September Salt

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Three little birds

Chapter Three: Three Little Birds told me Don’t Worry

FREDDIE

I could not believe she had shouted that. Screamed it for the whole class to hear. For them to all know and do with the information – my own fucking personal and private damn life – what they would.

I was sitting in the foyer whilst a group of admin teachers and Mrs White spoke in low tones. It was so obviously about whether they should punish me. Whether that would throw me more off axis. As if. I’d already been flung off and was drifting somewhere in outer-space – fuck, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t fucking breathe—

I jumped off my chair and ran out of the school entrance, only managing to turn quickly to a corner before I emptied my stomach, collapsing onto my knees. I attempted to stand shakily before I felt myself being helped up and lead back inside but I fought the aid. I shook them off me and told them I’d go home alone. Why would I wait for my mother to come and pick me up just so that I could sit in the car and endure more breathless silence? More pain simmering just below the surface...?

I needed fresh air. And I told them that clearly. When they still refused to listen, I got violent, and rude, and I just didn’t care anymore.

They allowed me to leave with a hesitant warning that I’d be receiving a detention (due to my unacceptable use of language) when I returned, and a call home.

Yes. A call home, for condolences.

Sherry said she’d said it so everyone would stop. So that I would stop, and wouldn’t regret my actions.

What regret?

Hartman had been taken to hospital anyway. Should have hit him more—harder, longer, fuck! No matter what his last name suggested, he didn’t have a heart. No soul to speak of. He’d heard and- even after that. Even after that.

He didn’t have a heart.

As I stumbled, I could feel my skin, my wrists, itching, my fingers numbing, and I knew it was a bad sign. I knew, too, that I wouldn’t be able to resist. I didn’t want to. I wanted numb and I wanted hurting. I wanted alcohol and sleep and dreamless darkness.

JOEY

I woke up in dulled pain to see my mum fidgeting with a set of keys, face aged with concern, and a kid next to her with a magazine she was reading covering her face.

I was in hospital.

“Mum.” Immediately, she looked up at me and stood, but froze like so, and then the kid sat next to her allowed the magazine to fall and I grinned so widely that my bruised cheeks ached. “Charlotte!” She stepped towards me, laughing out and calling my name as she took hold of the hand I offered.

“Sandy said you got into a fight.”

I looked at my mum and felt dread and regret gather. I could see disappointment, and concern, but she was trying to smile despite it all. “You’ve got concussion and some bruises here and there, but you’ll survive.”

I squeezed my eyes tight briefly, lifted a hand to run through my hair and began to apologise, but she shook her head and smiled brighter, blinking tears away.

“Its fine, it’s fine. I’m just glad you’re okay, generally speaking.” Charlotte looked up at her, and mum placed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her in. “You’re staying home for the next couple of days, though. Then you can have a long weekend in. We’re going to have to move your party to next Friday, I think.”

I shrugged, managing a smile. “I’m sure the guys will survive.”

Once back at home in bed, having been helped into it as if I was an invalid by Charlotte with mum smiling softly by the door, I’d reserved myself to inspecting my battle scars. A split lip, black left eye, bruising around the right. Heck, there was bruising everywhere. A really impressively sized purple-blue thing was hovering just below my ribs to the right a little. Then I had some on my left ribs too, making sitting up and breathing in general a bit of a bitch, and around my stomach. I lifted my head from my pillow in an effort to see more of it but, exhausted, I dropped back down and stared vacantly at the ceiling. How the hell had that happened?

I still didn’t understand why Freddie wouldn’t have just attacked Pete in the common room if he was going to get all pissed like that. I’d done nothing wrong; it seemed completely out of the blue. And yeah, I’d been holding his bag, but if I’d taken it out of spite I was hardly going to just waltz up to him and hand it over free of charge or whatever.

What was his problem?

Drifting in and out of sleep was something I’d always been good at, and it was even easier to fall when I’d been beaten within an inch of my life. When I’d slept as much as I could do, though, I woke to find it was dark both outside and in. I twisted a little, wincing, to turn my lamp on. I practically hissed at the resulting light and spent an amount of time blinking erratically and squinting at nothing in particular. Then I began to search through my bag for my phone. Along the way, I found Freddie’s book instead, and pulled it out, realising belatedly that he’d probably think I stole it. I turned the book over and allowed my eyes to drift over the text before opening it and becoming a landing matt for a frayed leather bookmark. It had fallen out from about half way through, so I did my best to find the spot and placed my right middle finger inside as I held it, then picked up the errant place-holder.

It had once been a tan leather, but all over it were a confusing juxtaposition of biro words in a spiky hand. Love and Hate. Beauty and Beastly. Can’t stop, but I’ll try. I’ll try and Won’t. There were angrier words too. Words that I’d have never imagined would have been floating about in Lewis’ head before he’d punctured a hole in me, painting his knuckles red.

The idea of it just didn’t fit it in with the other pieces of the puzzle he had been constructed to be. Still, I was oddly calm about it, considering. I wasn’t particularly angry at all. Besides, I was pretty glad for the two days off, and I technically had him to thank for that. I’d miss three periods of IT and two of Spanish (granted I’d miss a few of Philosophy and DT too, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make).

Having glanced at the words on the back too, which seemed to be set up in the form of some kind of poem, I placed it onto my bed side table and returned my attention to the book. It was foreign. Danish, apparently. Folding the corner of the page (I’d hoped) Freddie had been on, I flicked to the first page and began to read.

I was about fifty pages in (and entirely confused) when my phone started vibrating like crazy. This provoked hurried rooting through my bag, and my body protested for every second and more.

“Thank fuck you answered.”

“Yeah, doing well, thanks,” I muttered dryly, but there was really no bitterness behind it.

“What the fuck happened between you and Lewis?”

I shrugged, “No fucking clue. Just attacked me.”

“No, what the fuck is wrong with you?” That’s when I realised that Ryan’s voice had none of its usual teasing quality, and suddenly I found myself feeling uncomfortable in the situation that was taking place.

“What?”

“You don’t say shit like that about someone’s family when that shit happens.”

“What shit?” I threw back angrily. “You guys calling him a cannibal fagg-?!”

“Don’t even put this on us, none of us would do what you did-”

“The fuck did I do!?” Ryan’s words were hurting more than any bruise on my body. Freddie’s impromptu punching of my face and torso didn’t hold a torch to the knife my best friend was sticking into me. He hadn’t asked about how I was doing, nor did he seem to care. He wasn’t questioning Freddie suddenly turning on me, the Freddie he had guiltlessly laughed at today, the Freddie I’d been about to offer a hand to, but instead was accusing me—of what? I ignored the stinging in my eyes as he laughed humourlessly.

“What you said to him before you blacked out. After that Sherry girl told us he’d just found out that his dad has cancer.”

My first reaction was to laugh out of disbelief. The overwhelming ball of sickness, confusion and self-loathing that was the second could not even be expressed to my best friend because he’d ended the call. I wanted to believe he was telling a hideously unfunny joke, but it made sense.

Unbelievably, it made sense.

FREDDIE

This time, when I arrived home, I didn’t greet Mia and I avoided Lou’s bedroom. I could hear conversation in the living room and all but held my breath to refrain from making noise. My steps were light as I targeted my own room, shrinking from any patches that creaked, threatening to expose my entrance.

My knees buckled and collapsed just shy of my bed, and I fell without care as to how or where I landed. My head rolled to the side.

Numbness wasn’t a foreign feeling to me, and quite often I welcomed it. It helped me cope; hang onto a sanity that watched me mockingly, like a cat, and always disappeared when I wanted it safe in my arms the most.

I wanted it just then, and I wanted the contents of my bag, which I dragged lethargically towards me. 2 bottles of wine.

The good thing about alcohol was that the more you drank, the better it tasted, and the more you wanted to drink. The circle continued, and like this, the incidents of the day soon ceased to matter.

When Thursday morning fizzed into being, Lou was lying on my bed beside me and my head was pounding as I knew it would, stomach tender. Knowing I’d fallen asleep on the floor beside the bottle and a half I’d managed to finish, that was no doubt still there, I felt instantly worried about how she’d lifted me (in my drunken state), and even more so about who must have had to help her do so seeing me as such.

I eased myself off the bed and stepped softly, barefoot, to my ensuite where I shut the door firmly and began to undress, ignoring the headache and slight dizziness that was threatening to unbalance me.

When I was younger, I’d always remembered being terrified of entering a bathroom and taking off my clothes. For years my dad would step in with me, we’d brush our teeth together and then we’d both get undressed, and he’d show me that there was nothing to be afraid of. Then he’d wait with me as I clambered into the bath like only a six year old could. I’d never want him to leave, so he’d sometimes stay under the pretence that he was simply shaving, but I knew he probably enjoyed those times as much as I did. Wanted to lengthen the duration of our odd father -son routine.

They faded, though, as all things do, with my growing up and his growing busier. He never had the time to waste, and muttered it was disgusting by then. I was too old. It wasn’t right anymore. I should grow up.

And then I was sent to boarding school by the time I was ten anyway.

I rubbed my face and took a laboured breath in, turning the shower on as I did so.

The water calmed me even before it touched my skin, and afterwards the sound called out to pain and worry, coaxing them to roll on down. I lifted my head and closed my eyes, feeling tension being slowly erased as I squeezed my toes and held my breath.

I knew what was to come. I could not be happier about having been granted the day, and the next, did I feel I needed it, off from school, but that consequently meant that I had to be home.

The worst thing was that I’d barely known. When I was called into the office nearer the end of lunch, all I’d been told was that someone was on the phone for me, that there were complications at home.

Complications.

Complications could mean anything. Could mean Lou had misplaced her keys again whilst Mia was out, and I needed to be ready by the entrance whilst she came to collect mine. Could mean Mia had to go see her daughter again, who lived all the way in Manchester, and Dad had gone on a two-day business trip to Birmingham, and mum was awful tired again, so Lou and I would have to make our own dinners and keep the noise down. And, perhaps even stay with a friend for the night?

I had not expected to hear Mia’s strained voice on the other end as she repeated to me like she must have by then done to the rest of my sisters, in age order I imagined, that my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Her words had shrunk in size, confidence and clarity by the time she got to the last two words, and I’d asked her to repeat what she’d said without knowing that I’d regret it. That I wouldn’t want to hear those words at all.

How I composed myself enough to go and retrieve my things from Sherry in CT I didn’t know. I suppose I hadn’t really fallen apart yet. Crumbling as I strode down the halls, maybe, hearing stupid, meaningless conversations coming from every stupid direction from every stupid student who lived life just as pointlessly as we all did.

We all did.

Seeing Joey with my bag had probably snapped something inside me, finally triggered all the anger, and hatred, and frustration – I knew the stages of grief, even though my father hadn’t passed away, yet. Wouldn’t, I prayed. Still, knowing did not and would not prevent me from suffering them.

I refused to regret a single second of my actions. The guy had taken my bag as some sort of joke, as if they hadn’t successfully pushed my day downhill and watched with mirth in their eyes and excitement in their voices. Even still, that I’d been so cut up about the Dahmer incident seemed ridiculous now. That had been what I’d been so upset about just hours before I’d discovered that I could lose my father.

I was struggling to see the reason for an existence so ridiculously futile. Death was the end for us all, so where was our redemption? When were we going to catch a break?

My father had pushed all of his energy, all of his days, towards building up the accounting company he and his friend had started together when they were twenty-two years old; a couple of university students with determination and wealthy enough families to be invested in and supported. And they made it. Thirty-five years down the line, they’d hardly taken a break, only striving for bigger, better and brighter than before, and then Michael Rose, my father’s partner, lost his wife in an accident at a ski resort in Austria. Not a full year later, my father is diagnosed. Whether the answer to life was really years of education progressing into years of workplace imprisonment and resulting in undignified deaths for one and all, I was unsure.

I released a sigh that loosened something tight and uncomfortable within me, and leaned forward to rest my head against the white-tiled wall. Tears mingled with the trails of liquid encasing me, my mid-length brown hair felt heavy, the water grew steadily hotter, beginning to burn my skin, and I welcomed it all.

Lou whistled lewdly when I exited the room with a towel around my waist and a towel around my hair. She’d still been lying on my bed, but upon seeing me, she’d sat slowly up and smiled in a way that seemed only to scream fatigue. I replied in kind and headed towards my bed when she patted the spot in front of her, between her legs. Having settled there, Lou immediately began unravelled the towel containing my hair and let the mess free. From there she began to dry it for me, something we hadn’t done for months, and remained in silence.

I relaxed into the feeling, again closing my eyes, becoming lost in the maze her fingers were tracing into my scalp and through the hair I’d allowed to grow for too long.

“Dad wants it short,” I whispered. “Doesn’t he?”

Louisiana didn’t answer for so long that I believed for a moment she hadn’t heard, but when she finally did so, it was clear she’d been trying to ready her vocal cords so that I wouldn’t detect how close she was to tears. She hadn’t been successful. The tremor in her voice caused my heart to beat falsely and my own eyes to begin to fill. “That might not matter anymore, though.”

And then we didn’t say anything for too long again.

When two sharp knocks broke through the world Lou and I had sunk into, I could feel every fibre of my being protest. I wasn’t ready to return to reality and its misgivings. But seeing the face that followed the carefully opened door, I was on my feet before another thought could enter my mind.

My sister, Catherine, pulled me into her arms and held tight, uncaring of my still damp body or the way it shook, now that she was here.

“It’s okay, Freddie. It’s okay.”

I couldn’t bring myself to agree, but I loved that she smelt like sunflowers and Cath, and exuded everything that stood for stability.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to worry.”

JOEY

Happy Birthday.

It hadn’t really been one of those when I’d woken up, but it had been the first thing I saw. Heard. Mum was singing it to rouse me, and when my eyes struggled open, I saw she’d been holding—and begun waving—one of those cheap, garish banners, a crude silver colour with the boldly capitalised thirteen letters.

Happy birthday.

I offered mum a smile anyway as I pushed myself up blearily. She let the banner fall onto me and chuckled as I smacked it away, wrapping her weary robe tighter around herself as she pulled an envelope out of one of its pockets and presented it to me.

“How do you feel?”

“Like a troll,” I mumbled thickly through the punctured lip that seemed to have swollen three times larger than it had been the day before. Boy, must I have looked attractive. I took the proffered birthday card from her grudgingly and subtly weighed it for its possible contents as my mother laughed (and, noticing, all the more) then settled beside me, and I felt her automatically begin to smooth the sheets. Her smile grew fonder as her head tilted, and the hair that had been pulled into a loose pony-tail followed the movement. I squeezed when her hand came to find mine, and she winked mischievously.

“So, not far from how you look, then.”

“Ouch. That hurt more than the one on my hip,” I teased, and her expression turned a little sour with concern.

“I hate that whoever the idiot was did this to you the day before your birthday.”

I swallowed. Because Freddie hadn’t been the idiot. That—that was all me. Mum hummed playfully, misunderstanding my silence. “Don’t worry, Joe. We can figure out ways to make the ugly go away.”

“Yeah.” I forced a smile. “I’m going to open it now.” She nodded me on, so I slit the envelope open and gently pulled out the card.

‘You’re a big boy, now, but you look so small’ was printed in blue, letters, the word ‘big’ unsurprisingly big, and the word ‘small’ just so. The images reminded me of the Cyanide and Happiness comics, with a rectangular and very bald boy on one side looking up at a similarly drawn woman (though with what I supposed was hair) and man, apparently his mother and father, sitting on a huge heart labelled: our love for you. It was stupid, and cute, and it made a corner of my lips curve upwards without my consent.

“You like it?”

“I do.”

“Cute, right?”

“It is.”

I opened up. Happy Birthday, son.

Mum’s message said everything it did every year. Something along the lines of how much she loved me, another about how proud she was. She would always tell me how she hoped I had a wonderful day, and how she wished I’d continue to grow into the beautiful boy I was becoming (even though I’d already complained several times about her use of that adjective - and the noun, but she’d always replied with something about alliteration and how boys deserved to be called beautiful just as much as girls did, whatever). Then she’d sign off; ’Burning love, from dad and mum’, tiny little picture of Stitch, from the Disney movies, and a guitar beside him.

My friends all tended to find it odd that she did that, considering how my father, having been a fireman, died in a burning building. As if it was mocking that fact or something. But, I’d never seen it like that. When my dad had died, I’d been seven years old. I was pretty upset about it, but I hadn’t seen him all that often because of his job. I think I was mostly cut up about the fact that I’d never be taken to see his big, red fire trucks anymore too, though, in all fairness, seeing them had been so special because he was the one showing the amazing vehicles to me. They were where he’d been all the time he couldn’t be home. Thus, to a six/seven year old me, it was tolerable.

Anyway, soon after, I was introduced to Lilo & Stitch and I became obsessed with it. When mum and I watched it in the cinema for the first time, I remember being completely enthralled. It’s probably impossible for a kid to love something more than I did that Hawaiian girl and her blue alien. Still love it. Not going to lie. But as I was falling deeper and deeper in love with the film, the Burning Love montage came on at the end.

Mum started crying.

I didn’t notice at first, or take the shaking of her shoulders to mean something negative anyway. But there came a point where her cries were aloud, and the popcorn cramming crowd swivelled their accusing eyes, and she left the cinema. So I did too.

Turned out it had been his favourite song, and they’d played it at their wedding. Not their first dance song, but a close second. We left the cinema –though she did tell me we’d definitely come see it again, so I had no reason to complain- and we watched the wedding video. Loved the idea of weddings since then too.

And when we went back to watch Lilo and Stitch and the scene came to the screen again, well I saw my mother and my father. And I saw them dancing, and laughing, with cake and cutting, eyes open and shutting to kiss with such longing, and I saw, what I deemed to be, “Burning Love”. Very different to Lilo and Stitch’s, but I loved it all the same. And just as I’d wanted to be part of it—part of Lilo and Stitch’s world, I wanted to be in the world of my parents to. A world that burned with love.

Well.

Fuck; that was gay.

I replied that way I always did, moaning, “I’m not beautiful.”

“Joey, did you even learn alliteration in school? You really don’t appreciate it as much as you should. And, you know, boys should be called beautiful just as much as girls. Can do a heck of a lot for the self-esteem.”

Ah, yes. And she often said something or other about self-esteem.

“Ready to come down? Or breakfast in bed is available today of all days if you’re feeling too rough.”

I shook my head. The action usually chased away thoughts that taste a little sour or memories I’d rather not remember, but this time the memory of Freddie’s face and the thought - the knowledge - that I’d said something about his ill father floated in instead.

“Mum, I did something really bad.”

I couldn’t reply, of course, when she asked me what it had been. I’d simply shaken my head so many times that I swear I saw snowflakes floating about my room like they did in those snow globes, though they melted upon coming into contact with any part of it. Incompatible with reality.She didn’t seem all that worried as she stood, re-wrapping her dressing gown again. She’d lost the string to tie it closed, but she was unwilling to thrown it out; it had been a present from dad.

“Come tell me over breakfast.”

I shrugged my shoulders. The problem was, my mum had no idea who I was outside of my house. I wasn’t who I was with her with Ryan, or anyone. I didn’t particularly want her to know how I’d acted. Though... I eyed my mum’s placating expression.

“Didn’t they tell you what happened?”

“That you said horrible things to a guy after he punched you up in a citizenship lesson. You took his bag to warrant his anger. That’s what he said.” I frowned. “Of course, I don’t plan on just believing anything without consulting you about it.” She settled back on the edge of my bed. “Care to let me in?”

“I just… I did something bad,” I murmured, and after a heavy sigh, I let it out in the end. From the beginning—being assigned his partner, my attitude to that fact, and the common room Dahmer incident. Freddie’s reaction. My inner battle, surrendering to my cowardice and the decision to give him his bag. Then, finally, the fight, my comment—which I could not regret more—and Ryan’s call to me last night.

Mum sat for a while, eyes roaming about me and seeing something, apparently, that I wished I could see. And when she spoke, I could not have been more surprised.

“I’m proud of you.”

“What?”

“I’m proud of you.” She grabbed onto my hands. “I’m a little mad at you, but you need to take it easy on yourself, Joe. I don’t want you to ever say things like you did to that guy again, but can’t you see that you aren’t like your supposed friends? You were trying to make amends, Joey.”

“Yeah, and then ended with the fucked insult.”

“And that was stupid,” mum agreed with a firm nod, “But you’re going to apologise, right?”

“If he doesn’t crack my head open first.”

Mum smoothed her hands through my hair and smiled. “Even if he does.” She grabbed me by the jaw and lifted, face contorted into a mock angry scowl. “You’re going to have to grovel at his feet.”

I laughed and pulled myself from her grasp. “Mum-”

“Joseph Martin Hartman.” She smiled briefly before her eyes grew serious. “Can you promise me something?”

“Yeah. Anything.”

“Keep your friends from harassing him?”

I blinked at her with an eyebrow lifted. “You have too much faith in my heroic abilities.”

“I think I have just enough. He may lose his father, Joe.” I swallowed a sigh. “Ready to eat?”

Breakfast was cereal and toast, and bacon and scrambled eggs, with orange juice and presents. When I sat at our little rounded table, mum sat too and began to pour us both some juice, so I went to fill up my cereal bowl.

“You don’t want to open them first?”

“Should I?” She nodded.

“And there’s one more to come, but it’s in my room, so we can get that after breakfast, maybe, or I’ll run and get it. I do believe two others are coming over too, later today.” I grinned, knowing already who those two would be. My mother’s job as a child-minder meant I spent a heck of a lot of time with kids, and that was really cool. Charlotte and Priya had been planning what they were going to get me for weeks now, and I was interested, and, admittedly, a little excited, to see what it was going to be.

I reached over my cereal bowl for the top object on the pile of two.

Due to its size and shape, it had been very plainly obvious that it was a CD, but having opened it, it was both the new Eminem album, and a £5 iTunes voucher. I couldn’t help grinning widely as I went to thank her, but she waved me on to the next, which was two wrapped in one; a DVD and the graphic novel of The Watchmen.

Any grinned gratitude was shushed by my mum as she made me remain seated and told me to eat as she went to retrieve the last – but not least. I did so, though, while I crunched on my frosted flakes, I felt rather like cattle chewing the cud as I repeated the action and waited for my mother. And fucking Freddie was tainting my thoughts again. But I didn’t know why I always stressed about revealing things to my mum when, every time I did so, it always brushed the anxiety and confusion and self-hatred away. Teased the impending sense of doom out. My mum was like my best friend. Corny as it may have been, she was the only one I could express myself fully and truly with. The only person in the world with which I could just be. Ryan was next in line, but with him I still felt a slight pressure to act a certain way, and hold to certain beliefs. I couldn’t be completely serious concerning how I felt with him, because his replies were often jokes or passively ambiguous remarks that got me nowhere.

When she reappeared, she was accompanied with a beautifully smooth, burnt red/orange acoustic electric guitar, complete with a bag, a pack of multi-coloured plectrums, amp and chord songbook. After I fell all over the instrument, loving every inch with my eyes, and kissing it lightly with my fingers, mum presented a book too.

I looked at it quizzically.

Postcards from no man’s land by an Aiden Chambers. My confused gaze rose to her.

“That’s for me too?”

“Wasn’t going to be,” she began, handing it over before making her way to the table. “I finished reading it a couple of days ago. The main guy, Jacob, he reminds me of you a lot. I think you should read it.” I blinked at the book in my hands and shrugged after a moment, bringing it with me to the table and placing it atop the other gifts.

“Thank you.”

As I ate, my heart felt light, and my eyes kept straying to my brand new guitar.

FREDDIE

The first meal of the day was rarely a family thing. Forget about the fact that my three other sisters didn’t live at home anymore. Weekdays especially were quiet affairs. Lou and I would meet in the kitchen and sit at the breakfast bar eating toast or fruit, depending on how early or late we’d woken up – quarter to seven was usually the time we’d be down, but by that time dad would be rushing out of the house, and mum would be in bed still. Weekends Lou and I would have woken later, but mum usually called Mia to bring her food up. Dad played golf on Sundays at 10, so he was likely gone by the time we deemed it a safe hour to rise, and Saturdays it was the luck of the draw as to whether we’d see him or not. Mum drifted down for tea, now and again.

On this particular Thursday, however, we were all home, and Cath was home too. For once we were making use of the grand table in our dining room, its polished surfaces silently bearing the weight of the elephant. My father was drinking black coffee, my mother drinking tea and a scone. I would have laughed at that; she was the embodiment of British etiquette not only in nutritional taste, but in her obsession with an oppressive reservation that existed under the impression of politeness. Her actions were so carefully constructed, frail and submissive in their execution, and sometimes you had to stare at her for a minimum of two minutes to ensure she was breathing.

Seeing her now, for the first time after my father’s diagnosis, showed her behaviour emphasised. Her movements were slower and more deliberate, her eyes flitting here and there and remaining nowhere for any amount of time. Her smile was as brittle as the bones her skin was stretched over, spidery blue veins mapping faint roads along it all.

Silence hovered like a heavy fog, and I hated it, but it seemed none of us – Lou, Cath or I, anyway – knew how to clear it. Mum didn’t seem to see a need. Dad likely didn’t notice a thing was amiss.

Mia came into the room and paused where she stood. All eyes turned to face her.

“Would anyone like anything else?” She wore a smile, but may as well have been naked for all the reaction she got. We all shook our heads and, with a nervous nod, she left. Moments after, my father cleared his throat.

“So, you are all aware that I have cancer.” There was no reason to reply. He turned to address Catherine. “How long can you stay?”

“I’ll stay for as long as I need to-”

“Catherine, your schooling is important. If you will miss a lecture tomorrow then I would rather you return to university tonight.” My sister lowered her gaze and continued to stare at her croissant. I glanced at Lou. Her fingers were picking at each other on her lap, and her eyes were blinking too many times for it to be normal—unrelated to tears. “I believe Bethany is getting a lift over here from Paris tomorrow night to stay the weekend. You can come back down then, if you would like. I’ll be having an appointment in the hospital and will likely know more about the situation.” My father paused to sip his coffee, and I looked up at him. Death, illness, accident. None of it seemed like it could hit you until it did. And when the ugly happens, it still doesn’t quite seem a reality. The conversation was like a hand nudging my shoulder gently and saying, “Hey, you, your father’s ill”, but I didn’t want to turn to face the voice and take heed. I would rather have drifted into the crowd and ignored all cautions. Become lost in the lack of knowledge.

“Louisiana, I transferred money into your bank account for your driving lesson this afternoon—”

“Uh,” Lou straightened her back. “I—I was going to cancel-”

Dad let the bottom of his coffee cup hit the coaster a little harder that was natural. He ignored the liquid that splashed onto the surface of the table and stared at Lou. “What is wrong with the both of you? So ready to waste money and time. You are taking your lesson today, and Catherine you are to be in your lecture tomorrow, do the both of you hear me?” Both of them nodded, and silence settled again. My mother drank her tea, impossibly, without making a sound.

“Freddie.”

It was funny that, when I looked up, my father was looking straight at me and I almost felt relief. I smiled a little—making some sort of effort I didn’t understand. It was with his calling of my name that realised my father hadn’t instigated a conversation with me for a while now. Maybe just under two weeks. Not directly anyhow, considering the fact that “Who’s seen my briefcase?” and “Call Mia” did not count.

I cleared my throat and answered, “Yes?”

Thirty seconds ticked by on the grandfather clock just above his head as he watched me. It was an ugly gold-brown thing, bought from antiques auctions my parents used to go to together that rang out unpleasantly on the hour, loud enough that you’d hear it wherever you might have been in the house and know what time it was based on how many dong’s resounded.

“I would like to talk to you alone, upstairs.”

He stood, and his chair scraped against the wooden flooring a little, sending a shiver down my spine. My sisters both turned to me, questioningly, just as confused as I; my father had put all of his effort into ignoring me for the longest time. Lou squeezed my hand gently, and Cath offered me a smile. I wasn’t particularly worried, however. That he’d want to speak to me alone, no other company to distract from my unwholesome ways... It could only mean good things, right? Some sort of progression in our relationship.

I stood and followed him almost immediately. Despite the light of the morning, the image of my sisters and mother sitting still and unspeaking had all the darkness of a Fuseli painting, and strain of the dinner scenes in American Beauty.

I closed the door behind me.

My father led me upstairs to his study, and once there, the ever present quiet settled like a familiar friend. My mind was working, however, cogs turning mechanically to think up something to say, but before anything came to mind, my father spoke.

“I don’t plan on dying, Freddie, with my only son a homosexual.”

The sentence was odd. It had started out positive, perhaps, and I had almost welcomed the words to settle in my heart, glad that my father was confiding with me somehow, but the second part wouldn’t compute.

He did not plan on dying with his only son a homosexual… So, what was the conclusion there? Or was that it? He did not plan on dying— because his only son was as his only son was.

My lips parted, but no whisper of a word would exit until they knew the route they were to take, and the destination.

“Do you understand that?”

Did I understand?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t understand at all.

I remained still as he turned to face his desk. I had no idea what he was looking at, but my eyes settled on a stone paperweight I’d bought with the savings of a thirteen year old for my father’s Christmas present. He hadn’t appreciated it. Hadn’t even opened it- I had done that, eventually. Ha. Why would he have? The gay bomb had dropped by then, and the disgust grew like the cancerous cells in his body, suffocating our relationship until it barely was. Honestly, I was surprised it was even there to be seen—remind him of me as he worked to forget, I’d always supposed.

“I’m giving you a choice.” It had to be a joke; how kind. I struggled to control my expression. “You will have a month to prove to me that you can forget your preference, or you will be sent away as you should have been before, and you will undergo therapy again.”

I could feel a calm, cold hand grab hold of my heart, settling the ball of emotion—depression, rage—and I could not be more thankful for it. If there was anything I did not want, it was to allow my father the satisfaction. To expose any weakness or wounds in his presence. I refused to blink as I glared up at him lest, on opening my eyelids again, tears sprang free.

"Fuck you," I wanted to say. I wanted to say it, and I think he could tell. Heard my unspoken words, but his unaffected expression only pushed the stainless steel blade deeper, and twisted. He was fucking dying and didn’t want to fix us.

I couldn’t comprehend.

He laughed bitterly, turning back to face me. His face was a revolting snarl of lines and angles, and no light in the room could dull the sharp edges that threatened to stab. “You disgust me,” he muttered, “And you did this to me, and I will never forgive you for that. Do you understand?”

I didn’t answer. What was I supposed to say? With what logic? But, fuck, did my wrists itch and my heart ache as I left the room. Fuck, did I crave another alcoholic drink as I marched mechanically to my own, and straight through to my bathroom. I locked the door immediately and crawled into the bath, laying still and shutting my eyes. I clicked my knuckles repeatedly to keep myself from reaching for my penknife, hurting, and shaking, and struggling to breathe.

My eyes grew lidded as I reached a hand slowly up, deep breaths failing to calm. I turned the nozzle and sighed into the warmth and consistency of the water that followed. My clothes and hair grew slowly heavier the wetter they became, but I took no notice. Only concentrated on the way my chest moved upwards and down, listened for the heart beats and tried to tell each droplet apart; catch them as they fell. Watch their paths down my hands. Shaking.

There were so many different tastes and flavours and moods to pain, but this was the worst. Endless, and hollow. Greedy, and lonely, relentlessly venomous, and ugly.

Insane.

What a depressing little boy you are, Freddie, still. You haven’t grown. You haven’t progressed. You’re still a sad little gay boy with daddy issues. You can’t deal with anything without running in the opposite direction.

I smiled despite it all, though. I still didn’t regret the direction I was running from, nor the person. Wouldn’t regret it, no matter the storm that my father brewed in his cup of coffee, or the burns I retained when he poured it all over me.

JOEY

“Happy birthday!”

I grinned widely at the two eight year-olds in school uniform at my front door. Priya’s black hair was pulled back the usual long pony-tail, and she was waving an enveloped birthday card at me, whilst Charlotte was holding an ASDA bag with two boxes – one rather large, and the other, though wrapped, rather DVD-shaped.

“Hey, guys.” I pushed the door further opened and allowed them step in, then looked up to see Priya’s father in the drive way. He offered me a smile and nod, which I returned, before driving away, off to work—some kind of social worker, mum had told me once. Which I had to guess was demanding work, considering the fact that Priya was with us fairly often. The fact that her mum was no longer in the picture was a factor too, though. I closed the door when his car turned out of our road.

“Your eye is worse than Lottie said,” Priya laughed, handing me my card as my phone vibrated in my pocket with what I knew to be another birthday message.

I grinned her a thank you as mum shouted from the kitchen, “Dinner will be ready soon, girls!”

“None for me?” I called out as we all headed over to her. The girls’ giggles made mum and I exchange happy glances.

I loved the noise that filled my house whenever both Priya and Charlotte came over. Not only were they best friends at school, but, just as Priya’s father ran the home alone and juggled his occupation as a social worker with that, both of Charlotte’s parents were full-time nurses, so the girls found themselves at our house an awful lot. They were welcome.

“Open the card!” Charlotte commanded, “Before you can open the present.” Mum looked over from the oven. Pizza and chips for the occasion.

“Better open that card quick, Joe.”

The girls sat at the table and watched excitedly as I did so. Their childish scrawls had me beaming from ear to ear as I slid into the seat opposite Priya and read their small messages, the doodled spirals and hearts around my name.

“I love it,” I chuckled. “I’ll put it up by the TV, okay?”

“Next to mine, right?” mum teased.

Charlotte passed me the ASDA bag then. I took out the first—the smaller- of the presents and began to rip. “You guys didn’t.”

“What’d they do?” mum asked, and laughed aloud when I showed her the Lilo & Stitch special edition DVD that had been badly, but no doubt lovingly, covered up by bright yellow HAPPY BIRTHDAY wrapping paper. So, okay. The film was still my favourite, and the three of us usually watched it together when we were want for something to do. We’d watched it so many times, in fact, that we’d speak out along with the characters as clearly as though we were reading the script.

“If the other one is as awesome as this, you guys, I swear I’ll give you both the biggest kisses in the world.”

Charlotte hid a blush behind the gift until Priya took it from her hands and handed it to me. Mum came around with our freshly cooked pizzas, chips and salad as I tore into it and watched a stuffed Stitch reveal himself to me.

“Oh my God,” mum grinned. I stood and crossed over to the two eight year olds, collecting them both in a huge hug and kissing their foreheads sloppily.

It was just gone six when we’d just finished displaying a wonderful example of teamwork with our dishes-into-dishwasher abilities and we heard a knock on the door.

“I’ll answer it,” I offered, then addressed the girls. “Charlotte, you can set up the DVD, and Priya can start up with the popcorn, okay?” They nodded in agreement and set off with their tasks. Mum kissed me on the cheek.

“It’s most probably for you, so I’m going up to bed to rest for a bit. Call me when the movie is finished; should be about time to drive the girls back home.”

I nodded my reply and headed over to the front door. Ryan and Courtney were stood where Priya and Charlotte had been a little over an hour before, but I felt an entirely different emotion, especially when I tried a smile at my girlfriend.

“Happy birthday,” she smiled, but all I heard were the words Ryan had said over the phone. Then she said, “You look kinda rough,” and she stepped towards me—whilst I stepped back—and reached out to touch the bruise that had bloomed on my right cheek. I tried not to flinch. Ryan murmured a “Hey” and a birthday wish too, clearly eying my bruises with respectful interest.

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Thanks guys—”

“Joey, you coming?” Charlotte’s head peeped out from behind the living room door just as I heard the microwave’s finishing three beeps, and then Priya arrived through the kitchen door with a bowl of salted popcorn.

“Yeah, I’ll be there in a second.”

When I turned back to my best friend and girlfriend, Ryan was shaking his head, but smiling. Courtney’s expression, however, was like a rain cloud, barely hiding the thunder and lightning to come.

“You’re hanging out with them, tonight?” I frowned and turned my head to face the younger girls until they got the picture and disappeared into the living room.

“You don’t have to say it like that, for fuck-sake, Court. Yes, I am—”

“But why the hell? I’m your fucking girlfriend Joey, but, I swear, you don’t give me the time of day—”

“Come on, Courtney-” my eyes narrowed as I ignored Ryan’s wince and unsubtle attempt at inching away. “Can we not do this here?”

“So when the hell are we going to do it? I’m not going to wait forever for you to fuck me either.”

Neither of us said anything for a moment. Shock, and shame, and embarrassment coursed through me, but, surprisingly, only a fraction of it was on my own behalf. If I’d been feeling bad for neglecting any supposed ‘boyfriend duties’ a little due to uncertainty of where I stood, I simply didn’t anymore. And I wanted even less to have any sort of intercourse with her. I don’t know if she had expected me to suddenly give in and say “Oh, fuck, Courtney. You’re right. I’m going to abandon the two stupid kids and come with you. I’ll have the sex you’ve been begging for tonight, and forget about your shitty attitude and everything will be cool”, but she was definitely surprised when I suggested that she “Just go, please” and that “I’d call her tomorrow”.

“W-wait, Joe-,” she began, eyes widening as she grabbed at my hand. “Look, I’m sorry-”

But I shook her off and repeated what I’d said. After a moment she finally took heed and flicked a portion of her hair over her shoulder, then she turned and left. Both Ryan and I watched her stride down the driveway.

“I should probably go after her.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, you can do that, or you can come and watch the movie with us.”

Ryan turned to face me, smirking. “It’s Goddamn Lilo and Stitch again, isn’t it?”

I smiled at him. “Yes, it is. You up for it?”

“Much as I want to...” I laughed a little. Ryan grew serious. “Sorry about what I said last night, over the phone. Bit harsh.”

“Fuck, Ryan... You know I didn’t hear what she said, right? I wouldn’t have—”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Don’t worry, man. I know.” And we stood staring at different patches of the ground for a moment. “Your bruises don’t look so bad, you know.”

“Liar.”

He smirked and did not answer. “Got you the latest GTA.”

“Did not,” I grinned, glancing up at him.

“Oh yes, I fucking did. I’ll bring it over tomorrow, after school.”

Another moment sound tracked by the distant whirring of sirens drifted by before Ryan saluted me and then turned down my driveway too, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He continued to follow Courtney’s cold tracks for another minute or so before I shut the door and spun on my heel, hurrying into the living room.

“You guys better not have started without me,” I called out.

“Don’t worry,” Priya replied, “The party can’t start without the birthday boy.”

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