by Max Barry

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by The Taiwan of Western Fardelshufflestein. . 6 reads.

The Drowning

Saturday, 20 November 2021
1:18 pm

Ophelia brought Allie outside so he could feel the warmth of the sun upon his skin and have a change of scenery from his bedroom. 'Tis a pleasant day, a tad too hot but nigh cloudless, and the verdant palace grounds unfold around them until the forest half a kilometer to the north and the city to the east. They recline on the third story balcony, with Ophelia in a patio chair and Allie hunched over in his wheelchair with his left elbow resting upon the table tray. He leans his head into his hand, which is lost in his graying curls, and stares out at either the fields or the buildings not far in the distance.

She lovingly scratches the back of his neck, to and fro, to and fro. She remembers when he was small enough to bury his face into her side whilst she hugged him. He'd blubber into her clothing, and she'd comfort him, tenderly rub his back until he calmed enough to let go.

He's so slim now: 70 kilograms at yesterday's appointment, the same he's been for the past two weeks. A healthy weight, but disconcerting because he lost so much mass so quickly. He was around 85 kilos in August, when his health really started to fail, but had fallen to around 77 kilos when he was admitted for his transplant. The mass he's lost since then is a result of having major surgery. Fortunately, he seems to have been stabilised for now, and his diet is curtailed to help him maintain his current weight.

Beneath her fingers, the muscles of his neck flex as he looks at her, face slack but eyes mildly frantic. "Mother?" he begins, still propping his head up with his skinny arm, "what day is it?"

"Twentieth of November," she answers. She presses her thumb slightly into his neck to massage a knot there.

"How-how long have I been here?"

"Not quite a month." Her voice wavers slightly.

'Twas apparent within the first week after he was taken to the emergency room they would very likely have to care for him indefinitely if he survived. His brain injury was made worse by all the damage chronic drinking had done to it and was made worse still by that horrid illness. Of course she and everyone else would rather have him around regardless of how incapacitated he was because they all loved him dearly and refused to believe he was a lost cause. He's a human being; he's her son. Her sweet, beautiful Allie who made countless wrong choices and was desperately sick.

She cannot deny that, in moments like this when he forgets something he said or was told as recently as a minute ago, one of the worst things in the world is seeing him suffer.

"Okay." His eyes flick away, then back at hers again. He draws a deep sigh punctuated with a slight wheeze; the lung damage from his infection, and, indeed, the many respiratory infections he's had over the course of his life, will never go away. "Okay," he repeats, almost to himself.

She wishes she could caress his head and restore his memory. She wishes she could rub his back and heal his lungs. He brought this upon himself, in a way, but does he really deserve to suffer?

"Today is Saturday?" he inquires.

"Ja, dear."

He lost his way. He is not a bad person; he just lost his way. He's getting a second chance with his life, and he will be there more for his children. He wants to repair his relationship with them so fervently that he is hypersensitive to any signs they are upset, believing them to be all his fault, and mayhap they are. Sometimes, he'll break down into tears because he feels he is the worst father in the world; whenever anyone tries to comfort him, he cries harder, mortified he's created a burden for someone else.

Taking care of him is very difficult, but he is far from a burden. Ophelia loves the hours she spends with him, though she has to get to know him all over again, and she senses he is still getting to know himself. His memory lapses are heartbreaking to watch, his crying episodes are overwhelming; he gets easily frustrated by his limited mobility and language difficulties. But he is not a burden. Everyone, Allie himself included, is learning what his triggers are and what strategies best help him. They are adjusting. It takes time. His family and nurses are doing all they can to provide him a good quality of life, keep him safe, clean, comfortable.

"And...." He frowns slightly as he figures out what he's trying to say. "Wil? How is he?"

"Still resting. But they're tapering him off painkillers, as they are you." She reverts to scratching his neck, but she goes up and down instead of side to side, with the heel of her hand lightly against his vertebra. She's relieved he seems to remember Wil his home and has been for two weeks. For the first few days, they had to repeatedly remind him, even though he visited Wil's room.

When Allie speaks again, he asks Ophelia the question she dreads the most.

"And he is, um, he is alright?"

She and Marie have not fully told him what happened to Wil. She feels wretched for concealing it from him, but she fears he will be inconsolable and forever blame himself. He might forget within the hour, but she'd feel obligated to inform him again, because this is not a secret to be kept from him forever.

But how can she tell him Wil almost perished because of the surgery?

"He is trying to get better. He is resting now." She hesitates, on the verge of sharing with him a piece of the truth. He deserves to know something about his brother. "He's had a more difficult time recovering from the operation and is still very weak." There. The first part of the truth without anything that might lead Allie to blame himself.

His thin face falls. Ophelia watches him in rapt horror, waiting for him to process the dreadful crux of it all, but instead he feebly wrings his hands.

She's telling him. Now.

"He bled, Allie. Toward the end of the operation. He bled so much he almost...." She cannot bring herself to utter the word died.

Just as she feared, his brows furrow, and his eyes well up. Within seconds, tears start to fall. "Why?"

She brushes the tears from his face with her finger. Her hands are clean, are in fact so overly sanitized the skin is sandpaper. The gesture poses little danger to him. "I know not. 'Twas something he knew could happen, but the chances were low...." In telling him what happened, she's reliving it. The ICU room where her younger son lay, hooked up to machines the way Allie had been last year and not breathing on his own. Holding his hand and finding it lifeless the way Allie's was, and seeing him grow pale and wither away as the days passed. Allie may have lost more mass overall, but Wil is egregiously thin, with a sallow face and ribs that can be counted.

"Sometimes, a blood vessel breaks, and a person bleeds so much they could--they could perish. But the doctors were able to save him the same way they were able to save thee." She dabs away more of his tears. More form in her eyes, but she ignores them, permits them to fall as they must. "They almost lost him. How they brought him back, I...I am just grateful the two of you are still here. After we lost thy father, I could not--I cannot lose either of you."

Instinctively, she flings her arm around Allie's shoulders, draws him close. Forty-six years old and with only a few years remaining in his life. That he was blessed with these years at all is a miracle, but he should have enough life to raise his children until they grow up and have children of their own. He could have become an excellent grandfather. He loves people, especially children, and Ophelia used to think she saw bits of herself in him when she saw how loving he was as a parent.

Is. How loving he is. Allie loves his children more than anything.

"He was in a coma for four days. 'Twas shorter than the time thou wast comatose, but 'twas...he was on so many machines the way thou wast, but for a different reason. He could not breathe on his own, and he'd lost so much blood no one was sure he would...make it, but he woke up, and...he could not move or speak. He had no idea what had happened to him...he has very little brain damage, but his heart almost failed....

"It took him a long time to be well enough to go home. He had so many injuries that needed to heal. His intestines and kidneys were harmed, and of course his liver, well...his liver is going to need time to regrow. And they feared he'd bleed again, and when he did not, I hoped he would make a full recovery someday. I know not if he will. I helped take him home, and bathe him, and tuck him into bed...he's spent much of his time in bed. He's still so frail, Allie." Her voice breaks, right as she's trying to be strong for her son, and mayhap this is what she deserves for waiting so long to tell him. And she cannot bear to see his reaction, to see into his crushed soul, or to acknowledge he very well may not recall this moment and she will. She'll carry it for the rest of her days, which seem set to last longer than her Allie-bear's, and will be carrying with her as she shuts her eyes for the final time.

He does not bawl for almost a minute. Maybe that is the time it takes him to process what he's heard; maybe that is how delay betwixt his felt and expressed emotion. Whatever the case, she must swallow her tears and be strong for him, as he needs her. He needs her to hold him up and sing him lullabies, needs her to show him she cares about his thoughts and his needs. He needs her the way he needed her when he was a little boy and the entire world was huge and terrifying to him, and none of it made sense to his developing brain. But the world has never made sense and never will, not to the sagest of them all.

She clings to him as tightly as she dares, her arms secured round his fragile chest and his arms around her neck. His white cotton t-shirt bunches up as she cuddles him, a tad loose despite Marie's having had to purchase a new wardrobe for him, and snot pours from his nose onto her shoulder.

Ophelia cradles him for around half an hour, when his sobs subside and she deems 'tis time to bring him back into the palace. He needs rest, and he must be tucked into bed for his afternoon nap.

Whilst his nurse cleans him up, she finally lets go. Allie, her precious Allie, almost gone forever, and now Wil--and Alastair is gone, has been for over a year now. She's a widow. She very nearly lost both her sons, and now one has debilitating brain damage while the other is lying helpless in his childhood room. She is surrounded by family at every turn, yet she is alone in her agony, alone because she is forced to watch first her husband and then her children suffer.

The old prayer that has become her comfort echoes in her heart, and she repeats it to God and to herself. Take me, she begs, creaky knees down on the floor of the master bedroom. Take me. Do not take Allie, do not take Wil. Take me next. Take me. Her physical health is nearly perfect, and she loathes her spryness in the face of Allie's physical and cognitive disability and Wil's wounds. She should be the one injured, not they. Not because she desired to be waited on by her sons, but because the natural order dictates the parents should die before their children. Please not Wil. Please not Allie.

Take me.