Mike Scofield had just had probably the very worst day of his life. And now he was back in his bed like it had all been a dream, except it hadn't been a dream and even though he was really, really tired, he couldn't turn off all the really bad things that had happened. Instead, they kept playing in his head like a movie, even though Mom wanted him to try to go to sleep: Jacob taking him to that office he'd never seen before, telling him his father, who Mike knew he'd seen, was not really his father, but that his father was actually dead. For sure dead, for real. Then Jacob telling him his mom was…that Mom was…Mike couldn't even think it this time, but he saw it, saw the red anger that splashed all over the inside of his own head when he heard Jacob's words, spilling the sad-sad-sad everywhere.
He saw his mom and Uncle Lincoln coming to get him, his fear more of an orange color than his angry red color or his sad color, pulsing super bright everywhere as he ran to them. And when Mom's arms came around him, she didn't know why he cried so hard…Mike decided she'd been ready for medium-hard crying but not can't-control crying, and now he still couldn't stop, even though he was in his room and in his bed and under his covers. Because what if Jacob came back and tried to hurt them again?
Mom talked to him softly, into his ear, on and on: Jacob had lied to him. Jacob had told him the wrong things to confuse him, but Mike had been smart, and Mike had been brave, and he'd been right to go to his father at the lake house. He'd been a good boy to know who he was, and he'd been a good boy to run, even if he got tricked and ran to Jacob. She told him Jacob was sick: not sick like had-to-stay-home-from-work but sick like confused, where he told people the wrong things, probably himself, too. She told Mike Jacob had wanted to win: win Mike, maybe, Mom didn't really know, but that instead, his father had won and he would be coming home.
That last part stuck out to Mike like a yell, because, what? Coming home? Mom had said lots and lots of things about Mike's father before, things like smart and mysterious and like-a-storm, but never 'coming home'. Never ever.
Mike had always wanted his father to come back, he'd pretended it lots of ways: maybe his father was a secret agent, and he'd sneak into Mike's school to get him. Or maybe it was like in Guardians of the Galaxy and he lived on another planet, but Mike would fly there one day. Or maybe, and this was Mike's favorite, he wasn't Superman or super-anything, but would save Mike from an evil super villain anyway. Oh. Maybe he sort of had.
But 'coming home' for real? That was scarier, and Mike really only wanted it to be him and Mom tonight. He buried his face into her shirt as he cried, and when he heard the front door open, then heard voices, his whole body went tight, and he couldn't move, like his brain had suddenly ordered, 'run!' and 'hide!' at the same time. Mom heard the voices too, but her body suddenly relaxed, like her legs and arms had turned to puddles. "Finally," she breathed.
"In here," she called, and Mike wanted to press his hand over her mouth.
"No, no," he whispered, and he buried himself deeper, tightening his grip on her. After a minute, he thought he heard Uncle Lincoln, though, so Mike peeked out of the covers around Mom, just to make sure, and then he saw him: his father from before, from the lake house and from the video Mom let him watch and from the photos he had. But what if it wasn't? What if Jacob was right and Mom was wrong?
But could Uncle Lincoln be wrong, too? Could all the grown-ups be wrong? Mike didn't know. He tried very hard to be braver than usual, to look right at Uncle Lincoln and at his maybe-father storm that had come back, and Uncle Lincoln came and sat on the bed and tried to get him to lie back down, but then Mom tried to get up and no, no, no. Not that.
He gripped her arm and side as tight as he could, until eventually she gave up and lay back down, and even though Mike knew this was not what she wanted, he didn't care. Didn't care. He squeezed his arms around her and would not let go. He saw Uncle Lincoln leave the room, and then he saw his father stay, and then his eyes agreed to close and he didn't remember anything more.
In the morning, things didn't seem quite as bad. His very worst day of his life was a full day behind him now, and the way he remembered it had gotten a little bit softer, not as rough and bright, like his new soccer jersey had gotten softer after the first wash. No one was in his room, and everything sounded quiet, so Mike got up to look for Mom. He walked down the stairs to the kitchen, and froze on the last step: his father was there, at the table. He was hurt. Mom was taking care of him, using that brown bottle of stinging stuff Mike remembered from when he fell off Dylan's skateboard. His father looked like Zeus from his Greek gods book, sitting in the chair, back curved and shoulders bent, 'cause gods could get injured…they could even die. Mike's kitchen had been turned into a page from his comic books. Maybe he'd create a new hero: Dr. Storm getting nursed back to life.
"That hurts," he said, before thinking better of it. Before his brain could decide to stay sneaky and quiet instead.
Immediately, his father looked up at him. He looked at him very intensely, like he'd stopped breathing. Intense was on Mike's spelling list last week, so he knew. Mom said something, but Mike didn't really hear her, because his father's eyes had kind of pinned him, silencing everything. After a moment, his father held his hand out to Mike, and Mike knew he should take it, because Mom had taught him that: shake grown-ups' hands, say nice to meet you. Except Mike couldn't move, because of the eye-pinning superpower.
He stood there on the step, staring, and then his father swallowed; Mike could see his throat work and that seemed more real-person than superhero, and for some reason, seeing that made Mike braver.
"You're really my real dad? Not pretending to be?"
"I'm really your real dad," he answered, "and I am very, very glad to officially meet you."
This allowed Mike to finally move his feet. He stepped into the kitchen and shook his father's hand.
It felt weird. Like electricity between their palms when they touched, but at the same time, like anybody's hand, just normal. How could it be both, Mike wondered? He studied his father from this closer-up angle. He really was just like in the video Mom kept, in the photos Uncle Lincoln had, and the one Mom had, which was their wedding. Mom liked to say, you were there that day, too, Mike, but he didn't remember it, of course. He hadn't been born yet.
He leaned up on the counter so he could see what Mom was doing now. The wound on his father's shoulder was gross, but Mike wanted to watch anyway. There was lots of blood on the gauze Mom used, but Mom wasn't like some of the other moms he knew who freaked out at stuff like that. Even when there was lots of blood, like now, she was quiet and calm.
He asked about her gloves, though, because gloves were a safety thing, and Mom was big on safety, but she said, "Just like I don't need to wear gloves when you get a cut, I don't need gloves with your father." This made sense: they were both Michaels, Mike supposed. Kind of the same. They talked some more, mostly about Jacob, but thinking about Jacob made Mike sad and his stomach queasy and he was glad when they stopped.
Mike stayed right next to Mom all day. Because what if she was wrong? What if something bad still happened? Uncle Lincoln came back to the house, and he hugged Mike's father super hard, even though he'd just seen him yesterday. Mom hugged his father too, when Mike was resting with his books, but he still watched them carefully. They hugged for a very long time, more like holding, really, not talking, not moving. Just holding. Mike wasn't sure how this made him feel. Good, he thought? But also scared. Because Mom definitely cared about his father being here a scary amount.
They all went to the park in the afternoon. Some lady Mike didn't know came, a friend of Uncle Lincoln's. Mike didn't mind. Uncle Lincoln always had a lady friend. He sat by Mom most of the time, until it got too boring, listening to Mom talk with the other adults, and then he went to the playground. But it was boring there too, by himself. Mom came and watched him, but she didn't play with him, like she usually would. She sat on the bench with his dad, and they talked. It was serious-talk, Mike decided, watching them from the monkey bars, the hushed kind of talking that wasn't meant for kids, but it seemed different than when Mom talked with Jacob this way. When Mom and Jacob serious-talked, it meant: argument. Followed by: pretend it didn't happen. This serious-talk was not angry, just…intense. Maybe everything was intense now. It ended with Mike's father taking Mom's hand and holding it and then kissing it. Mike froze, hanging from the bar. Jacob had never done that, never ever, but probably he should have, because it made Mom happy, Mike could see that. Mike's father touched Mom's cheek then, very gently, right where Mike knew Jacob had hurt her, and in his tummy, Mike felt a little lurch of gladness like when LJ talked him into riding the rollercoaster at the fair.
Whenever Mike closed his eyes, he still saw terrible things. Things he couldn't even tell Mom. Things that wouldn't go away, even if he squeezed his eyes very tightly and screamed. It didn't matter whether he was in his bed or it was the middle of the day, the scary images stayed super clear, the same way things around Mike were clear all the time: he could see how things worked just by looking at them, see how they were put together, and now, he could see how terrible things happened, from start to finish.
This was why Mike needed to stay home from school, and needed to be near Mom all the time. Especially at bedtime. Tonight, the terrible things were so terrible, he cried even when Mom left for just a minute, just to get a glass of water, she said, or even just to step into the hall.
Knowing his father was downstairs didn't make it easier for Mike to calm down. It made him more worried that Mom might have to go away, down the stairs. Mike wasn't afraid of his father, exactly, he wasn't what was scary. No, he was starting to seem more like a person and less like a superhero, though he had solved Mike's mazes super fast. That had been kind of awesome. But Mike still wanted only Mom.
But then she did go away, getting up and saying one minute Mike. This made him cry again; even though he didn't really want to, the crying wasn't something that felt like a choice. And then he heard her at the bottom of the stairs, saying something like sorry, I'm trying. Mike tried to stay really quiet and still, to hear more, but then: feet on the stairs again, so Mom was coming back. But it wasn't Mom.
His father had come upstairs instead, which was not okay. Mike felt his whole body go stiff, like Dylan's cat did that one time, when he had suddenly seen a dog across the street and froze, right there on the sidewalk.
"Where's my mom?" he called.
"She right downstairs, but you've worn her out," he heard his father say. "Let's give her a little break, okay?"
No. Not okay. Mike buried himself deeper under his covers, only, he kept one eye out, so he could see when his father came in the room and sat down against the wall.
"When I was your age, I was scared at night," he said, but that didn't seem like it could be true, to Mike. More lies. "To be honest," he added, and Mike opened his other eye; honest sounded better. "I was scared all the time, day or night, didn't matter."
All the time, just like Mike? That couldn't be right. But just in case, Mike shifted under his Star Wars blanket and looked out. "What were you scared of?"
"Oh, lots of things." Mike listened as he told him about fears he understood: fear for his mother. Fear of being left behind. Mike tried to imagine Uncle Lincoln as a little kid and couldn't.
"Has he ever made you a crane?" his father was asking. "A paper one?"
Mike shook his head, but paper crane reminded him. "Like the one on Mom's back?" This interested Mike: Mom didn't talk about her crane. She just called it something I needed to do. His father called it a talisman, a protector Mike could have, too. Mike liked this version better.
"Can I come over there? Show you?" his father said, and even though he asked, Mike didn't know whether he could say no. He didn't know whether he wanted to say no, either.
He turned on the lamp, and that made things better. In the light, Mike didn't have to fill in quite so many blanks as in the dark. His brain didn't have to work quite as hard. He watched carefully as his father folded a piece of paper, turning it into a crane like by magic. When it was his turn to try, his stomach suddenly felt filled with butterflies. What if he couldn't do it? There were lots of steps…what if he messed them up? Wouldn't his father realize maybe Mike wasn't so great, then? Even though he'd liked his mazes?
He made the first two folds, then…ahhh. He couldn't remember. He couldn't remember. He couldn't—
His father laid his hands over Mike's, to show him. Mike kind of froze again, like the dumb cat. But then his father was folding the paper with him, they were doing it together, and Mike remembered how, and it wasn't really too hard, making the crane. "What does it do?"
"I'm not going to lie to you, Mike," his father said, and Mike looked up sharply. This was two times already: two times his father said he would only tell Mike the truth. Mike was keeping count. "That's just a piece of paper," he said, "and fear is just air, not even that."
Just air. That seemed true, Mike decided, at least while the room was lit, yellow in all the corners.
"What's your biggest fear, the very worst one, right this second?"
Mike didn't hesitate. "Mom will need me, and I'll be too far away."
Mike's father let out a small, quick breath, like he'd been hit in the stomach. Mike had been hit in the stomach once, by Thomas at school, when he'd wanted to get on the bus first. That had been wrong. But Mike didn't know if saying this fear, about Mom, was wrong or right. He only knew that Mom was his number one most important person.
"Do you not like being upstairs, when we're downstairs?" his father asked, and that was true too. Mike didn't like that. "You're closer than you think, you know."
His father showed him what he meant, crawling on the floor to the far side of Mike's bed. Mike was too curious not to follow. He stopped at the big, breathy hole on the floor.
"I don't like to look at that hole," Mike said swiftly.
But his father told him it was a pathway, a way for Mike to get to Mom, if he ever needed to, which he probably wouldn't, but it was good to be prepared. Mike pressed his ear to that hole, heard the TV, and when he lifted his head, his father was looking at him with a smile. He hadn't smiled too much, and this smile, it snagged at something in Mike's memory, which was silly, because he'd never met his father before this week. But…and then Mike remembered. This smile, where his father's eyes kind of crinkled and his face looked all warm, had been his smile on the video Mike liked to watch. The one where Mike's father talked to Mom and Uncle Lincoln about being free. He'd been saying he loved them, when he'd smiled like that, just like he smiled now at Mike, the side of his face against the floor.
This didn't make much sense to Mike, because his father couldn't possibly love him, too. He'd just met him, and Mike didn't really think love at first sight could be a real thing, even though his friend Maddy thought so. But just having his father look at him this way, the way he'd looked at Mom and Uncle Lincoln, made Mike feel more safe. More like maybe it would all be okay, and that he'd be okay if he went to sleep tonight. It reminded him that Mom would be okay, too, with someone who looked at her like this.
When his father turned off the light and sat back down against the wall, Mike realized he didn't want him that far away. "There's room for you here, if you want a pillow," he offered. "It's R2D2."
He held his breath as his father accepted and came back over; the mattress dipped when he lay down beside him, but now, instead of feeling scared or nervous, Mike felt relieved he was close. Like maybe his father could take care of some of the scary things for a while, so Mike could sleep.
When Mike woke up, he realized two things super quick: he finally didn't feel tired anymore, and his father wasn't still in his room with him. A quick glance down the hall to peek into his mom and Jacob's room told him he wasn't there, either, and neither was Mom. She hadn't even slept there: the bed was still made, the throw pillows all still arranged as they'd been yesterday. They must be in the downstairs guest room again, where sometimes Uncle Lincoln slept when he visited. Mike took a moment to try to decide whether he minded this, and decided he didn't: Mom had been really tired, too. Maybe with Mike's father lying down with her, she'd been able to sleep like Mike had.
He walked downstairs, but the guest bedroom door was closed, so he continued to the kitchen to get himself breakfast. When Mom slept in, he was allowed to make cereal. But when he rounded the corner into kitchen, his father was there, already up, standing by the window. Mike stopped short, kind of skidding on the tile floor.
"Hi, Mike," he said softly. He seemed happy to see him.
"Hi," he breathed, but Mike wasn't so sure how he felt. He'd planned to get his cereal without someone else here, someone like his father who made him sort of nervous. "I thought you were still asleep," he said.
"I don't sleep quite as much as I'd like to," his father answered. "I'm hoping that will change, here with you and your mom." He didn't sound like he thought it would, though.
Mike thought of the way ideas and images always turned over, around and around, in his mind when he tried to rest. "It can be hard to sleep when so many things want you to see them and study them when you close your eyes," Mike offered. "All of them screaming at you."
His father's face kind of twitched into a surprised frown, and Mike wondered if he'd said the wrong thing. Maybe that was just him, with the spinning, screaming things in his head. But then he nodded. "Yes," he sighed. "That's when it's hardest." He looked almost sadly at Mike, so Mike hefted himself up on the counter and changed the subject.
"Do you want cereal? We have Cheerios and Chex and Raisin Bran, but I hate raisins, so that last one is actually only an option for you, not me."
He saw his father's lip twitch in a smile, but then he said, "I'll remember that."
Mike waited for him to pick, then pivoted around on the counter to look at him when he didn't. "I thought maybe," his father said, "I'd make your mom breakfast. Do you want to help?"
Mike's hand stilled on the box of Chex he'd reached for. "Not cereal?"
"Do you like eggs?"
"Sometimes," Mike hedged, because it depended. He hated the runny ones. He told his father this.
"Omelettes then, maybe," his father said. "Or scrambled. We'll see what we come up with."
They set to work, Mike sitting on the counter so he could point to where each dish and utensil lived, behind which cabinets and drawers. His father popped some bread into the toaster, an appetizer, he said, and Mike asked, "Can it be cinnamon toast?"
The cinnamon and sugar were already mixed, in their own little container, because Mike loved cinnamon toast and ate it a lot, so Mom had it all ready, but his father kept looking for the sugar somewhere else. "No," he told him, "Look in there, um…um…" Mike needed to get his attention, but realized he didn't know what to name to use for his father. His teacher, Mrs. A, said questions were always okay, he decided to just ask.
"What should I call you?"
His father stopped looking for the sugar immediately, and turned toward him. His face looked very unsure, but also very hopeful, and also almost sad again. Mike thought that seemed like a lot of things to feel at once. He took a minute to answer, like maybe he needed courage first, and was waiting for it to get there. Mike had felt that way, when he'd had to read his rocks and minerals report to the whole class.
"I hope you'll call me Dad," he said slowly, "but I know I haven't earned that, yet."
This seemed silly to Mike. You didn't earn a name. Names were just given to you, whether you deserved them or not. He should know: he had been given a big, important name, and hadn't done a single thing to earn it.
"I'll call you Dad," he told him agreeably. It would be fun; he'd never had one before. He tried it out: "The cinnamon sugar is right there, Dad." He pointed, but his dad still didn't reach for it. He still just looked at Mike, swallowing hard like Mike sometimes did when he didn't want to cry. Why? Maybe it was like when he and Dylan pretended new names for each other. You didn't respond to it right away, because you forgot it meant you. He pointed again, and his dad finally found the cinnamon sugar.
"Do you like Norse mythology?" Mike asked him, as the toast popped. Most people didn't, so Mike wasn't too hopeful.
But his father—Dad—nodded. "I like Odin best," he said, "because he stands for honor and nobility."
Mike agreed. "And he wanders through far lands all the time, never staying home where it's boring."
His dad frowned at this, but said, "Mmm." He cracked a bunch of eggs in a bowl, and started the burner on the stove. Mike knew how to turn on those burners, but wasn't allowed. "Do you want to do this part?" his dad asked, handing him the whisk they'd found in a drawer. While Mike stirred the eggs, his dad looked through all the spices they had, and selected a bunch of things.
"How do you know which to pick, if you don't use a recipe?" Mike asked. When Jacob used to cook, he used recipes. By the book, he called it.
"Cooking is just chemistry," his dad said. "Foods and flavors reacting with one another."
This way sounded more fun than recipes. He watched as his dad added the ingredients from the spice cabinet. When the egg mixture hit the pan, it smelled good.
He ate his toast while his dad stirred the eggs on the stove, and they talked more about Odin. Well, mostly Mike did. When he'd almost finished his toast, he looked up to see Mom in the doorway.
"Here she is," his dad said, and he looked at her happily, like he'd looked at Mike happily earlier. Mike waved at her.
"That's all I get, a toast-wave?" she said, but she was smiling and she seemed happy, too. Very happy, really. She kissed his head, and seemed to assess him, too. "You seem chipper. Get enough sleep, finally, buddy?"
"Mmmmhmm," he told her. because his mouth was full of toast so he shouldn't talk.
"God, I think we all did," she said, then she looked at Mike's dad. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, good night for sure," he told her, even though Mike knew he hadn't slept very much. Mike watched as he kissed her head, like she had kissed Mike's. It made his stomach do that little leap again, like when he'd seen his dad kiss Mom's hand at the park. Mike felt pretty certain no one loved Mom as much as he did, but it made him feel good, kind of warm inside, to think maybe his dad came close.
She didn't want any coffee, which was a bummer, because Mike liked working the coffee machine, but there was more work to do with the eggs. He brought her the first plate when they were done, which looked pretty with some orange slice twist thing his dad had made with the paring knife. Even the toast looked fancy, cut in triangles.
Mom looked impressed, too. "I thought we were just having eggs," she said. He explained 'plating' to her the way his dad had explained it to him, adding, "Dad says cooking is just chemistry. Did you know that, Mom?"
She said she supposed that was true, but looked at Mike's dad in surprise, her eyes widening as she communicated something to him the way grown-ups sometimes did, without words. It annoyed Mike; he didn't need her saying secret things. What if it was about him, and made his dad like him less? Mom wouldn't do that, but still: "He's better at cooking than you, so I guess he's better at chemistry," he told her.
Mike's dad argued this point, and Mike supposed that was fair. He knew exactly how old Mike was, right down to the exact day, which even Mike didn't know. And knowing that, it was easy to know exactly how many breakfasts Mom had made for him, all his life. The answer was 2,303, which was a lot.
Being at home this week felt like Spring Break: lots of days without school. "But you know there is school, right?" Mom asked him softly, as they sat together on the couch. "You've just been allowed to be home this week, because of all that's happened."
Mike knew, and with a pang, he wondered if his teacher had approved it. "Did Mrs. A say it was okay?" he asked, snuggling closer to Mom. He liked this: just him and Mom for a few minutes.
She nodded. "She hopes to see you next week," Mom said. "How does that sound?"
It sounded both good and bad to Mike: he didn't want to miss anything, but how could he leave Mom alone? How could he go to school without her? He couldn't, and that was all there was to it. "Next week at school?" he clarified. "Without you there?"
"I'm never there, Mike, at school. And you always do just fine." She reminded him it was music block, then promised she'd be there to pick him up.
But wait: that wasn't right. That wasn't how they always did things. "But you never pick me up," Mike corrected her. "Jacob picks me up." As he said the words, he knew they were wrong now, outdated. He hated it when things changed. Mom should be at work at pick-up time, not at the school. Did that mean... "Are you not going back to work?"
"I'm going back to work, yes," she said. "But Jacob won't pick you up anymore, baby."
"He's not coming back, right?" he asked, concentrating very hard on the sweep of Mom's fingers on his back. That was a good feeling, while thinking about Jacob felt bad.
Mom said, no, Jacob wouldn't be back, and they talked about why, even though mostly, Mike already knew. "But it's okay to miss him," Mom said, but Mike only had to think about the bruise on Mom's face to feel fiery red with anger inside. To feel helpless again, lost in Jacob's lies and riddles. There should be a word for that, for that angry-helpless feeling, but there wasn't. There was only this sick churning in his stomach.
"But I don't miss him," he told Mom in a whisper.
He wanted to feel happy instead of angry-helpless-churning, and at times, these past two days, he had been. Maybe not all the way happy, but happy in little bursts, like when the sun shone in quick flares on the windshield of the car as they drove under trees…flash, flash, flash. Mom though, she was happy like a summer sun, bright and shiny, with only little clouds that cast shadows sometimes. He told her he wanted to be that, to be summer-happy, and that he probably would be soon. One of those little clouds came over her face as he said this, but even so, he thought she understood.