He’s gasping for breath like he’s in pain.
“What happened?” I cry, half tumbling off the bed toward him. “Are you okay?”
“Back spasm,” he says.
“I’m having a back spasm,” he gets out.
I’m still not sure what he’s talking about, but I can tell he’s in horrible pain, so I don’t press for more information aside from asking, “Do you need to sit down?”
He nods, and I guide him toward the bed. He slowly lowers onto it, wincing until he’s finally sitting, at which point some of the pain seems to ease up.
“Do you want to lie down?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Getting up and down is the hardest part when this happens.”
When this happens? I think but don’t say, and guilt stabs through my chest. Apparently this is another one of those Poppy-less developments from the last two years.
“Here,” I say. “Let me prop some pillows up behind you.”
He nods, which I take as confirmation that this won’t make things worse. I puff up the pillows, stacking them against the headboard, and he slowly reclines, his face contorted in pain.
“Alex, what happened?” I glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table. It’s five thirty in the morning.
“I was getting up to run,” he says. “But I guess I sat up weird? Or too fast or something, because my back spasmed and—” He tips his head back against the pillows, eyes scrunching closed. “Shit, Poppy, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” I say. “Why are you sorry?”
“It’s my fault,” he says. “I didn’t think about how low to the ground that cot thing is. I should’ve known popping out of bed like that would do this.”
“How could you have possibly known that?” I say, disbelieving.
He massages his forehead. “I should have,” he repeats. “This has been happening for, like, a year now. I can’t even bend over to pick up my shoes until I’ve been awake and moving around for at least half an hour. It just didn’t occur to me. And I didn’t want you to get a migraine from the chair, and—”
“And that’s why you should never be a hero,” I say gently, teasing, but his expression of misery doesn’t so much as waver.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he says. “I didn’t mean to mess up your trip.”
“Alex, hey.” I touch his arm lightly so it won’t disturb the rest of his body. “You didn’t mess up this trip, okay? Nikolai did.”
The corners of his mouth twist into an unconvinced smile.
“What do you need?” I ask. “How can I help you?”
He sighs. If there’s one thing Alex Nilsen hates, it’s being helpless. Which goes hand in hand with being waited on. In college, when he had strep throat, he ghosted me for a week (the first time I was truly mad at him). When his roommate told me Alex was laid up with a fever, I made very bad chicken noodle soup in our dorm kitchen and brought it to his room.
He locked the door and wouldn’t let me in for fear of passing the strep along, so I started yelling, “I’m keeping the baby, okay?” through the doorway and he relented.
It makes him uncomfortable to be fussed over. Thinking about that has a similar, if distilled, effect on me as looking at the formidable Sad Puppy Face. It overwhelms. The love rises less like a wave and more like an instantaneously erected steel skyscraper, shooting up through my center and knocking everything else out of its way.
“Alex,” I say. “Please let me help.”
He sighs, defeated. “There are muscle relaxants in the front pocket of my laptop bag.”
“On it.” I retrieve the bottle, fill a glass of water in the kitchenette, and bring him both.
“Thanks,” he says apologetically, then takes the pill.
“No problem,” I say. “What else?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” he says.
“Look.” I take a deep breath. “The sooner you tell me how I can help you, the sooner you get better, and the sooner this is over, okay?”
His teeth skim over his full bottom lip, and I’m mesmerized by the sight. I startle when his gaze cuts back to me. “If there’s an ice pack here, that would help,” he admits. “Usually I alternate between cold compresses and heating pads, but the important thing is just sitting still.”
He says this with disdain.
“Got it.” I slip my sandals on and grab my purse.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Going to the pharmacy. That freezer doesn’t even have an ice cube tray, let alone an ice pack, and I doubt Nicky has a heating pad either.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Alex says. “Really, if I sit still, I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
“While you sit upright in the dark? No way. For one thing, that’s extremely creepy, and for another, I’m up, so I might as well be of use.”
“This is your vacation.”
I walk toward the door, because there’s nothing he can do to stop me. “No,” I say. “It’s our summer trip. Don’t dance around naked until I get back, okay?”
He heaves a sigh. “Thanks, Poppy. Seriously.”
“Stop thanking me. I’m already drafting an absurd list of ways for you to repay me.”
That finally wins a faint smile. “Good. I like to be useful.”
“I know,” I say. “I’ve always liked that about you.”