you were before. Although…” She smiles. “Maybe I’ll leave that for Dr Williams to tell you tomorrow. No don’t panic,” she says as James’ face falls. “It’s good news. You’ll like it. Now I have to go, but I’ll have someone else take over for me tonight.” She pauses. “Someone besides Trina.”
“Someone nicer,” Alexander says from James’ chest. Both Violet and James chuckle.
James breathes out. “Thank you,” he says softly. “For everything.”
Violet straightens up. “It’s my absolute pleasure. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She leaves, closing the door behind her.
Alexander burrows closer to James. “If I close my eyes, will you still be here when I open them?”
James runs his fingers through Alexander’s hair. “Of course, buddy. I’m not leaving you.”
“Do you promise?”
James doesn’t hesitate. “I promise.”
There’s nowhere in the world he’d rather be.