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i hold the hand i hold

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I’ve shrunk enough. The words beat in Alice’s blood, between her ears, in her clenched teeth, as the nurse ripped back the curtain. “Miss Spencer!” Her starched apron was dirtied with rust and powder. “Get away from him this instant.”

She tightened her grip on Alfred’s hand. “I will not.”

“No backtalk,” she snapped, grabbing Alice’s wrist. Alice snatched her hand back, pulling Alfred close to her, unflinching as a cough shook his body.

Nurse narrowed her eyes. Before, she had cowed Alice with her imperious tone and red-crossed uniform. Not now. She was just a woman, a volunteer nurse with a sharp voice and sour-apple heart that took more joy in dominating than healing. And Alice? She wasn’t a little girl to be frightened by a few loud words. She refused to break the nurse’s gaze, and after a heartbeat she shifted her attention. “Mr. Hallam, move away from Miss Spencer,” she ordered, taking Alfred’s elbow.

Alice’s breath hitched. But instead of letting his fingers slip from hers, Alfred laced them together more tightly. “No.”

“Clinging to each other won’t do any good,” the nurse snapped. “Death doesn’t turn away for children.” Behind her, Nigel looked on with wide eyes.

Heat rose in Alice’s chest. “He’s not dead yet.”

“He has tuberculosis.” She had given up trying to drag them apart, too quick to slap Alice with the vicious reminder to call for support.

“Does he?” Alice hadn’t seen Tabatha approached; by the way she jumped, the nurse hadn’t either.

“Did you not hear the doctor?”

Tabatha blinked slowly, arms crossed. “I heard him. I saw him, too, running search and rescue every night for weeks. He could barely keep his eyes open tonight.”

“Are you implying he made a mistake?” Tabatha shrugged. “This is ridiculous. Dr. Butridge!” The nurse spun out, fists on her hips. In a flash, Tabatha crouched before Alice, fixing her with feline eyes.

“Time is ticking, little sister, but it hasn’t run out yet. Don’t wait too long at the crossroads.”

“Where is Dr. Butridge?”

“He’s already gone.” Tabatha strolled away. “This isn’t the only bunker with people to be saved.”

Alice stared after her, then at Alfred. He lifted his head from her shoulder, meeting her gaze, and the spark of hope that Tabatha had struck kindled to fire within her. He was her Alfred– the boy she had grown up with, who had suffered through fears with her, and fights, and rations and broken bones and loss of families and rampaging sicknesses and terrified nights when the only lights came from distant bombs and he was still here, still beside her, weak and pale and alive. As long as his heart kept beating faintly against her side, she would not sit still and shut up. “Can you hold on a little longer?” she asked softly.

“I can hold on to you,” he rasped.

Alice had loved him before. Maybe she’d always loved him, in a hundred different ways. But that was the instant that she realized that growing old with him was the only happiness she could imagine in this whole war-torn world. She raised her voice. “I need help getting Alfred to the hospital.”

“Get him to a hospital? You will do no such thing!”

Alice barely heard the nurse. She looked at each person taking shelter in the bunker, her unlikely companions in this ark, daring them to take action. Nigel pointed across the shelter with one trembling finger.

“Mr. Dr. Butridge left his stretcher.” Alice leaned around the curtain to follow the gesture and saw Dodgy tottering forward with a stretcher under one arm.

“That is Red Cross property,” the nurse said, striding toward him. He dodged her, sliding the stretcher down at Alice’s feet with a wink.

“They should’ve put their name on it, then,” he said. Looking at Alfred, his expression sobered. Wordlessly, he took one of Alfred’s elbows and helped him onto the stretcher. Immediately, Alfred rolled onto his side, curling into a ball to contain a violent cough. A wad of lacy white fabric landed with a fwap beside him. He pressed the scarf to his mouth.

Clarissa avoided Alice’s gaze as she crouched by the third corner of the stretcher. “It’s a cheap scarf,” she said, with a toss of her head that turned out more frightened than carefree. “I’ll get another one.”

“We need one more person,” Alice said.

Then Nigel edged past the nurse, twisting his cap in his hands. “Your mummy won’t know where to find you if you go out there,” she snapped.

Harold stood, his canteen falling to the floor with a clatter. “I’ll tell her,” he said, watching Nigel with a strange, soft expression. “Go on, little squirt.”

“It’s raining rockets out there,” the nurse warned.

“No, it’s not.” Tabatha lounged against the door of the bunker. They fell silent. No distant explosions shook the ground. The world was quiet.

“The best time to leave the foxhole is when the hounds stop baying,” Harold said, without moving to pick up his canteen.

“I think it’s morning,” Clarissa said, her face softening. “It’s my birthday.”

“We haven’t heard the all-clear siren,” the nurse said desperately.

“Oh, shut up, you old nag,” Angus said, letting out a puff of smoke. “You’re not in charge here anymore.”

“On the count of three,” Alice said, and Nigel, Clarissa, and Dodgy each crouched by a corner of the stretcher. “One… two… three.” They heaved Alfred, groaning, into the air, and stumbled towards the door. Tabatha held it open for them, and they emerged into the smoky gray of morning.

 

In later years, Alice found it hard to believe that they had made it to the hospital, carrying the stretcher, dragging the stretcher, begging for help, finally hailing an ambulance. For once, Alfred was the one frozen in time, limp on the stretcher, and she was the one with the ticking of a clock in her ears, chasing her forward. A doctor took Alfred. Dodgy left, and then Clarissa. Nigel wrapped his skinny arms around her in a tight hug before following them down the street.

And then she was sitting alone on the steps of the overcrowded hospital in the cold morning. She shivered. She had left her sweater in the bunker. It wouldn’t do any good to charge in looking for Alfred, and it might do some harm, but oh, there was that old itch again, to run after him, to cling to him all the harder as he was pulled away. “He promised to hold on,” she whispered.

The door behind her opened and she nearly fell over in her hurry to stand, blood rushing to her head. “Did you come with Alfred Hallam?” asked a white-aproned woman.

“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “Can I see him?”

“Not yet,” she said, and Alice’s heart dropped like a stone. “He’s been quarantined for–”

“For tuberculosis,” she finished. So the doctor was right. For a few precious hours, she had thought…

“That’s what the boy said too,” said the woman. “He’s got a nasty pulmonary infection and bad malnourishment at the very least, but tuberculosis– it doesn’t look like it. You didn’t bring him a moment too soon. We’ve already started him on antibiotics.”

Alice could hardly process what she was hearing. Her head was full of cotton and static. Not tuberculosis. He didn’t have tuberculosis. “Is he going to live?”

“That’s between him and God now, darling,” the woman said earnestly.

“When will I be able to see him?”

The nurse pursed her lips, then seemed to make up her mind. “Keep your eyes on the last window, third floor.” She disappeared into the hospital and Alice stumbled back, counting up the floors to the right window. The sun was rising behind the building. She raised her hand to shield her eyes. Minutes passed. And then, Alfred appeared at the window, pressing his palm to the glass, a tired smile on his face. She waved wildly. He lifted two fingers– V for victory. She did the same– like rabbit ears. All the tension that had knotted her nerves eased, like the melting of snow. He was still fighting. And that was enough for now.