An hour later, tall and dignified, he stood in front of a microphone and proclaimed there was no immediate danger and the authorities had the situation well in hand.
The boy gazed cleverly at nothing. Looking to each side, he smiled secretively then bit down on his finger till he reached bone.
He bathed her face with cool water, then held an ice cube to her cracked lips. It was hot this time of year, with little relief from the cooling system installed as part of some distant five-year plan. Earlier he had brushed her wispy hair, picturing what should have been.
Wringing the washcloth into a bowl, he described to her the view from her bedside window, a view and a window that both existed only in his mind. A summer lake, a breeze coming off the lake bringing the scent of flowers. Birch trees offering shade, birds in the trees offering song. The breeze offered a promise of relief from the heat, flowers offered the promise of a future.
Settling into the bedside chair, he began to read aloud the final chapter of Anna Karenina. At some point he detected a change in the ambient noise. He was unsurprised to find her breathing had stopped. Another gone.
Gently mopping her brow for the last time, he kissed her forehead and whispered into her ear. Message passed, the tall man turned and strode from the room.
He had been a fixture at Novgorodi Children’s Asylum for as far back as anyone could remember, arriving each morning to visit his sick child. The nurses whispered amongst themselves -how many children could one man have ? An old man, at that?
None had the courage to ask. His demeanor was that of a gentleman, yet he did not seem approachable. The tall man’s smile was only for the children. Perhaps it was the eyes, seen by the nurses as carrying disapproval. But that wasn’t it at all.
His eyes were haunted.
A small boy sat in the tall man’s lap, alternately looking at the picture book then turning to look up at the man’s face with delight. The boy watched and listened to tales of animals in a zoo, animals he would never see in a zoo he would never visit. One, two, three small legs kicked animatedly.
Cradled in the tall man’s arms, the boy slept and dreamed of what should have been. Settling the sleeping child into his bed, the man pulled the covers up and whispered something into the child’s ear. Sighing, he kissed the boy’s forehead.
Trudging slowly down the hallway, the tall man noticed a boy with bandaged hands standing in a doorway, regarding him cleverly. The boys eyes looked directly into his own, seeing directly into his soul.
The tall man quickened his pace.