“Nice fumble.” Charlie smacked his shoulder into Sam's.
“Maybe if you could throw straight...” Sam punched Charlie's arm and grinned.
“Boys!” Coach beckoned them from the sideline.
Sam glanced at Charlie worriedly. “He looks mad.”
Charlie looked over to Coach. His mouth was pressed into a thin, grim crease.
“Yeah,” he said, feeling his stomach twist slightly. “My throw wasn't that bad, was it?”
“It was fine,” Sam said, already defensive. “It's slippery as all hell out here.” As if to prove his point, Sam skidded on a frozen patch of mud.
Charlie clutched him, keeping him upright. “Well, we're winning,” he said, glancing over to the score, on display by the sideline. “He can't be that mad.”
“Coach?” Sam sniffed. His nose was red with the cold.
Coach's grim expression didn't change. “We've just had a call,” he said. “Your stepfather has been taken to hospital.”
Charlie felt his stomach swoop. “What?”
“He's had a heart attack. You'd better get home.”
Sam tugged Charlie's arm. Aside from his red nose, his face looked ashen. “Let's go,” he said, wanting to take immediate action. “C'mon.”
Charlie followed him, his own breath loud and ragged in his ears. “When do you think this happened?” he asked. “D'you think Coach had us out there playing football until half-time, just because –”
“Hurry up!” Sam urged, breaking into a run. “Come on!”
Charlie followed him into the locker room.
“Let's go.” Sam grabbed his bag, but Charlie caught his arm.
“Get changed first,” he said. “You're all wet.”
“Charlie!” Sam barked. “Watson's had a heart attack!”
Charlie began stripping layers, his fingers numb. His heart hammered in his chest. “Better hurry up, then,” he said.
He wanted to leave as much as Sam did, but logic told him it was cold outside, and running around in wet clothes wasn't a good idea. His mind raced. All he could think about was how he and Watson had tried to get the car out of drifts of snow on Saturday morning. All he could think about was the fact he'd been in the car while Watson had tried to push it. This is my fault, he thought. I should've been the one pushing...
He shoved his feet into his boots and crammed his wet, muddy gear into his bag. Sam jumped about on one foot, trying to tug a wet sock off.
“D'you think it's because he was pushing the car on Saturday?” he asked breathlessly. “Do you think it happened while he was at work?”
“I don't know,” Charlie said, fumbling in his pockets for his car keys. “You've got your shirt on backwards.”
“Who cares?” Sam snapped. He pulled his boots on and scooped his football gear up. “Let's go.”
“Do you think we should go home, or to the hospital?” Charlie asked, gripping the steering wheel with frozen fingers.
“Coach said we should go home.”
Charlie cursed under his breath. “I wish I'd asked who called. Do you think Nannie's at home? Do you think Kristy's by herself with the kids?”
Sam started chewing his fingernails. “I dunno.”
“I hope he's okay.” Charlie swallowed, suddenly feeling choked and suffocated. He couldn't stop thinking about trying to get the car out of the driveway on Saturday morning.
Sam wiped his hands over his face. “Let's go home and find out what's going on.”
Charlie nodded, though his throat seemed to close in even further as they drove away from the direction of the hospital and back across town.
The roads were slick, and another dusting of snow was starting to settle on the ground. The wipers beat the flakes away, but the windshield was fogged up. It seemed to take forever to drive each block, and Charlie's muscles were tensed and tight as he navigated through the icy slush.
“Can't you go any faster?” Sam asked anxiously. “The roads aren't that bad, are they?”
Charlie swallowed and shrugged. “We're almost there.”
Sam jumped out the minute Charlie pulled into the driveway. Charlie hurried after him, though his insides felt leaden and cold.
He realised he was expecting bad news, and he silently berated himself as he followed Sam into the house.
“Nannie?” Sam called. “Mom?”
Kristy appeared from the direction of the kitchen, wide-eyed and pale. “They're at the hospital.”
“Any news?” Sam asked anxiously.
Kristy shook her head, twisting her fingers nervously. “It's been ages. Nannie said she'd call once they found out...” She trailed off and bit her lip, hard.
Charlie saw her eyes brighten with tears, and he jerked himself forwards, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “Where's David Michael? And Emily Michelle?”
“Asleep.” Kristy wiped her eyes quickly, and Charlie felt her straighten her back. She drew in a quivery breath and Charlie squeezed her shoulder.
“How'd it happen, Kristy?” Sam asked softly. His eyes were almost as wide as hers.
“He was shovelling snow,” Kristy said in a small voice. She looked up at Charlie. “Right after you dropped me off.”
Charlie swallowed again, instantly wishing he'd pulled into the drive instead of dropping Kristy at the curb. Maybe if he'd seen Watson shovelling snow, he would have taken over...
Kristy looked back over her shoulder. “Dawn and Mary Anne are here,” she said. “And Shannon. I think they're making hot chocolate or something. Do you guys want some?”
“No,” Charlie murmured.
“Yeah,” Sam breathed in relief. He flexed his numb fingers.
Kristy pulled herself out from under Charlie's arm, and he saw her straighten again as she prepared to take charge.
“I'm gonna to go the hospital,” he blurted.
Kristy turned back to him in surprise. “Nannie said she'd call...”
Charlie shook his head. Guilt and tension, fear and grief were all battling inside him. For a moment he thought he'd be sick. “I'll go and find out what's going on,” he said.
“I'll stay here,” Sam said, stepping slightly closer to Kristy.
Charlie nodded, feeling relieved.
Kristy looked torn. “What if she calls after you leave?”
Charlie shrugged and clenched his car keys in his palm. “I guess I'll find out once I get to the hospital.”
“Call us the minute you know anything,” Kristy ordered, her voice suddenly fierce.
“I will,” Charlie promised. “Have you called Lisa? Do Karen and Andrew know?”
“I called Lisa,” Kristy confirmed. She twisted her fingers again. “Do you think I should have called Watson's office? I only just thought of it...”
Charlie shook his head. “Don't worry about that,” he said. “We'll figure that out in the morning.”
“Okay.” Kristy looked over her shoulder again.
Mary Anne Spier was hovering in the doorway. “Hi,” she said awkwardly. “Do you guys want some hot chocolate?”
“Yeah,” Sam said again. He rubbed his eyes, and then his stomach. “Thanks, Mary Anne.”
Charlie backed towards the door. “I'll see you guys later.”
Kristy watched him go, but she didn't say anything. Charlie felt her eyes on him even after the front door had closed behind him.
It was late. Charlie stuck to the main roads, despite it meaning a longer trip. He was unsure if the Junk Bucket would make it on roads that hadn't been cleared by constant streams of traffic. The air was clear and cold. The snow had stopped falling.
Charlie's mind was racing. He still felt guilt over his role in getting Watson's car out of the driveway on Saturday morning, even if it hadn't been directly responsible for his heart attack.
I should've pushed, and Watson should've been in the car, he thought. He gripped the steering wheel. I should've shovelled the drive this afternoon.
He rubbed his hand across his mouth.
The hospital loomed up ahead as he approached Rosedale Road. Charlie stopped at the intersection, the indicator ticking loudly as he signalled a turn. He looked down the road towards the junction that turned into Bradford Court, and felt his stomach twist a little.
The hospital parking lot was almost deserted. A few cars were covered in shallow blankets of snow. Charlie parked and looked around for the Pink Clinker, but he couldn't see it. He wasn't sure if it was too dark or if it was disguised under a coating of snow and ice.
He hurried towards the hospital, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, his breath fogging out around him. The front doors wouldn't open.
He cursed as he realised visiting hours were over. He changed direction and headed for the emergency department.
It was mostly empty, which relieved him. Hospitals made him anxious, and as much as he wanted to find Watson, he was uncomfortable about pushing his way through the emergency department to get information when, in all likelihood, Watson had been admitted beyond the emergency beds in the ward.
He leaned over the desk. His throat was still closed up. “My father was brought in this evening,” he said, sounding hoarse. “Watson Brewer.”
He watched as the nurse checked the computer in front of her, and then wondered if he should correct himself and clarify that Watson was his step-father.
No, his brain said fiercely. Think about it, Charlie.
He gritted his teeth. Watson was more of a father than Patrick. Charlie had a few fond memories of Patrick, but it hadn't taken Watson long at all to outnumber them. Watson was who Charlie thought of, without hesitation, when he thought of his parents.
“They're not allowing visitors in,” the nurse said, apologetic.
Charlie's heart sank. “Do you know if my mom's still around? She came in with him, I think.”
The nurse directed him to the end of the corridor. He followed little blue signs with neat, white print until he came to another nurses' station. He approached the desk, but rapidly changed direction when he saw his mother slumped in a chair further up the corridor.
“Mom!” Charlie called. He hurried to her, his heart racing. “Mom, how's Watson? Where's Nannie? What's going on?”
His mother smiled and got to her feet slowly. “You didn't have to drive all the way out here, Charlie.” She reached for him and he hugged her tightly.
“How's Watson?” he asked again, and his voice was back to a croak.
“Stable,” his mother said tiredly. “They keep saying it was only a mild heart attack...”
Charlie released a breath of relief. “So he'll be okay?”
Elizabeth nodded and sank back into the chair, gripping Charlie's hand.
He sat beside her and looked up and down the corridor. “Is Nannie still here?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “You just missed her. She just left.”
Charlie rubbed his eyes, suddenly feeling exhausted. “So where's Watson?”
Elizabeth made a vague gesture to her right. “In there,” she said. “They're running some tests and getting him settled for the night. I’m going to stay.”
“Do you need anything?” Charlie asked anxiously. “I should've stopped to bring some of your things. I didn't think...”
“It's all right.” Elizabeth squeezed his hand. “You really didn't need to come out here, honey.”
Charlie felt himself grow defensive. “We didn't know what was going on,” he said. “Coach pulled us out at half-time and told us Watson was in hospital...”
“I know,” Elizabeth said. She hugged his arm and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I'm glad you're here. I just didn't want you to think I was expecting you to drive through all this snow.”
Charlie relaxed a little. “It's not so bad out there now,” he said. He slumped back in his seat and jogged one knee distractedly. “So what happened?”
Elizabeth shook her head slowly, staring at the floor. “He just collapsed on the porch,” she said softly. “I was upstairs. Kristy was there...” She sucked in a quivery breath. “Have you seen Kristy?”
“Uh-huh. Mary Anne and Dawn are there. And I think she said Shannon was there, too.”
“Oh, good,” Elizabeth said. She rubbed her face tiredly. “Is she all right?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Charlie picked at the zip on his parka.
“You should go home,” Elizabeth whispered. “It's late.”
He looked at her. She looked pale and shaky, and for a moment the background of the hospital corridor disappeared and he was ten again, in their living room in Bradford Court as his mother told him Patrick wasn't coming home, ever. She had the same lost, terrified expression. Fear and grief pinched her face.
Charlie bit his lip and looked back down at the floor. “I'll stay a bit longer.”
Charlie bought his mother coffee from a vending machine that made enough noise to make his ears turn red with self-consciousness. He could feel the night staff at the desk watching him, but he refused to turn around.
When he approached Elizabeth again, a doctor emerged from Watson's room, flanked by two nurses.
Charlie's heart skipped a beat. “Is he all right?” he blurted.
The doctor looked at him and frowned slightly.
“My son, Charlie,” Elizabeth said, as though defending Charlie's arrival. She got to her feet. “How's Watson?”
“Stable, but very tired,” the doctor answered. “We need to run more tests and keep him here for a few days.”
“Will he be all right?” Charlie asked. He kept a careful hold on the cardboard cup of coffee. His mind felt over-wrought and stretched, and suffocating thoughts tightened and imprinted deeply.
I can't lose another father.
“There's always a risk of another heart attack,” the doctor said, looking uncomfortable. “But there are plenty of steps Watson can take to prevent this sort of thing happening again.”
Charlie immediately, silently swore that he'd never let Watson shovel snow again – ever.
“Can I see him?” Elizabeth asked breathlessly.
“He's not up to much visiting,” the doctor warned. “You can go in, but don't expect much conversation. He's tired, and rest is the best thing for him right now.”
Elizabeth turned to Charlie and saw the coffee in his hand.
“You go in,” Charlie blurted. “I'll wait here, Mom. It's fine.”
“I won't be long.”
He shook his head. “Take as long as you want.” He gave her what he hoped was a confident smile. “Say hi to Watson for me.”
Elizabeth squeezed his hand before she ducked past the doctor into Watson's room.
Charlie sank into the plastic chair his mother had just vacated and listened to the doctor's footsteps fade away.
He looked down at the coffee and thought about taking a sip, but he didn't like coffee much. He just clutched it in his hand. He couldn't hear anything from Watson's room, and after a minute, curiosity and worry got the best of him.
He leaned over and peered around the door-frame.
He could see his mother, bent over at the side of the bed, murmuring softly. She was holding tightly onto Watson's hand.
Watson was propped up against several pillows. His face was white and drawn, lines creasing his forehead and around his eyes, which were closed. An oxygen mask covered his mouth. Tubes and wires ran from his arms and his chest away to a machine concealed by the curtain that hung on a rail around the bed.
Charlie thought he looked dead. He withdrew quickly, his heart hammering painfully. His mouth tasted sour and he felt shivery and, suddenly, terrified. He was relieved Kristy and Sam had stayed at home.
He sat rigid, too afraid to look around the corner again.
Elizabeth returned a few minutes later, looking tired and shaky. “He's asleep,” she said.
Charlie stood up. “Are you okay, Mom?”
She nodded, but she pressed her fingers hard against her mouth.
For a brief second, Charlie wished she would hug him, just so he could feel all right – just for a minute. Instead, he put the coffee down on the chair and hugged Elizabeth tightly. “He'll be all right,” he assured her, though he was as certain as ever that his mother could tell when he wasn't telling the truth.
He didn't think he was lying – he didn't want to be lying – but he was too afraid to be confident in what he'd just said.
Elizabeth nodded, but didn't say anything. After a moment Charlie felt her sob, though she kept the sound muffled behind her hands.
“Do you want me to take you home, Mom?” Charlie asked softly, resting his head down against her shoulder.
“No,” she croaked. She sniffed. “I'm going to stay here tonight.”
“Are you sure?” Charlie couldn't imagine a worse place to spend the night. He immediately felt guilty, like he had just contributed to the possibility of something further going wrong. He felt like he had just exposed himself as selfish. He felt that he should be offering to stay as well.
“I'm sure.” She kept hold of him, and he didn't let go either.
“He'll be all right, Mom,” Charlie said again. It sounded less like a lie the second time.
She nodded, her hands fisting in the thick padding of his parka. “You should go home, honey,” she said quietly.
“I can stay if you want,” he said.
“No, it's all right.” She took his face in his hands and kissed his cheek. “You go on home.”
“Do you need anything?” Charlie asked worriedly. “I can bring you –”
“No,” she said. She gave him a watery smile. “I'm sure you're right,” she said. “Watson will be fine.”
Charlie nodded and gave her the same sort of smile she had just given him. “Yeah.”
They gazed at one another helplessly for a minute, until Elizabeth let go of him and wiped her eyes. “Go home, honey,” she said again. “I'm sure Kristy and Sam are still awake. Tell them he'll be all right.”
“Nannie's home, right?” Charlie asked hopefully.
Elizabeth nodded. “I told Watson you were here,” she said. “I'm sure he'll want to see you tomorrow.”
Charlie was still too nervous to look around the corner and see Watson so ghostly. “Did he say anything?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “He's not really up to talking,” she said. “But I was holding his hand. I know he heard me.” She reached up and touched Charlie's cheek, and this time her smile was more knowing than watery. “Go home and get some sleep,” she said. “And stop worrying.”
“I will if you will,” Charlie said.
Elizabeth smiled. “I'll be all right,” she said quietly. “I'm going to stay in there with him. I'll call the house if anything changes. I promise.”
Charlie nodded and drew a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “If he wakes up...” He shifted his weight and scratched the back of his head. “You know,” he mumbled. “Tell him we're thinking of him, and we love him...”
“I will.” Elizabeth drew his face down to kiss his cheek again. “Home,” she said, and this time her tone was unmistakeably Mom. “Go and get some rest.”
Charlie kissed her cheek and gave her another hug. “Call if you need anything,” he ordered.
“Or if anything changes.”
Charlie pushed the lukewarm coffee into her hand. “If you want it,” he said. “Night, Mom.”
Charlie left before he changed his mind, not happy about leaving his mother or Watson behind in the hospital. He told himself Watson was in the best place, that he'd be looked after and that people were watching him to make sure he didn't get any worse.
But the image of Watson lying so pale and so lined and still wouldn't stop haunting him.
He swallowed sharply.
It was a relief to get out into the cold night again. He took his time crossing the parking lot, breathing in the icy air.
The windshield on the Junk Bucket had iced over. Charlie took a half-empty bottle of water from the backseat to defrost the glass, discovering both his and Sam's abandoned football gear. He made a mental note to throw it into the laundry before he went up to bed.
He hoped Nannie had reassured Kristy and Sam enough that they were asleep when he got home.
Charlie was halfway up the stairs when he realised he'd forgotten to bring in his wet football gear. He stood for a moment, wondering if it was worth going back out to get it.
Kristy's voice decided for him. “How's Watson?” She peered down at Charlie from the top of the stairs.
Charlie continued his tired march up. “He's doing all right. How come you're not asleep?”
Charlie smiled at her. “It's all right, Kristy. Mom's with him. He's asleep.”
“He's all right?” she asked. “Nannie said it was just a mild heart attack, but it seemed so bad...”
Charlie's heart sank. He stopped beside her at the top of the stairs. “He's all right,” he said. He put his arm around her. “Mom said you were with him when it happened.”
Kristy wiped her eyes. “Yeah.” She shivered and bit her lip. “I thought he was going to die on the porch,” she whispered.
Charlie turned her around and started walking with her towards her bedroom. “We'll go and see him tomorrow,” he said.
“Should I stay home?” Kristy asked.
Charlie looked at her. He hadn't thought about school, and his mother hadn't mentioned anything either. “See how you feel in the morning,” he said eventually. “There's nothing we can do though, Kristy. He's being looked after.”
“But we could go and see him in the morning, if I don't go to school,” she said.
“If they're letting visitors in that early,” Charlie cautioned. “I wasn't allowed in. I just saw him around the door.”
“Oh.” Kristy stopped outside her room and leaned against Charlie for a brief moment before she pulled away. “Is Mom all right?”
Charlie nodded. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Kristy drew in a quivery breath. “Sam wanted to see you when you got home.”
Charlie nodded again. “Okay. Goodnight, Kristy.”
“Don't worry, okay?”
She shook her head and closed the door softly.
Charlie went to his room and changed into his pyjamas, pulling his wet socks off with a grimace.
He headed for Sam's room, checking in on David Michael first. He heard Shannon's tail thump softly in the dark, and knew she was probably curled up beside David Michael's bed.
Sam's light was on, and when Charlie knocked and went in, he couldn't help but notice how exhausted Sam looked. He was certain he didn't look much better.
“How's Watson?” Sam asked immediately, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“He's all right,” Charlie said, trying to forget how Watson had looked and instead focus on what the doctors and his mother had told him.
Sam collapsed back against his pillows. “Nannie said it was mild,” he said. “Did you see him? Did he say anything?”
“I didn't get to speak to him,” Charlie said evasively, sitting on the side of Sam's bed.
“What if he dies?” Sam whispered.
Charlie looked over his shoulder at him. “He won't die, Sam,” he said, perhaps a little too sharply.
“He's older than Mom.”
Sam shrugged, obviously sorry he had said anything.
Charlie had a headache. “He won't die,” he said again.
Sam picked at the top of his quilt. “I wouldn't care if Patrick died,” he muttered.
Charlie looked at him in surprise. “What'd you say that for?” he asked angrily.
“Why shouldn't I?” Sam asked. “If we have to lose one of our fathers, I'd rather lose Patrick. It's not like it would matter.”
“You shouldn't wish death on anyone,” Charlie said.
Sam rubbed his hand over his eyes. “I just don't want Watson to die,” he whispered. “Remember when Dad left? Remember what that was like?”
“That's different,” Charlie answered. “Anyway, we don't need to worry. Watson's not gonna die.” He set his jaw.
Sam looked at him for a long moment. “I'm glad you're here,” he said after a while. “You were always good at making us feel better.”
Charlie gave him a tired smile, but wasn't sure what to say.
“Want to sleep in here?” Sam asked suddenly.
Charlie hesitated for a moment, and then nodded.
Sam shoved a pillow down between the blankets.
“What's that for?” Charlie asked.
“I don't want to wake up tomorrow morning and find you spooning me,” Sam said.
Charlie snorted and slid into the bed. “You wish.”
Sam grinned and rubbed his eyes. “Is Watson really all right?”
Charlie flicked the lamp off and waited until he felt settled in the dark. “I dunno. I think so. He just looks kind of... awful.”
“Can we go see him tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
Sam sighed and Charlie felt the bed shift as his brother rolled over.
“Don't move that pillow,” Sam mumbled tiredly. “My charity only goes so far, dude. No cuddling.”
Charlie grinned and rolled onto his side. “You might like it.”
“I don't want to find out.”
Charlie laughed and punched the pillow beneath him, flattening it out. “Night, Sam,” he said.
“Mm.” Sam was already too close to sleep to voice proper syllables.
In the dark, in a comfortable bed with Sam's familiar night breathing filling the silence, Charlie found it easier to think positively.
I'll shovel the front path tomorrow, he thought tiredly. And the sidewalk.
He smiled to himself before he finally closed his eyes.
I bet Watson will laugh, he thought. I bet he says he had to have a heart attack before I willingly picked up a shovel.
He found himself grinning. He pulled the blankets back up over his shoulders, which no longer felt as though such a leaden weight was settled across them.
Charlie Thomas can handle a lot of shit, Charlie thought. Charlie Thomas-Brewer can handle twice as much.