He stumbled backward, tripped over his briefcase, and fell.
Hemmed in between two parked cars, he couldn't get his arms out to break his fall. There was a heavy wet smack as his head hit the concrete.
I stood over him for a moment.
He lay on his back, eyes closed, mouth open. One leg crossed under the other.
He didn't move.
Get up. I need to know what you meant. And why you're so pissed off.
I prodded his shoe with the toe of my mine. Maybe he was faking. "Ben, are you all right?" The world's stupidest question.
Always asked when we already know the answer. No reaction.
Was he even breathing? I crouched down to look at him more closely.
Just move, Ben. Do something. Anything.
"Ben, can you hear me? Wake up, mate."
The first stab of panic in my stomach. There was a trickle of blood coming out of his ear.
Oh, God. Oh no.
"What's wrong with Alice's daddy?" I started at the small voice behind me and turned to see William standing there, his white school shirt untucked and sticking out from under his jumper. He peered at Ben's motionless body.
I stood up and moved to block William's view. "He, uh, he fell down, matey."
"Is he going to be all right?"
"He's fine. He's just getting his breath back."
The blood leaking from Ben's ear was dripping onto the ground, making a small pool on the gray concrete.
Oh, Jesus. What have you done?
There was a little catch in his voice, a tightness that I knew all too well. My son tried to say something else, but the breath caught in his throat with an asthmatic rattle.
I said, "He's going to be fine, Wills. Are you OK?" His chest heaved again. "Can't bre—"
I squatted down in front of my son, blocking his view. The color was draining from his face. His first asthma attack, right out of the blue when he was barely a year old, had been the most terrifying experience of my life. A panicked emergency call, running paramedics, and raw, helpless terror. The memory of that fear always returned when he had another episode.
Just like now.
He took a thin, jagged breath, like air whistling through dry reeds. Eyes wide and frightened.
Protect the boy. Get the inhaler.
"Where's your puff-puff, Wills?" I said urgently.
He shook his head, another halting, gasping breath forcing its way down his constricted windpipe as it closed to a pinhole. I scooped him up and ran to the car, diving into the glove compartment for the spare inhaler I always kept there.
It wasn't there. 'Shit.'
Turning William's schoolbag upside down, I emptied the contents onto the passenger seat. Books, coloring pens, a pencil case, conkers, candy wrappers, a key ring, three toy cars, and an unwrapped lollipop stuck to a crumpled letter.
Another jolt of panic.
'Got to get him breathing again. Upstairs at hotel reception? No. Time wasted. Home is the nearest, surest place.'
'But what about Ben?'
All the details of the moment came into sharp and brilliant focus. The dark leather soles of Ben's shoes. A black Range Rover at the top of the ramp. Off in the distance, above ground, a siren. My son taking another half-strangled breath, thinner than the last. He swayed slightly on his feet, his movements slowing.
This excerpt ends on page 19 of the hardcover edition.