In this instant of lying in a hospital bed with a scorched arm wrapped tightly in gauze and secured by a cast, nothing seemed real anymore. Not the accident. Not the pain. Not his mother's death. Nothing...
"After we go to the drug store we'll go to the supermarket!" His mother turned to him with a smile and ruffled his hair. "And buy my little boy a treat!" She turned back to her steering wheel. "You've been such a help around the house lately, and you've been such a help for Mr. Fredrickson!" She beamed. "I am just so proud of you!"
Russell blushed a little, embarrassed by his mother's fawning the way all young boys were. "Mom..."
"Ohhhh," she chuckled. "You know you love it!"
Russell gasped as he saw a pair of blinding lights careening towards the front of the car. "Mom! Get out of the way!"
"What?" His mother turned just in time to see the lights - "NO-!" - and then...nothing.
Everything was just so surreal to Russell. How could this have happened? His mother had always been such an uppity and energetic young woman, and then she was reduced to a pale car accident victim connected to several tubes and barely clinging to life.... She'd been in a coma for several days until she finally let go. She had let go because she knew she could trust that the man she and her son had accepted as family would take good care of her little boy. She knew he was in good hands. However, Russell had no idea what was going to happen until the day of the trial...
Russell clung tightly to Carl's suspenders, peering around in fear at his surroundings. The sound of the gauntlet slamming down on the podium scared him right out of his wits especially since he was in such a vulnerable state already.
"Careful not to pull my pants down Russell," Carl whispered back to him. He peered down at the young boy's frightened brown eyes. "It'll be alright..."
"Mr. Fredrickson!" the judge barked. "For the last time, come to the stand please!"
Carl nodded. "Y-yes, your honor." He turned to walk up, but Russell continued to cling. "Um....if you wouldn't mind...could Russell come as well?"
The judge's face softened at the sight of the crying and frightened little boy. "Alright, Fredrickson."
Carl carried Russell up to the stand with him and he stood boldly in front of the judge.
"So, tell me why you think you should have custody of the boy. Aren't you a little old to be adopting? Wouldn't it make more sense for his biological father to take him?"
Carl gave a growl. "His biological father is a neglectful JERK!" he snapped.
Robert's eyes went as wide as saucers as he stood. "I am not!" he gasped. "How dare you? Just who do you think you are, Carl Fredrickson? Calling ME a neglectful jerk? Why, you're a bad influence on my son!" He strode up to Russell and leaned into the podium a little. "Russell, son, don't you want to live with your dad again? We used to have so much fun together!"
Russell lifted his tear stained face to his father. "Keyword: used to. I don't want to live with you anymore...." He clung tighter to Carl; an indication of who he did want to be with. "You used to be such a great dad, and you used to go to all my Wilderness Explorer meetings!" He glared angrily at his father. "But you didn't even come on the most important day: the pinning the badges ceremony! And this is the only day I've seen you pretty much since you left! An' Phillis doesn't like me....an' I don't like you anymore!"
'Atta boy, Russell, Carl thought, tell him off for once.
Guilt replaced Robert's desperate look as he hung his head. He knew he was nothing more than a flaky failure that was hopelessly behind in child support and lately had seemed to only be making excuses to not spend time with his son, but he never thought he'd ever lose Russell's favor. "I'm sorry, son..."
Russell looked right up at him and said coldly, "'sorry' doesn't even begin to describe you...."
Carl sighed softly as he gently smoothed Russell's soft black hair. The trial had been long and hard, but the outcome had been in his favor. In the end, it was all Russell's decision of who he wanted to be with. But the realization that Carl was now a parent had sunk in. "Help me, Ellie...I need guidance." He stared up into the clouds as if he was staring into heaven and searching for some answer....some help...some guidance he wished would come. "I don't know how to be a dad." He suddenly felt his wife's presence in the room as if she was actually on the bed right beside him. He could even feel the warmth of her hand on top of his.
"You've always known how to be a father..." She smiled one of her gentle wrinkled smiles. "Ever since you've met this boy you've been more than...just an old neighbor to him, and more than a friend to him." She glanced down at the sleeping boy on the bed. "He's never had a real father....not for a while anyways. You have a chance to make that happen for him..."
Carl was silent; he appeared to be thinking.
"And you have a chance to prove to yourself that you're a better father than yours ever was.."
That was true. Carl would have a chance to redeem his family name from the way his parents had soiled it. They were the most strict, most mean parents Carl could even imagine. Nearly everything was banned from the Fredrickson house. Candy and sweets and fun seemed to be pretty much forbidden. Every act of misbehavior was met with a strap, if not worse. If he didn't get all As' in school he was a disgrace to the family. If he hung around Ellie he was a disgrace to the family. His parents would constantly laugh at his dream to go to Paradise Falls. It was the only time they ever laughed, actually. The moment he and Ellie decided to have a baby Carl had already promised himself he wasn't about to scar his son or daughter the way his parents had done to him.
Spiritual hands reached up and gently caressed his face."We always wanted kids, love.." She smiled. "I may not be around to be his mother, but you still have the time to be a father." Her smile turned more encouraging. "I know you won't make the same mistakes your parents made.." The vision became more translucent until she finally disappeared.
And Carl was alone again and left with his thoughts. Even though he had his deceased wife's support he didn't feel confident. In the darkness where he could only see the moonlight pouring in from the window he felt a small hand grip his and squeeze it as hard as he could. Blinking in confusion, an affectionate smile came to his face as he gently rubbed the young boy's hand.
Are you saying you believe in me, Russell? he wondered with a tiny grin.
Russell smiled in his sleep and subconsciously squeezed his hand harder.