The door burst open and Sam rushed in, glancing wildly about, trying to take everything in. “What’s going on here?” He almost tripped over Alexi’s writhing form. “Alexi?” Then his eyes fell upon Hunter and the baseball bat hanging limply now by the side of his body. Before Hunter’s lips could form a response, Sam was on him, grasping him harshly by the shoulders, shaking him. “What have you done, you fool?” Hunter just gaped dumbly at him. Sam raised a hand as if to strike his son, but thought better of it and just shook his head. Turning his eyes towards Alexi, he saw that Dana had come in and she was holding the boy tightly to her, his head in her lap. She stroked his air, all the while whispering comforting words to him. A muffled thud turned Sam’s attention back to Hunter. The baseball bat had fallen to the floor, on the thick carpet. “Out. NOW!” And before Hunter could protest, Sam dragged the boy out of the room and down the stairs, towards Sam’s study. He shoved Hunter down into one of the comfortable reading chairs, then moved to the corner, where a small cupboard held a few bottles of whiskey.
“I didn’t hurt him. I swear. Only…I wanted to scare him a bit.”
“Well, it worked, don’t you think?” Sam snarled at his son. Having poured himself a drink, Sam took a swig and moved over to the fireplace. He stared at the many photos lining the mantelpiece. He forced himself to breathe deeply and dig deep inside him for patience and calm. When he spoke, he did so in an even voice, trying not to let the anger, disappointment and disgust sip into his words. “You hurt that boy more than you could possibly imagine.”
“But I didn’t…”
“DO. NOT. INTERUPT. ME.” Sam spoke, accentuating each word. Hunter cowered slightly, trying to sink deeper into the soft chair and hide. “Alexi is broken in more ways than one and what you did right now opened such wounds that I don’t know how he’ll ever be able to trust any of us again. By God, Hunter, why did you have to do something so stupid? Now, when he had barely gotten here? He wanted to go up to your room, because he felt it was his duty to tell you that he wouldn’t get in the way….That he just wants to be your friend. And you spat in his face and in one fell swoop undid any progress he might have made so far. Why, for the love of God, would you refuse him the chance you yourself were given? You told me once how lucky you felt to have us as your family. How blessed you were that Providence brought us in your life? Why then do you deny him the same chance? Why do you deny him friendship and family without even getting to know him? What would Brandon say?”
Hunter was crying silently now. “I’m sorry. But I didn’t think anything of it. I meant to scare him a bit, but I would never hurt him.”
Sam moved to stand in front of his son. When Hunter refused to raise his head to meet his eyes, he crouched down so that Hunter was now looking down on him slightly. “I know you’re a good kid, Hunter and trust me when I say I understand what you’re feeling, but…you DID hurt him. That’s something you’re gonna have to accept and work towards rectifying.” Sam got to his feet once more, emptied his glass and moved to refill it.
“We…Your mother and I, we had decided not to tell you everything about him until he felt comfortable enough around us. It was stupid of us to do so, perhaps, but we thought we needed to earn his trust before anything else. I never expected this. I had hoped I would never have to say this, but you disappointed me tonight, Hunter. I thought you better than this…”
“That is besides the point now.” Sam emptied the second glass in one big gulp. ”What happened to Alexi was…well, despicable. One afternoon, his father came home. The police report said he was intoxicated. He…he killed his wife and almost beat Hunter to death. It was sheer dumb luck that he didn’t get to finish the job. There was an ambulance across the street. Someone had called in a heart attack. Apparently, it was a false alarm, but the commotion from the Tupolovs’, that is, Alexi’s house, grabbed the attention of the paramedics. They rushed in and saved the boy, but it was already too late for his mother.” Hunter was sitting upright in his chair, eyes wide in horror. “His dad used a baseball bat for the whole thing…”
“Oh, God, dad…I’m so sorry.”
Yes, I’m sure Alexi is as well. He lost everything that day, son. You think you know a thing or two about loss? Talk to him someday…”
“Why would anyone do something like that?”
Sam was silent for a moment, pondering his response. Finally, he shook his head. “Who knows? Madness has many causes…”
Dana came into the room. She glowered at Hunter. “How could you?”
“Mom, I’m sorry…”
“You just make sure you tell him that. If he ever trusts you enough to get near to him again…” she said. “Do you have any idea…”
“Yes, I do…” he trailed off, his head bowed.
Dana looked to her husband and communicated silently. She nodded and grabbed Hunter by the scruff of his neck. “You, young man, are grounded indefinitely. I’ve managed to calm Alexi down enough to get him back to his room and into bed, so you can just march straight to your room.”
Hunter almost ran out of his father’s study. Dana just sighed deeply and moved to her husband. She embraced him and he ran his fingers softly through her hair, then bowed down to kiss her. Once the moment passed, they both moved, hand in hand, towards the fireplace. She took one of the framed pictures in her hand and tears began to fall on the photo of a small, dark-haired boy smiling up at her.
The alarm almost made Alexi jump out of bed. Confused and bleary-eyed, he managed to stop the blasted noise. He yawned and rubbed at his eyes. Bright sunlight was streaming through his window. His eyesight adjusted and he finally managed to distinguish a shape in the desk chair opposite his bed. This time, he did jump out of bed and put his back to the wall. Hunter got up from the chair and reached out a hand towards him. Alexi recoiled. He wanted to yell for help. He wanted to run. He wanted to cry. And he cursed himself for being a coward and a weakling. Then pain shot through his stiff leg and all the world around him disappeared into darkness, as he collapsed on the bed.
Hunter was next to him in an instant, a worried expression on his features. “Are you alright?” he asked.
What a stupid question, Alexi thought to himself. There he was, as helpless as a babe, having already demonstrated his weakness the previous night, now he was sprawled on the bed and is latest nightmare by his head, asking if he was alright. Why couldn’t his dad have finished the job, he asked himself bitterly.
Finally, his leg began to relax and Alexi’s head cleared a bit. But the cloud of fear was still there and getting darker. “Please…Don’t…I got the picture. I’ll stay out of your way. Just, please, don’t hurt me…” he managed to say, still lying down on the bed.
Hunter extended his hand towards him again, but Alexi pushed himself out of reach. Pity and pain played across Hunter’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know…” he said, then he quickly turned and ran out of the room.
He didn’t know? Alexi thought to himself. God, what was it that he DID know? Everything? No, that wasn’t possible. Not even his parents knew. And judging by the pity he saw in Hunter’s eyes, he realized that what Hunter knew was the oh-so-tragic story of Alexi Leonard Tupolov. He was sick of the pity, of the furtive glances and whispered words. “Oh, that poor boy!” he said mockingly. “Of course they all pity you. Look at yourself. You’re worthless. Less than a man in every possible way. A coward and a cripple.” He roared in frustration, then grabbed the alarm clock and smashed it into the opposite wall of the room. Then he closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, grabbed his cane and walked into the bathroom. When he came out a few minutes later, only a towel wrapped around his waist, Dana was on the floor of his room, gathering the pieces of the broken alarm clock.
“Well, I suppose a new alarm is gonna have to go on the shopping list for today, then…”
“I’m so sorry about that. I’m gonna pay for it…Somehow…” he half-whispered.
“Don’t be silly.” Dana smiled up at him. “Now, get dressed. Breakfast and then we’re off.”
Alexi looked down at himself and blushed. “Right…clothes.”
Dana just laughed as she straightened herself up. “I’ve taken the liberty of picking out something for you to wear today…from Hunter’s wardrobe. I hope it’s okay with you. You both are about the same size, so they should suit you nicely though you’re awfully skinny. Anyway, just thought you shouldn’t wear the same clothes as yesterday. I find it difficult to wear the same clothes I wore during travel, even if it was a short journey.”
“Yeah, me too.” Alexi smiled shyly.
“There. A smile…It suits you. You should try it on more often.”
And with that, she left him to get ready.
What followed was a whirlwind for Alexi. He was never much of a shopper, so his head was still spinning around noon, when, after a few hours, two dozen shops and quite a bit of money spent, Dana was satisfied that he had enough for the fall. “We’ll see about some warmer clothing next week, okay?” she had said. Alexi didn’t even know how to respond. He was expecting no more than a few shirts and maybe a pair or two of jeans, but now he was having difficulty fitting all the bags into the back of the car, having already filled the trunk. He finally managed to squeeze everything in and got in the front seat. He had already thanked Dana two dozen times as they were shopping, but he still felt he owed her and her family more than he could ever pay back.
“Thank you. I know words can’t do justice to how I feel, but it’s all I can give you now.” He said.
Dana reached out a hand to pat him gently on the head, but Alexi flinched slightly. Just pulled back her hand and the two of them were quiet for a minute. “About last night…”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to react that way. I promise I won’t do it again.”
“You’re sorry? My dear boy, you have nothing to apologize for. We let you down. We just never expected Hunter to react that way.”
“It’s alright. He didn’t hurt me or anything. I don’t think he would have even if you and Sam hadn’t come in. It’s just…” he trailed off, looking out the car window. The silence stretched between them, but it was not an uncomfortable one. It was a moment of understanding.
“You need time. And love. And I promise, you’ll have them both. Even from Hunter. He…he needs time as well.” Dana suddenly pulled over at the side of the road and turned in her seat, facing Alexi. “We all have our secrets and our haunted pasts. We all experience loss. And some of us take it harder than others.” She closed her eyes shut, yet a single tear still glistened on its way down her cheek. “We had a son, Sam and I. His name was Brandon. I was told I could never have children, yet there he was, a miracle. He was a year older than Hunter. They grew up together, as true brothers. Hunter loved him more than anyone else in the world. They were together all the time. Brandon was his best friend and, even though they were so close in age, he acted like Hunter’s big brother in truth. They…they were together when Brandon died, 4 years ago. They were just standing in front of the school. I was on my way to pick them up, but was running late. A…a car drove by and opened fire on them and a few other kids. Brandon…”Dana couldn’t finish the sentence, as pain overcame her and she leaned her head on the steering wheel and started sobbing.
Alexi felt her sorrow and tragedy as if it were his own. He tentatively reached out his hand to Dana, placing it in what he hoped was a reassuring manner on her back. Dana quickly turned around and hugged him tightly. “God, Alexi, you remind me so much of him.” Was this it? Was this the reason why they had taken him in? Alexi’s mind raced. He was to be the replacement for their dead son? It certainly explained Hunter’s reaction. Nobody could replace the center of his world when it had been so violently ripped apart. Least of all a cheap, broken replica. Alexi could never live up to Brandon, he knew that right then and there. But these people were good and they were in pain. He knew a thing or two about pain. If he could at least partially mend this broken family, perhaps he could also find the peace and acceptance that had alluded him.
“I’m sorry.” He whispered in Dana’s ear as he pushed her gently away. Still holding her by the shoulders, he looked deep into her eyes and knew they understood each other. “Losing a son…I can’t imagine that. But I do know what losing one’s family feels like. What having the very foundation of your world shaken and shattered feels like. I’m not Brandon. But maybe there is a reason why destiny put us together. If we can heal each other, then we owe it to ourselves to at least try.”
Dana brushed away her tears and smiled at him. “Thank you, Alexi. That means a lot to me.”
“And I’ll take care of Hunter, I promise. I’ll get through to him eventually. Like you said…time and love.” Dana hugged him once more.
When she broke the embrace and started the car again, the air seemed lighter, the atmosphere brighter and suddenly, there was hope for the future again.
“We need to head for the school. Then my shift is starting at work, so we won’t be able to buy you a computer today. Instead, Vince will pick you up tomorrow after school and he’ll see to it.” Alexi gulped audibly and Dana laughed. “Yes, he can be quite…unnerving at times. But he’s been a good and loyal friend to Sam. You’ll get used to him quick enough.”
They then stopped by the school, where Alexi got his schedule. Dana also wanted to pick up Hunter, but when the boy saw Alexi, he told his mother that he’d rather walk. Disappointment hit Alexi, but he just whispered to himself “Time…”, the resolution to break through to Hunter firmly on his face.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Alexi passed the time by organizing his wardrobe, napping and finally reading a dust-covered pulp novel he found lying under his bed. Sam eventually called him down to dinner and he was once again disappointed to see that Hunter was not there. Sam gave him an apologetic smile and they both dug into the hot pizza. “Sorry, but Dana’s the only one with any real cooking prowess, and seeing as she’s at work…”
“Are you kidding, this is heaven. I haven’t had pizza in months.” Alexi smiled in-between mouthfuls. They passed the rest of dinner mostly in silence, Sam occasionally asking Alexi about his shopping trip. Alexi avoided any mention of the talk he and Dana had in the car. She’ll tell her. It’s not my place, he thought to himself. Finally, saying their good-nights, they each headed for their respective bedrooms.
Alexi was plagued by yet another nightmare as he tossed and turned in his bed. But it wasn’t the usual terror chasing him. He was now a 12-year-old boy, chatting idly to his brother. They laughed as a loud bang pierced the sky and then the blond-haired boy standing over him, his brother, was screaming. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you alright?” The boy kept crying as he replied. “I’m alone.”
Morning came and with it Alexi’s first day of school. He did his usual morning routine, had breakfast and Sam drove him, explaining how Hunter had decided to take the bus that morning. “Time”, Alexi thought. As the car pulled up in front of the school, Alexi noticed a few of the other kids staring at him through the window. He breathed in and got out of the car, planting his cane firmly on the ground. He waved Sam farewell and started making his way towards the entrance. As he moved, he could hear the whispers and feel the gaze of the other kids, but he kept his eyes firmly on the front door. “More pitiful looks. I don’t need your pity.” He thought firmly. “But what do I need? Family and unconditional love.” The answer came to him in a flash. For the weeks he lay in the hospital bed, he thought over and over about what his life meant. What he wanted. Numerous times, he wished his father had gone all the way. Other times, he thought of finishing the job himself. He always dismissed the possibility of moving forward. Until now. It was all so clear and easy for him to see. He wanted love. He had always wanted it. And here was the chance to finally find it. “But they still don’t know it all.” A nagging feeling that just wouldn’t go away. “Maybe I’m a good enough replacement son, maybe their pity and love for a lost one is enough to accept me, but what if I ruin it all again?”. Alexi chewed at his lower lip as these thoughts raced through his mind. He didn’t even notice the small step in front of him and he was suddenly falling.
“Great way to avoid their pity.” Alexi mumbled under his breath. “Or your own humiliation.” As he heard a few kids laughing at him. He didn’t get up, instead just turning on left his side, to rub at his right leg.
“Wanna hand?” someone spoke.
Alexi looked up and his breath caught in his throat. A boy stood over him, a hand outstretched towards Alexi. He was tall. Over 6 feet. Lean as Alexi used to be. Another runner? He had soft brown eyes. The type that can melt your heart with the kindness reflected in them. Stubble covered his chin and his hair was cropped short, the way Alexi liked it. Worry was etched on his face but, noticing Alexi’s dumbstruck expression, he smiled and Alexi felt his heart skip a beat. Then he regained his composure and reached for whatever reserves of dignity he had left.
“No, thanks. I can manage.” He finally replied.
“We all need help, my friend.” The young man grasped Alexi and pulled him to his feet with amazing ease. “Even when we fail to realize it.” He shook the dust off Alexi, then held out his hand. “Name’s Evan.”