by Max Barry

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by The Not Kenneth Branagh of Western Fardelshufflestein. . 33 reads.


Wednesday, 14 July 2021
8:17 am


"Are you ready, Allie?" Nurse Linda smiles at him and rubs his shoulder.

"No." He's still eating his breakfast. He hasn't finished yet. He's not that close to being done, really.

He puts another spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth. His hand shakes like it always does. Nurse Linda almost steadies his hand, but he's got it this time. He can do it by himself.

"You get to go home today. Art thou excited?"

He nods. He still has food in his mouth, so he needs to show good manners.

He's going to be home again. He'll sleep in his own bed next to Marie. His family will be there all day to talk to him. He can play games with his kids and cuddle with them and watch TV with them. And they are not in school right now, so they'll be home all day a lot.

"Wilt thou come and see me?" he asks Nurse Linda. She's nice. He'd be happy if she visited him.

"I would love to," she tells him. "'Twill have to be on a day when I don't have a shift here. But I would love to visit thee."

"And Georg?"

"He would love to visit thee, too."

Alastair hopes his new friend can still come to see him. He'll go home soon, but his family won't be there.
It makes Alastair sad that Georg is alone. He should not be alone.

Linda helps him brush his teeth after he finishes his breakfast. And then she gathers up his things and puts them into a bag Marie brought here yesterday. He watches her do it for him and wishes he could help her.
He knows he can put things into bags.

"I can help," he tells her.

"Oh--sorry, I wanted to do this for thee as a sort of treat. Here, you can finish." She gives him the rest of the things and tells him where to put them when he gets confused, which is a lot. She then tells him to take the bag and put it by his suitcase of clothes. He has to wheel himself over there because he has to get stronger at that. He can do 't, but people like to do it for him.

His room looks very empty now. He had lots of help packing up things yesterday, like his clothes and his cards and pictures and things. And Nurse Karen helped him pack his clothes last night. He feels a little sad to leave his room, because it has been his room. His very own space. He feels more than a little sad to leave his friends, too. But they know where to find him.

8:30 am

The past five days have been a nonstop whirlwind, an intense stream of phone calls, meetings, conversations, and more preparation than Marie thought humanly possible. She'd been making plans for weeks, but the decision to bring him home just shy of two weeks early has compressed everything. She's hardly eaten or slept, and she certainly hasn't had any time to herself. After all, she is still the Queen, and she cannot afford to take too much time away from her job.

Though she has oftentimes eschewed the idea of driving here in the limo, today is a special occasion far too many months overdue. And the entirety of their family joined her to pick him up: their children, Mom, Wilhelm, Sophia, and even Greta are waiting for him in the lobby. She just has to finalize his official discharge, and then--

"Alright." She signs yet another form and passes it back to the clerk. 'Tis the last form they've given her to sign at present. In essence, she must sign off on everything from insurance to authorization forms about his release, and clauses about liability and all that. Were she a lawyer, or if Allie still had the capacity to understand these types of things, she'd feel more at ease about signing them.

All of this still feels surreal to her. Not just getting to take Allie home; the past year has been almost like a lucid dream. Watching him wither away and suffer, having to be cared for around the clock and struggle through tests and treatments and therapies. The sparkle in his eyes faded for months. It had only come back very recently, but 'twas different, more...innocent? Infantile? She shakes her head.

"You may head back to his room and collect his things, and then we'll finalize his discharge anon." The clerk gives Marie a strained but friendly smile.

"May my family accompany me?"

"Of course. This isn't the rest of the world; we let people be with their loved ones."

Blatant passive-aggressiveness. Was that what Marie sensed hid behind the smile of the clerk? This woman must be too invested in global news.

She thanks the clerk, then turns to the corner of the lobby where her family is gathered, chattering amongst themselves. Only Wilhelm catches her eye; she gives him a tacit come on gesture and starts toward the residential wing.

Hildegard lets out a squeal and skips ahead so she can hop alongside Marie. "Can I hold thy hand, Mommy?"

"Of course, darling." She takes her daughter's little hand in hers. Hildegard is still skipping, and Marie does not have the heart to tell her to slow down; she simply increases her pace and once again thanks God she never wears heels.

They reach Allie's room sooner than usual, with everyone else not lagging too far behind. She holds Hildegard back just a moment so they can all enter Allie's room at the same time. She's quivering with anticipation, her stomach tensing and her shoulders taut. This is the verge of what she's been praying for, at least in part.

Allie is finally coming home.

She brings her two older kids close to her and puts her arm around both of them. They're attired in nice clothing, Al in a button-down shirt and slacks, Julia in a cable-knit sweater dress and leggings with flats. Neither one of them is glued to a cell phone screen for a change. The two of them have struggled so much over the past year, suddenly having to deal with their father not being around and grappling with a sense of abandonment. Children of alcoholics commonly feel this way. Marie has tried as much as she can to help them, having long talks with them about all of the things they like to do with their dad, listening to what they have to say, and reminding them how much he loves them. She knows their feelings are not misplaced, not completely, yet she also knows, or at least reminds herself, that 'tis not completely Allie's fault. He's sick. He was completely unable to control himself.

"Alright," she whispers under her breath, "try not to be too loud or startle him. On my count. One...two...three...."

"DADDY!" With a shriek, Hildegard rips her hand away from Marie's and dashes into Allie's room, leaping onto his lap ere Marie can chase after her and hold her back. She automatically reaches to pry Hildegard off her father in case she's hurting him, but she finds such a thing is impossible: Allie already has his arms around Hildegard, clutching her tightly to his chest and rocking her back and forth. So instead of rescuing him from their effervescent six-year-old, she pulls him into an embrace, kneeling so she can rest her head on his shoulder.

His sweatshirt is so soft, his breathing steady and deep. He's still wheezing, but he is not laboring to get air, he's just...calm. Calm and happy. She feels him jump a bit when Julia and Al come to hug him, not unpleasantly or uncomfortably, but joyously, because he's surrounded by people who love him. And who knows how many more hugs he'll get, how many more times he'll be enveloped in caresses like this? 'Twill not be enough--'twill never be enough--but, by Gott, she'll give him as many hugs as she can.

They stay like this for several minutes, soaking in the moments of being with Allie and feeling his chest rise and fall. Able to hug him because he isn't gone yet, not willing to let go because he very well could be soon, and then they'll never be able to hug him again.

Marie eventually pulls herself away, her eyes still trained on him as she rises. Then she averts them to assess his room, see how much packing there is left to do.

His room is bare. The suitcase she brought over the other day is full, and perched atop it is the little bag with his toiletries. His medicines are all lined up in their respective prescription bottles, strategically set on the bedside table that held framed pictures and trinkets for the past two and a half months. Her mouth moves, but she fails to formulate a sentence, unable to hide how startled she is that they've gotten everything ready.

They came early for the precise reason to pack everything up early on, then bring him home ere lunchtime so he'd still have almost a full day with everyone. This-this goes far beyond her expectations. She'd brought the bags here proactively, to save them all time in lugging it to his room. She had not intended for the staff to do it for her.

"We thought 'twould be good for him to help pack his own things." Linda, who is on-duty today, has a smile on her lips. "Karen and Mary helped him pack his clothes last evening after you left." Mary is Allie's occupational therapist.

", Allie that is...that is really amazing. I'm proud of thee." She leans down and gives him a peck on the side of his head. He makes a little sound but otherwise does not acknowledge her, as he's still hugging Hildegard.

Not for the first time, she frets over whether she'll be adequate at taking care of him. What if she isn't patient enough with him, or he's too difficult, or she's just not strong enough? He'll have a nurse with him at all times to help with his medications and therapies, but she wants to be a part of things because she loves him, and because she feels obligated. After all, a huge part of this is her fault.

And what if she thinks she's doing enough, but she actually is not? If she's failing him again and hasn't the faintest notion? And he would not know either, would he, if she was failing him.

His winter coat and gloves are still draped on his bed. She opts to pick them up and help him put it on, which requires coaxing Hildegard to climb down from his lap so he can finish getting dressed.

"Marie, may I...."

Marie blinks and realizes Mom is standing right next to her, eyes beseeching. "Oh. Ja, of course." She does not quite know how to say no to Allie and Wil's mother. She's dealt with this grief at a much deeper level than Marie can possibly understand, and she...well, she hasn't greeted Allie yet and Marie has. So she contents herself in watching Mom help Allie put his arms through the sleeves of the coat and then pulling it over his shoulders. She guides his hands to the zipper and puts the two pieces together for him, but he zips it up all the way himself. And he lets her aid him in putting on his gloves, since he has not had to do that in a long time.

The way Mom smooths Allie's knit cap that he never wants to take off and strokes his jaw with her thumb gives Marie pause. She's gently speaking to her son in a low voice, too low for Marie to hear, and there is nothing in her bearing that suggests guilt or regret. Why can Marie never feel this way? Mayhap it is simply that the unconditional love of a mother has no bounds. And Marie cannot think of him as anything except the person she wants to be with forever, the man to whom she gave her heart. Is she really the right person to-to be his primary caretaker, or at least have legal custody of him?

Wilhelm nominates himself to take Allie's suitcase, whilst Marie offers to wheel him out--well, wheel him and Hildegard, who is insistent on returning to her spot on Allie's lap. Mom takes his toiletry bag, Linda hands the bag of medications to Julia, and Greta, Sophia, and Al just sort of stand there awkwardly. Marie summons Al to help her wheel Allie so he feels included, and she tells Sophia she can hold her uncle's hand if she would like. She watches her niece take Alastair's right hand, the one Hilde is not clinging to; with her hands on the handlebars of his wheelchair, she cannot see his face, but he has always enjoyed physical forms of affection like hugging and hand-holding and kissing. Back when he was happier and healthy, he smiled all the time.

She wonders if he'll ever smile that frequently again.

8:45 am

The limousine is parked not far from the entrance of the rehab. To Wilhelm's relief, there is no throng of bystanders gathered on the sidewalk. Unlike in other nations, royalty here does not have much of a celebrity status. They're more so admired from afar, regarded as a bunch of eccentric rich people entangled in government affairs. Everyone recognizes them, but they do not have a cult following by any stretch. The only extraneous people here are staff members who spent the most time with Allie and the friend he made, Georg. Wilhelm has hardly exchanged a word with the man, but Allie speaks highly of him, so he must have some merit. Then again, Allie speaks highly of everyone.

Marie and Al park Allie just beside the door, but they angle him slightly away from it so he can give everyone hugs. He's the type of person who loves hugs, who wants to be friends with anyone who shows him a sliver of kindness. Wilhelm used to regard that part of him as naiveté. He wishes he could be more like his brother now, wishes he could be more affectionate rather than aloof. Yet the stiffness of his personality has become so ingrained in his being that it cannot be possibly erased.

Whilst Allie hugs people, Wil goes around to the back of the limo to store his suitcase. He starts to open the back, but he's intercepted by the chauffeur, Hans, who promptly wrests the suitcase handle from him and slides it into the trunk, his assertiveness mitigated by a genteel veneer. Wilhelm requires a moment to recover his senses and remember he needs to tend to his brother, and once he does, he acknowledges Hans by swiveling on his heel and pacing away.

The time has come to help Allie into the limousine; Marie is opening the door for him, and Al is threading his arm through his father's. The scenes sits oddly with Wilhelm, for Al is only thirteen years of age, an adolescent. Responsibility for his father shouldn't fall on his young shoulders.

"Allow me," Wilhelm interjects. He squeezes his nephew's upper arm to let him know he means no harm. "I'll help him, if that is alright. You shouldn't have to worry about this. Not yet. Worry about spending time with him, and we'll make sure he's taken care of."

Al knits his eyebrows together. "I want to help."

"Wil--." Marie sounds tired. Looks it, too, what with the poorly concealed circles beneath her eyes. Not that Wilhelm does not sympathize with her for it. He is in a similar state, and no freshly pressed suit will make up for that.

He spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday undergoing extensive testing to see if he was a suitable donor. It warranted blood draws, a full body scans, a chest X-ray, monitoring of his liver activity, health screening that went back more than twenty years. He'd been fearful his past debauchery had finally come back to haunt him, that he'd have latent hepatitis or other residual damage. But he hadn't had a drop of alcohol in a year and hadn't had illicit drugs in more than a decade. Those he'd only done recreationally, and not daily or even weekly; they'd just been for the hell of it, really. And he'd been praying half the time that he wouldn't be criminally implicated for 't. He had not. As far as he knew, there was nothing physically wrong with him.

Yesterday he'd spent pondering the trajectory of his life, whether he was doing this out of goodness or to serve his own interests. He hadn't come to a conclusion. The only thing in all of this that is conclusive is his determination to not let Allie die.

"Alright. Al, you and I can both help him up. Does that work?" Al gives him a weird look, then slowly nods. "Here. Come here, Allie...."

He bends down and slides his right arm under Allie's left, his fingers gripping the opposite side of Allie's chest. Al resumes his hold on Allie's arm, and, once he's securely situated, Wil directs Allie to put his arms around them and hold on.

They carefully lift him to his feet, going at his pace to ensure he remains steady. He cannot stand independently; he's too feeble, and his motor function has declined. He takes tiny, shuffling half-steps toward the limo, relying heavily on Wil and his son to stay upright. He'd normally have his walker, but with this short distance and the glut of people more than willing to help him, there is no need.

Wilhelm climbs backward into the limo so he can pull Allie inside. Al works to lift him up, but Wilhelm leverages his elevated position to do most of the work. Allie does put one foot into the vehicle, and, once Wilhelm has bodily lifted him into the seat with Al's assistance, his other foot is safely inside, too.

He adjusts Allie's oxygen concentrator so it rests in his lap, the plastic tub coiling into the bag it comes in. He'll move it anon, after Allie is situated. "Wouldst thou like me to help thee with the seatbelt?"

Allie isn't even looking at him. He's staring at some point ahead of him, eyes distant and glossed over.

"Allie?" He repeats the question.

"What? Oh, um, yes."

Wilhelm suspected as much. He reaches across his brother's torso and upward to reach the seatbelt, then gets Allie to put his arm through 't with a simple command. Buckling him in is rather easy, for which Wilhelm is grateful.

He exits the limo to let Al file in from the other side. Typically, they never enter from the side of the street; but the roadway is deserted, and besides, the kid is more aware of his surroundings than most adults. His sisters and Sophia must have already clambered inside, as they are nowhere to be seen; as for Marie, she'll sit right beside Allie as she always does.

He gets into the middle row with Mom and, on the other side of her, Greta. He is not quite sure why she is here, but he supposes she is family now, all thanks to him and his voyeurism. She and Mother get along for the most part, but Greta distances herself from most everyone else. Her presence indicates she does care about Alastair, or at least keeping up appearances. Wilhelm can never be sure with her. All he is sure about, really, is that he needs to be here, that he needs to try and save Allie's life if it is the last thing he ever does.

8:49 am

She wishes she could sit beside him and hold his hand. She wants to coddle him and take care of him, pamper him for the final months of his life, however many there will be. Yet she still lets Marie be with him. She was in Marie's position not too long ago, refusing to leave her husband's side as the life was sapped from him.

She still feels as though Alastair the elder is alive and awaiting their return. He'll be right next to her, his hand brushing against hers, and he'll laugh his hearty laugh and wrap her into a hug. He'll have one more piece of sage advice, one more serious but placating expression as he faces adversity. One more time, she will hear his voice.

Her sweet boy will be reunited with him soon. Ophelia wishes with all her being he'll outlast her. She knows deep within her heart this will not be the case. How she yearns she could trade places with him and take away all his ailments, restore him to health. He deserves to rule. He deserves to leave behind a legacy greater than one of horrific illness.

Yet he'll never get the opportunity to do more than slowly perish.

8:59 am

He needs to be helped out of the car, just like how he needed to be helped into it. Marie and Wil help him this time. Marie looks excited, and he feels excited, excited enough to grin at her.

He hasn't been home for almost a year. Almost exactly. How did so much time go by? He does not know. He does not remember more than half of the time. Or he thinks he does not remember. Or has he been told?

They are already inside because they went into the parking garage. But he got to be outside for a bit before he was put inside the limo. It felt cold, and the wind was harsh. But it also felt good. The inside air is not as good-feeling, because it is inside, but 'tis his inside because it is home. He's home now.

Hildegard climbs onto his lap again. He lets her. He needs to be a good dad to her, or try to be a good dad. It makes her happy to be with him, and it makes him happy that she still loves him.

"Dad?" Julia is talking to him now. He's been worried she didn't love him anymore, or that she's still mad at him. He thinks she is. But she's still talking to him, and she looks him in the eye. He has a feeling she didn't do that for a long time. "Can I--could I hold thy hand?"

He plants a kiss on Hildegard's head and nods. He feels her lift up his arm and take his hand in hers. And her hand fits perfectly around his. She's squeezing his hand and making him feel comfortable and safe.

He feels okay, or almost okay. Like what okay feels for him now. Still hurting, but loved. Okay because he gets to go home and he gets to be with everyone all the time. He gets to be with Mom all day and Marie and his children, and they always make him feel better. Being with them makes him feel warm and fuzzy and happy, and that is what being okay is supposed to feel like. Safe and warm and with his family.

And he knows they're always going to be right next to him and make him feel alright.