The Hurting Game

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Chapter 20

Nicolas and Micah walked down the hall toward the room where the nurse waited. Micah held the back of his hospital gown to keep himself covered. The halls were clean and empty, reeking of bleach. Nicolas wasn’t worried, and he strode along casually. Micah had been complaining of difficulty breathing for weeks, but he was prone to colds and congestion, so he and Martha hadn’t thought much of it. The doctors wanted to run some tests; they were just going through the motions. But Micah looked nervous.

“It’s only a few tests,” Nicolas explained. “Just to make sure everything is as it should be.”

“Is that normal?” he asked, a hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Yes. It’s no big deal.”

“ looked worried.” Micah suddenly stopped, looking up at Nicolas through big brown eyes. His face was drawn and a little pale. “I’m gonna be okay, aren’t I?”

“Of course. It’s your mother’s job to worry. You’re going to be just fine. They’re going to get in there and find out that you’re healthier than your mother and I put together.” Nicolas put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

His vision flickered.

“You’ve always been prone to chest colds. It’s most likely that.”

For a moment, his son’s eyes were dead and glazed, staring eerily through him.

“You’re going to be just fine. I promise.”

He couldn’t feel the slender shoulder in his hand. Just an ephemeral mist.

“I promise, you’re going to be okay.”

“Nick. Hey, Nick!”

Someone shook him. Nicolas slowly came to himself in the darkness of his own bedroom. Sweat streamed down his forehead, though there was nothing but a thin sheet over him. The room was so hot that he felt like he was suffocating. His lungs heaved. He thought he was alone until he felt a hand on his arm.

“Wake up!” Another shake.

“I’m awake,” Nicolas grunted, twisting around. As his vision cleared, he made out the smallish figure kneeling on the bed next to him. It was too dark to see his expression. The room was still and silent, and pale beams of moonlight peered through the blinds.

“Are you okay?” Iziah asked quietly.


“You’re crying.”

Nicolas lifted a hand to touch his face and discovered the tears mixed in with his sweat. He took a long breath.

“And shaking.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Nicolas growled, sitting up. Now that his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, he saw Iziah’s frown. “What are you doing up?”

They’d gone to bed a few hours after dinner. Nicolas put together a make-shift bed for Iziah on the couch, and the boy practically collapsed into it. While some color had returned to his face, there was still an anxious, haunted look in his eyes. Before he went to bed, he’d given Iziah strong pain meds, and the boy took them gratefully. They must have worked because he looked relaxed, his eyes at half-mast and mouth no longer molded into a pained grimace.

“I was awake and heard you making noise.”

Nicolas had been dealing with nightmares since he lost Micah, but he didn’t know he talked in his sleep.

Iziah shifted so Nicolas couldn’t see his face, legs hanging off the edge of the mattress. “You miss Micah a lot, don’t you?” Iziah murmured.

Nicolas frowned, confused by the strangeness of the conversation. Normally, Iziah’s words were cocky and abrasive, but now his tone held a seriousness to it. “Yeah. I do.”

“I do too.” He thought he saw Iziah’s lips twist into a smirk. “That really sucks. Losing your wife right after you lost your kid. Why did she go?”

“I... I don’t know.” Nicolas pushed down his covers, trying to cool off, wiping at his face. “There was work for her in Seattle, and...I think we both had to deal with things in our own way. You know? We went back to doing the only thing we truly understood.”

“Heh... You must have worked this job before you met her then. After you got out of the military.”

“Yeah. I stopped when I decided to settle down.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“Why don’t people ever say that things are going to be okay, Nick?”

Nicolas frowned, squinting at the boy’s inscrutable form. “What?”

“People used to tell me that. Agents working in the foster system. They’d say, ‘It’s alright, Iziah. That house didn’t work out, but the next one will. You’ll be adopted soon. Just be patient. Everything is going to be okay.’ But eventually, people stopped saying that. Something had changed, but I was never sure why. Why don’t people say that anymore? Is it because things don’t really turn out okay?” Iziah’s gaze was fixed on the floor, his hands in his lap.

“I don’t know, kid. I guess I’ve never thought about it.”

Iziah’s words made his chest ache. He’d spent more time than he wanted to admit pondering questions like that. There was a time when he believed in happy endings.

Iziah looked at him tentatively. “Did you ever tell that to Micah?”

Nicolas’ throat went dry. Of course he’d said that to Micah. What else could you tell a dying child? And Nicolas had believed it because he couldn’t fathom the idea of things turning out any other way. “Look,” Nicolas snapped. “I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t you have something better to do than keep me awake half the night? I’m still catching up on sleep because of you.”

Iziah scrambled upright, a hand on his ribs. “Sorry...” He mumbled as he hurried out the door.

Nicolas leaned back and rubbed his hand against his face. It wasn’t right to snap at the kid, but he didn’t want to think. It just made his chest ache more. Besides, why did the kid want to talk anyway? He looked exhausted.

There was no sound from the living room. Iziah said he was already awake when he heard Nicolas. It struck him that Iziah might be having nightmares after all he’d been through. Maybe he’d been talking to pass the time before he had to sleep again. Nicolas closed his eyes, letting out an irritated sigh. He was frustrated with himself because he didn’t know how to fix this, and his exhaustion left him impatient. But the kid deserved a little more lenience. After all, that morning he had faced the prospect of torture and molestation a second time. Nicolas took a long breath. He was still too hot and shaken to try sleeping again. After a long moment, he sat up and climbed out of bed. His sweat pants and T-shirt were soaked. While he was up, he would adjust the thermostat.

A wave of dizziness washed over him, and the darkness made it difficult to keep his balance. He stopped in the doorway, looking out. Iziah sat on the couch, quiet and still. Nicolas took a long breath and let it out.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Iziah was quiet a moment before countering, “What are you doing? Aren’t you gonna go back to sleep?”

Nicolas walked across the room and adjusted the thermostat.

Behind him, he heard Iziah shift. When he turned, the boy’s face was buried in his knees.

“Want some NyQuil or something?” Nicolas said.


“Might help you sleep.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” he mumbled.

Definitely nightmares, then. Nicolas took a long breath, closing the thermostat and folding his arms. He was still irritated from being wakened, but he knew Iziah had been trying to help. The nightmare would have left Nicolas prickly anyway. “You want to watch some TV?”

Iziah lifted his head and spoke in a bitter tone, “Won’t it keep you awake?”

“I’m not ready to go back to sleep anyway.” Nicolas walked over to the television cabinet and crouched down, looking through movies. “You like John Cusack?”


“Good.” Nicolas pulled out a movie and grabbed the remote, glancing over his shoulder at Iziah. There were dark circles under his eyes, but he wore a look akin to relief. He stared at the floor, shooting Nicolas a grateful glance.

They got through two movies before Iziah finally fell asleep. Nicolas was struggling not to doze off in his chair during the last thirty minutes of the movie and glanced at Iziah. The boy was slumped against the arm of the chair with his lips slightly parted, a blanket twisted around the lower half of his body. It was a relief to see him looking so peaceful. Hopefully the boy’s mental and physical injuries would fade with time.

Yawning, Nicolas turned off the television and went back to bed.

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