Alex met George’s eyes. The pain, confusion, anger, resentment and fear within surged to the surface and infected her answer.
“No,” replied Alex.
She looked at him for a second longer and regretted the savagery of her tone. It was a simple question from someone who knew nothing about her family’s situation. George’s care and tenderness—things she’d had few sightings of—retreated before her eyes.
Alex wanted to explain that she hadn’t meant to snap. She wanted to tell George everything that was going on. To bring him closer, instead of pushing him away. But as she inhaled in advance of the exposition that was to repair the wound she’d created but a moment ago, Christopher spoke.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
She heard the question but felt unable to limit the damage done to George by responding to Christopher in the same fierce manner. Instead, she felt that the best response was to leave, without a word.
As Alex rose, she felt a presence move past her and position itself in front of their table. It was James. Confusion was upon his face.
“Feeling compassion for the Russians, Alex?” His confusion mutated into a mocking grin and he spoke in a lower, quieter tone. “Choosing exit over voice this time?”
Alex looked at James, re-gathering the ill-feeling she’d unleashed upon George. She wanted to make her rage a scalpel and flay him. Cut him. Beat him.
She didn’t, however. The fingers of her compassion—for her mother, for herself, for her sister, for George and for Christopher—slipped themselves into a glove of courage and curled themselves into fists, fists that remained clenched at her side. There were more important things now.
She turned away from James and spoke to George and Christopher.
“I have to go.”
Alex about-turned and fixed her eyes upon the exit, encouraging herself not to break, to hold fast for a little longer. Students and staff eyed her as she crossed the room. The observation of their attention got no further than the preliminary filters of her mind.
Alex exited the class, closed the door and headed towards Mary’s office. The door was shut. Alex approached and knocked. Voices hushed and a moment later, Alex heard footsteps pitter-patter closer. The door opened.
“Alex? What are you doing here?” asked Mary. “Isn’t it James’—”
“Can I talk to you, please?”
Mary glanced over her shoulder and Alex followed her gaze. In Mary’s office were four people: two male, two female. All were looking to the door.
A man and a woman were seated on one side of the table in complementary navy business attire. They were well groomed and their backs were straight, but there was sweat upon their brows. Both had tablets and patina’d leather folios in front of them. Annoyance was visible on their faces.
The other man and woman, occupying the opposite side of the table, wore dark polos with a dark embroidered spear on the breast. The woman’s hair was chestnut brown and cinched in a rough pony tail. The man’s hair and beard were trimmed short. The male’s torso was angled back, in a state of repose, and the female’s torso was angled forward. The latter had a short stubby pen in her hand, poised above a battered pocket-size notebook. Next to her notebook was a phone in a thick, rubberised case. Both of them regarded Alex with polite interest.
Mary shifted herself into Alex’s view.
“What’s it about? Can you come see me in a half-hour?”
“My mum is getting worse,” said Alex. “I might need to go.”
Mary’s features softened. She tilted her head and raised her right hand, placing it on Alex’s upper arm. She squeezed as she spoke, her touch and voice the embodiment of kindness.
“I’m so sorry, Alex. Why don’t you go contact them now? I’ll deal with this lot, come and find you, and then we can decide what to do. How’s that?”
Alex half-smiled, thinking how lucky BAIL was to have such a strong yet tender matriarch. But the smile faltered as Alex thought of her own mother.
“That’s fine,” said Alex.
Alex turned and walked away. As she headed down the corridor and stepped outside into the quiet of the yard, a deep, undeniable pain took root and branched into every facet of her being. The pain and the heartache and the injustice and the distance overwhelmed her.
Alex’s breath shortened. Her hands began to shake. Her shoulder’s shuddered. Her eyes dampened. She was only able to walk because there was such an established precedent for placing one foot in front of the other.
As Alex reached the other shore of the yard and the beginning of the trail she stopped, struck. The majority of her mind was overtaken with concern for her mother, but Alex was also conscious of the fact that this could be her last day at BAIL. Her last day at a place which had almost satisfied her overloaded expectations.
Alex had resolved to call her mother in the comfort of her own room, but she wasn’t there yet. She still had one chance to take everything in. Alex turned and tried to absorb what she saw, what she heard, what she felt. The buildings, the sky, the woodland, the people encased within. It didn’t work. Like bubbles, she could only look, not touch nor feel—she couldn’t spirit them away with her to another place and time.
The stupor settled around her once more and Alex continued down the path, past the fork that took her to the boathouse, and onward to the residences. What had come to be her home away from home. A space she shared with the tall, confident, ungainly Christopher and with the smart, shy, sharp George. A space she shared with different people, close friends and unexpected—
She took her sight off the track she was walking and hurled it to the left, where the sound came from. Arty was stood amongst the woodlands, fifteen feet in, with one hand on a tree. He was using the other to wave to her. He had his usual baggy, long-sleeved tee and loose trousers on, and on his face was a goofy smile.
Henrik was next to him with his own hand on the same tree, but dressed in many-pocketed trousers and a thick jacket over a heavy shirt. His face, as ever, was betraying little more than intense awareness.
Alex smiled back, waved with less energy, and tried to move off.
“Aleeeeeex!” shouted Arty.
Alex turned towards him again, noted the joy upon his face and decided to approach.
“Hi,” said Alex as she plotted a course through the undergrowth.
She nodded to Henrik before looking at Arty, questions in her eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“I know how to move through nature,” answered Arty. “I can climb and crawl and run and jump and balance—though I’m not the strongest swimmer. But I don’t know much about the actual environment. About nature itself. So Henrik is teaching me.”
Henrik dipped his head in the slightest of downward motions—a gesture of acknowledgement.
“Of course,” said Arty, “it’s tit for tat. Henrik is strong as a grizzly but the passage of time is stiffening him.”
With his knuckles, Arty knocked on his own skull as if it were a door. He turned to Henrik.
“My friend here is dense. Not in terms of intelligence. Oh no.” Arty flared his arms away from his body and waddled on the spot. “Physically.”
Arty deflated himself and turned to Alex.
“I’m helping him loosen up. Soften.”
Arty spun on the spot and gestured to the trees all around.
“And who knew that trees are so exciting? Henrik obviously. Perhaps you? Not me. Did you know that there are trees that are thousands of years old? And that they grow according to feedback from the wind and the rain and the sun? And that they use their own life to nurture the life of others? That last is pretty obvious, actually. What’s not obvious is that trees help each other grow and recover. And they sometimes harm each other too—strong trees have been known to provide nutrients to weaker trees, and to monopolise the same for themselves on occasion.”
“Uh, no,” said Alex, amused at the sincerity of Arty’s enthusiasm, “I didn’t know that.”
“Me neither! These trees have lived for years. Decades. Centuries. Imagine the things they’ve seen,” said Arty, more to himself than either Alex or Henrik. “I wonder—”
Henrik interrupted him.
“I should go,” he said.
Henrik turned to Arty and clapped him on the shoulder. To Arty’s credit, his knees did not buckle. “Good talk.’ Henrik turned to Alex. “Good to see you.”
Henrik walked past Alex, and she and Arty watched him go.
After Henrik was out of sight, Alex said, “I should go, too.”
Arty dropped into a deep squat.
“Nonsense,” he said. “Breathe with me for a moment?”
Alex paused. She’d learnt that, to Arty, a moment did not signify a quantitative fragment of time. Arty’s “moment” could be a second, or an hour.
Alex pulled out her phone. The last message from her sister informed Alex that, right now, she was consulting with a specialist and would call straight after.
“Uhh—” said Alex.
Arty darted past her. He rummaged in the brush and came back with a short, thick, mossy log. He dropped it on the ground next to her and sat himself on the floor, adjacent to it, unmindful of the dirt and the damp foliage. He patted the log.
“Come on,” he said, with a grin. “You have a moment to spare, don’t you? No doubt, your phone will get your attention when it needs it.”
Alex’s mind traversed the miles to her mother and her sister back home. Arty was right. She relented.
“Know anywhere better?” he asked, with a wink. “I spend a lot of time inside, moving, so I try to balance it out. I move outside, of course, but I also make a habit of being still outside, too. It has a different quality to it.”
Arty turned to Alex. His face was grave.
“Have you ever sat outside for a time in the middle of the night, watched water, seen the sky, felt the wind?”
“No. Maybe I will in the future,” said Alex. She lowered herself and perched on the log. She glanced at Arty, searching for a cue.
He beamed, then shifted his weight and reached to his side. He plucked a stick from the ground and held it up, like it were a holy relic. With reverence, he placed it on the ground in front of and between himself and Alex.
Arty re-crossed his legs and looked forward. To Alex’s eyes, he seemed to settle into the earth, to merge into it and take on the steadfastness of a mountain. Arty looked ahead as he spoke.
“Keep your eyes open but unfocused.”
Alex now looked forward. She relaxed her vision and listened. Arty spoke, his tone calm, his cadence measured.
“Now, notice the tree without looking at it. See how it moves in the wind? See the leaves that want to fall and the leaves that want to stay? See how the branches reach up, grasping for the sun? See the roots reaching down, embracing the earth? Breath in, like the roots feeding on the soil’s nutrients. Breathe out, like the tree growing into the sky.”
Alex inhaled and exhaled, slowing and extending her breath at first, then she relinquished control, allowing her breath to come and go without effort.
“See how most of the trees are comfortable amongst the others? See how they all share the earth and the wind and the sky, the rain and the sun, the warmth and the cold with each other? See how they sup on the boons of life and shoulder the burden of death?”
No more words.
Alex, who had fixed her initial gaze at the point of a nearby tree where the first branches diverged from the trunk, felt disembodied waves of emotion crashing over her and rescinding, first with great force, and then with increasing calm, like the cessation of a once violent storm.
As she sat with Arty amongst the trees, breathing, something like clarity emerged.
Her emotions became an ocean and she a seafarer aboard a small craft. At first, she regarded the body of water with fear and stayed close to the craft’s centre. But soon, the fear faded and Alex approached the craft’s edge. Leaning out over the ocean’s now-still surface, Alex saw her own reflection. She knelt and broke the ocean’s surface with a finger. Feeling its coolness, she shifted. She sat and dangled her feet over and into the cool fluid, splashing like a child who’s just discovered the wonders of water. Comfortable and unafraid, Alex lowered herself into the ocean. For a moment, she panicked, and the hand holding onto the craft tensed. But only for a moment. A light push with her hand and a kick from her legs propelled her away from the craft. The ocean bore her with ease, and with equal pleasure Alex turned onto her back and let her limbs splay out. There, she floated and looked up at the vast, cloudless sky.
Hearing a call from a distant-shore, she turned her head.
Back in reality, she turned to Arty, who was smiling.
“We’re about to have company,” he said. “The students are coming this way.”
Alex herself heard nothing.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“The birds. They’ve changed their song.”
Alex listened. Alongside the sway of the trees and the leaves in the wind she could hear the birds tweeting, though their song seemed no different than before, when she hadn’t heard them.
Arty popped up to his feet and smiled at her.
He drew back the cuff of his t-shirt and indicated his watch.
Alex responded with a light-hearted snort and stood.
“Thank you, Arty, I needed that.”
He removed an imaginary hat and bowed low.
“We both did. Now off.”
He moved towards her, clapping his hands like he were shooing a neighbour’s cat out of his kitchen. “Go, go, go!”
Doe-like, Alex fled back onto the trail and towards the residence.
She was determined to make it back to her room before meeting anyone else. She was in the embrace of an aura of calm for now, but she was not certain it could persist when confronted with the presence of others.
A minute later, Alex was at the residence. She went straight in, up the stairs, around the corridor, and into her room. As she nudged the door half-shut, the calm abandoned her. It had got her here, to a place of safety, and now she was alone.
She kicked off her shoes and sat on the edge of her bed. The ambiance which had been so peaceful in the woodlands turned rogue and assailed her. She felt it pressing down, crushing her from every conceivable direction. Alone in a space she thought of as safe, she felt more vulnerable than ever before. She was here and the people she loved most were not. They were far, far away.
She pulled out her phone and unlocked it, ignoring all the messages and notifications and alerts apart from the important one. She sent a message to her sister.
Can I ring yet?
It was read almost as soon as it was sent, and the reply was no less immediate.
I’ll ring you. Five minutes.
Alex read the message, but she couldn’t sit still. Not for five minutes. Not now.
Alex sprung up. She dragged her suitcase out from under her bed and opened it. She dragged a large backpack out from under the bed too and slung it on the back of her chair. She threw open her wardrobe’s doors and began taking clothes from it, pell-mell, and stuffing them into the suitcase. Abandoning the wardrobe, she opened a draw. She scooped up half its contents in one go and dumped most of it in the rucksack. Some missed and fell onto the floor and the chair itself.
Into the rucksack went Alex’s energy and initiative. Dumbstruck, she now stood, mouth agape, mind elsewhere. Alex shuffled over to her bed and sat on its edge. She glanced at her phone. Nothing.
She shifted her full weight onto the bed and back, leaning herself against the wall. She glanced at her phone again. Still nothing.
Her eyes settled in the middle of the room’s floor. She kept her phone in her right hand and drew her knees to her chest, giving herself the hug that no-one else was there to give.
Alex looked up from the floor. The front door had opened and closed. Her senses, stimulated by the turmoil within, felt the vibration of feet ascending the stairs before they heard the sound of legs propelling a body down the hallway and closer to her room.
She had an idea of who it was and why he was here, yet she was torn between relief and dread. She wanted to see him and be with him, but she also wanted this to be private.
The feet came to a stop outside her door and for a second, there was silence. Then there was a knock.
The door half-opened and Christopher’s face was revealed, poking around its edge.
“Hi,” he said, pausing on the threshold, looking around, concerned how his appearance would be received.
Alex smiled, half-surprised, and tried to put him at ease with the gentleness of her tone.
Christopher relaxed. His shoulders dropped and hid themselves behind the door he was inching around. The tension drained from his face. He stepped around the door.
“I just wanted to see how you are.”
Christopher was still adjacent to the doorway.
Alex motioned him inwards with a backward tilt of her head.
“Of course. Sorry. Come in.”
Christopher stepped into the room, paused for a moment as he weighed where next to go, and made to sit in the chair. It had Alex’s bag on it, as well as some clothes. He began to move the bag but Alex stopped him, both touched and amused at the delicacy with which he had attempted to move her belongings.
She patted a spot on the bed next to her with her left hand.
Christopher, who had begun to lift the bag, placed it back down with equal gentleness and moved towards the bed. He sat on the edge with hands clasped in his lap and most of his weight supported by his feet.
Alex scooted forward to sit next to him and perched in the same manner.
“What’s going on?” he asked, looking at her.
She turned to him, all thoughts of deceit and diversion now swept away. There was no point in hiding the truth—it was a thing she was neither ashamed of nor embarrassed by. But what was it that had made her hide it in the first place? Others had told or hinted at their own past and situation, so why not her?
Was it a ploy to keep others away from her, the way a precious artifact is cordoned off whilst on display to the public? Or was it a manoeuvre that kept the truth away from herself, like a hag who, believing herself beautiful, avoids all reflections in order to prolong the delusion?
It didn’t matter. Christopher was here because he cared, and it was time that she told him. And it was time she permitted herself to hear it.
Christopher was watching her, perhaps aware that she teetered on a critical precipice, perhaps conscious that she was balancing on the thinnest of spines atop the steepest of mountain ridges.
Alex took a deep breath and was poised to reply when her phone began to vibrate.
“Hang on,” she said to Christopher.
She hit the screen and raised her right hand to her ear, speaking the shortened name that only Alex and her mother used to refer to the oldest sibling.
“Lee?” she said, voice dripping fear.
Everything in the world except her sister’s voice faded to black—
“Al. Mum is not okay.”
—and the blackness stretched out, threatening to consume all that she loved.
“Tell me what happened,” said Alex, straining to keep the blackness at bay for a little longer.
“She nosedived yesterday, and it’s gotten worse today. Something happened overnight and now she can’t speak. She can’t move. There’s little response to my words or my touch. There’s barely any recognition of my presence.”
Alex was enraged that she had only been told this afternoon, not last night, but that was irrelevant now.
“What did the doctor say?” asked Alex, asking a different question whilst meaning another.
“Not long,” said Lee, answering the unvoiced. “A month? A week or two? A few days? Hours, maybe? He can’t be sure. There’s so many complicating factors that he can’t—won’t—make a call.”
There was silence. Uncertainty, yet again. In the past, in the present, and forever into the future. Alex posed another question.
“What do you think?”
Lee paused and when she spoke there was a hardness to her tone.
“She won’t go quietly. Not if she feels it’s not the right time, anyway. She’s a stubborn mare, is our mother.”
Alex smiled, but remained silent. Lee continued.
“Al, I wanted to call, I did, but the doctor has been in and out, so have the nurses, I’ve been up all night and there’s been so much going on, and I thought it might be just a blip, and maybe there’s—” Another silence. “I’m sorry, Al.”
Alex said nothing and heard tears break out on the other end of the line. She pictured them gliding down Lee’s face, respecting her sister’s courage even as it threatened to implode.
“It takes all her effort just to squeeze my hand,” said Lee.
Tears now, on both ends of the line.
“Hang up,” said Alex, “and video call back. Put me on speaker. I want to see her. And you.”
The line died. Alex did not look at Christopher.
Her phone vibrated. Alex hit the screen again and positioned herself in the camera, then brought the screen closer, as if it could bring her closer in truth. She felt Christopher lean back and away and she was grateful.
Alex stared at the screen, wishing that it was bigger, wishing that it was a portal through which she could climb and hold her sister’s hand and kiss her mother’s face.
It wasn’t, so she watched the video of her mother lying in a hospital bed. Noticed the tubes going in and out of her. Saw her chest shake with the assisted effort of each inhalation and collapse with the release of air. Alex absorbed every detail of the face that had and forever would radiate love and strength.
Neither Alex nor her sister spoke for a time. Alex’s eyes were on her mother. She knew that her Lee’s hands were clasping their mother’s, communicating the greatest of love and compassion and kindness and all the other things that are felt but never said between people that love one another.
Alex fingers began to tremble but she stilled them and spoke, iron in her voice.
Her sister replied without hesitation.
“No. You promised her, and she made me promise to make you keep it.”
“But it’s different now—” said Alex.
“Remember what she told you?” replied Lee.
“As if I’d forget,” said Alex, silently damning her sister’s and her mother’s strength, wishing that they had been weaker so that she could be there, with them.
“Good. Mum will hold on till the weekend at least. Come then,” said Lee. There was more silence, then Alex watched Lee’s head turn.
“Look, Al, the doctor’s back. I have to go, to talk to him. You’ll know everything that I know as soon as I know it. I promise.”
“Okay,” said Alex. She inhaled and exhaled, staving off the terror for a moment more. “Mum, I love you.”
Her sister, off-screen now, laughed, infuriating as ever.
“She’s known that for a long time, Al.”
“I don’t care,” said Alex. “Tell her again, as many times as you can. Until she comes to and tells you to shut your mouth. Don’t let her forget.”
“I’ll let you know what the doc says.”
“Thanks, Lee. Love you too, you know.”
“I wish I could say the same about you,” replied Lee. “Speak soon.”
Before Alex could return the ritual profanity, Lee hung up.
Alex continued to look at the phone. The caller ID faded and Alex’s wallpaper returned. It was a picture of their mother crouching between a young Alex and Lee, an arm around each. Their backs were to the camera and they were all looking out over the Grand Canyon, which at the time seemed to Alex like the edge of the world.
Alex put the phone to the right, on the bed beside her. She placed her elbows on her knees and lowered her forehead into the palms of her hands, wishing that she wasn’t where she was.
“Alex?” asked Christopher.
Alex pulled herself together and sat up straight. She shuffled herself back, turned and folded her left leg in front of her on the bed, and faced Christopher.
“My mum isn’t well. She’s been ill for a long time and her condition has just got worse.” She summoned reserves of strength. “That was my sister. We don’t know how long mum has left. It could be a day, a week or a month.”
“I’m sorry,” said Christopher.
Silence as they looked at one another.
“Are you going home then?” asked Christopher.
It was Alex’s turn to laugh, as her sister had, and once she did she felt more tears well.
Christopher looked confused.
Alex looked into his eyes and forced herself to speak without trembling.
“She’s been ill for a long time and me and Lee have dealt with it. But after I got accepted for BAIL I almost didn’t come. I was worried about her. So worried that I didn’t want to leave. She said I had to go. Her exact words were, ‘I’ll die happier knowing that you’re doing what matters most to you.’ She also said that if I missed a class she’d save me a spot in hell.”
“I still don’t know how serious she was being about that last part, but both my mum and Lee are adamant I avoid eternal damnation.”
Thinking of her mother’s words to her, and the steadfastness she had shown throughout her turbulent life, brought a tear to Alex’s eyes. Which brought another. And another.
The stream became a river and then a waterfall and before she knew it she had collapsed in on her self, the way skyscrapers are designed to collapse down, not sideways onto the surrounding neighbourhood. Alex buried her head in her hands and made a feeble attempt to conceal the convulsing sobs.
Christopher shifted closer and his long arm wrapped around her shoulders. There was only a flicker of resistance. Alex crumpled sideways now and rested her head on Christopher’s chest. His right hand reached for hers and took it, applying a constant, gentle, reassuring pressure. Alex felt his chin come to rest on the top of her head. She waited for the meaningless words to come but, thankfully, they didn’t.
Christopher remained silent, holding Alex, and Alex allowed herself to be held. She gave herself a few moments of pure release, a few moments where she allowed the pain and the fear and the regret and the terror and the sorrow and the anger to run wild and free, unchecked by inhibition. But the release of the torrent quelled its violence, as if it sought not freedom but acknowledgement. Surprised, she collected the reins again, wondering if within all pain was contained the seeds of a greater humanity.
Her sobs subsided in frequency and intensity, and as they did, Christopher removed his chin from her head, loosened the hold of her hand and removed his arm from around her shoulders.
Alex drew back and looked up into his face. There was a lone tear rolling down Christopher’s face, itself a pale imitation of the many that had attempted to cut deep grooves into her own.
Alex looked into the depth of his eyes and saw movement in the periphery of her vision. Christopher’s left hand floated towards her face. As it rose it rotated, the lighter skin of his palm a promise of comfort. The back of his index finger brushed her face and caught a tear, the last that Alex had released.
Alex met George’s eyes. The pain, confusion, anger, resentment and fear within surged to the surface and infected her answer.