Never in my dreams would I had thought the person who would open the door would be Mr Hansen. My mind was convinced it wasn’t possible that he was there, that he was just a ghostly apparition, but that explanation was even scarier.
It was true. Mr Hansen, the man who had followed us to the train station in London and threatened to get us no matter at what cost had kept his promise. I was so overwhelmed I did not know how to react. On one hand, I was so incredibly relieved to see an adult, to see someone I recognised so I could drop all that tension of feeling unsafe onto, but on the other hand it was as if his presence pulled me into reality and I felt a huge wave of consequence and guilt rushing through me.
Harry seemed to be in shock as well. He had barely made it past the door and the person he detested the most was greeting us.
“How the hell are you here?” Harry asked, shock clear in his voice.
“Well, I guessed you two were coming here so instead of chasing you I decided to just come to Bonn by aeroplane and avoid all the hustle.”
For a moment the three of us stood quiet. I could have never guessed we would be in that situation and I had no idea how to act or what to say. Mr Hansen towered over us even though Harry was practically his height, and his enthusiastic remark on how he had come by plane instead of reassuring me only made me grown more anxious. I knew he was going to lash out any moment, and the delay was making it even worse.
“Mr Hansen,” I had to break the silence, “I believe there are many things to be said on our behalf, on mine especially. I want you to know that we never intended on leaving so abruptly, it’s just that-”
“Are you actually justifying yourself, Summer?” Mr Hansen cut me off. I didn’t say a word or even attempt to finished my sentence. All of a sudden, my suitcase felt heavier and my arms started to tremble from holding them for too long.
Mr Hansen sighed, the warmly lit entrance seeming smaller by the second.
“We will talk about this later, so don’t you worry, you will have plenty of time to tell me all about your little journey. I’ll make sure to tell you a little bit of mine as well.”
A shiver ran down my spine. What he meant by that I was not sure, but I had a weird sensation it involved my parents.
“Now wait a minute,” Harry interrupted, noticing how I was growing more and more nervous with Mr Hansen’s comments, “I see what’s going on here. Even here, after everything that has happened, you are still using your tactics to intimidate Summer to get to me?”
He was slightly raising his voice but not enough for the nurses who passed by to look at us.
“Be a man once and for all and say it to my face. If you want to punish us, fine, but don’t play your little games with us, as if it matters anymore,” he huffed in annoyance, a hint of disbelief in his tone “For once, just swallow your pride and don’t make it your mission to have the last word. I don’t want to fight, not now, not here. Let’s just try to pretend we tolerate each other.”
Then, Harry took my hand and walked past Hansen, leaving him planted to the grown. That was when Harry turned around.
“God knows this is already hard for me, and you are deliberately making it harder.”
If I was in shock before I was petrified now. The rawness of Harry’s words moved me, and for some seconds I felt like Mr Hansen, the man who stood in front of me was just a man, that with Harry’s words he became less frightening.
“You know, I didn’t just come here to prove a point or to come after you,” he said, turning to face us “Your mum in on the third floor. There are other sick people here, so stay silent.”
Harry didn’t thank him for telling us which floor we were supposed to go, and I didn’t feel it was my place to do it either.
We walked up the carpeted stairs that ran in the centre of the house. I noticed, as we moved up, that each floor had three or four rooms, some of them with their door opened. I tried not to be impolite as I peeked in momentarily, glancing at the people inside those rooms. In a bed, the patient, and around that person the family and occasionally a nurse. I also noticed that on each floor there was a glass cabinet containing various medicines of all shapes and sizes.
We reached the third floor. The beige carpet which came from the stairs ended there, revealing dark red wooden floors. The high ceiling and the white wainscot panelling which adorned the walls suggested that that was a centenary house who might have belonged to an aristocratic family and had been transformed into a home where people could have the care they needed when facing their last days.
We looked around, not knowing what to do. A young blond nurse noticed our confusion, and as we tried to communicate with her but failed vigorously, Mr Hansen appeared from behind us.
“She’s in that room,” he pointed to the white door in the middle. He moved to the side and made his way in front of us, reached his hand for the spherical doorknob. Harry and I met our gaze, and I noticed his Adam’s apple rising. I smiled at him, having no time to share encouraging words with him. Before I noticed, Mr Hansen had opened the door for us and we were walking inside the room.
No matter how many days we spent telling ourselves that we were going to see a person whose life was hanging by a thread in the hopes of coming to terms with that sad reality, it was still a shock. Harry’s mum, Theresa, was the first person I saw in such weak, vulnerable state. She was the first person I saw who was dying, and although I had seen pictures of people with cancer before, seeing her with my own pair of eyes felt like none of those pictures captured how a person really looked. I had thought that I would be able to hold myself together once I was in her presence, but seeing her, so small, so weak, so lifeless lying on a bed, I knew death was nothing like I had pictured it.
The room was extremely quiet, yet at the same time it was loud, it was screaming. It was screaming death and discomfort, it was screaming the fear of letting go and the desire to stay. It was screaming I don’t want you to die but there is nothing I can do to fight it, and it was screaming the past everyone in that room was trying to hold on to.
“Harry,” she said breathlessly, her head moving extremely slowly as she faced the door. I had tried to imagine how she would look like, but it had never crossed my mind her skin would look opaque and yellow, that her head would be covered in a turban to protect her naked scalp, that her hands would look so thin that they could break any second, that her blue eyes would be drained of its vibrancy. But most importantly, it had never occurred to me that a forty-something year old woman would look like she had aged twenty years.
The mixture of emotions I was feeling kept me planted on the ground, not knowing what to do, where to stand, when so speak.
“Mum,” Harry managed to reply, his body stuck between motion and complete stillness. Harry’s mum reached out one arm, revealing a catheter connected to the top of her hand.
I had seen Harry in his worse state, I knew his limits and how he reacted to certain things, but I had never seen him crumble like that before. His whole body collapsed by his mother’s side as he looped carefully his arms around her frail body, kneeling by the bed. I had seen him cry before, but never that way. It sounded as if he was being tortured, as if his whole world was being turned into ash.
My eyes welled up as I heard Harry’s mum laugh joyfully. I wanted to look away for respect, but my eyes were glued to the scene in front of me.
Harry’s mum was caressing his hair while he sobbed like a small child.
“Oh Harry, what a dangerous journey you had to do just to see me,” she said, closing her eyes and feeling his presence.
With that statement I forced myself to look away. I turned to Mr Hansen who stood beside me. His head was facing the floor, and I noticed him flickering away his tears with a quick motion of his hand.
“Oh, I have counted the days since I last saw you darling. I have missed you so, so much,” Theresa went on, her other hand running up and down Harry’s shoulder “I have been so lonely, but now you’re here and everything will be alright, I promise.”
Harry rose his head, clearing away his tears, his face bright red “I have missed every single day. There is so much I want to tell you!”
Harry looked at me, extending his arm “Mum, this is Summer. She- she came with me because I wanted you to meet her.”
In that moment my heart froze. He couldn’t be asking me to get closer. I blinked once, twice. His arm stayed up. He was calling me to stand next to his mum. Even though all I felt for him was deep sympathy, he was killing me by making me look at her closer, to speak to person whose heart seemed like it would stop at any moment.
I had to be brave and compel to his request. I had to pull myself together and put all fears aside. If being there was so painful to me that all I wanted to do was hide, I couldn’t imagine what was going through Harry’s head.
Inching my way forward as Harry moved to the side to let me through, I felt the overpowering weight of responsibility crashing on me. I was meeting the mother of the person I cared for the most in this world, and she was going to meet me. In those circumstances, it really felt like that was the first and last time I was speaking to her, and I had to make sure I said absolutely everything I wanted to say, no matter how destructive it would be to me.
“Mum,” Harry went on “Summer... I don’t know how to describe her. I just- I just I love her, and she has been with me all the step of the way, and she is the most special person I know, and you have to meet her Mum.”
Once I was close enough to notice that the brim of Theresa’s eyes were watery, Harry pulled a chair from behind us. That action seemed quite orchestrated, and I knew immediately something was very wrong.
“Oh Summer, what a lovely name, and what a lovely face,” Theresa said. She extended both hands to me, which I held. They were warm and sweaty, and although they didn’t grip me with much strength, I could feel her eagerness to hold someone.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” I said, unable to hold back a tear that ran down my face.
“Please, don’t cry,” she said, her thumb moving up and down my hand, comforting me. In that moment I realised something. When Harry held my hand to comfort me, he did the same thing, “You can call me Theresa dear, and it is a pleasure to meet you, too.”
In that moment, Harry left the room. I did not see where he had gone, but the look of heartbreak on Theresa’s face made me not follow him and stayed with her.
“I met Harry at Hudson,” I said, calling for her attention in hopes of distracting her from Harry’s absence “I went to study there just this year, and although Harry is older than me we instantly became friends.”
From the corner of my eyes, I could see Mr Hansen poking out the door, certainly looking for Harry. When he gave up, he left the door ajar and paced directionless and awkwardly about the room, not knowing what to do.
“Really?” She asked, interested in my story “And what else? I want to know everything! How has Harry been at Hudson? He always wrote to me telling me everything was wonderful, but he never told me about you so that makes me wonder.”
Her voice came out with great effort, only managing to whisper. Her enthusiasm was contained by her weak body, she couldn’t express her happiness.
“Oh,” I didn’t even take the time to think my answer through, I just didn’t want her to suffer anymore “You see, I think Harry wanted to surprise you. His friends, well, our friends were always insisting that he told you about me, but he said he wanted you to meet me in person first.”
Theresa smiled, leaning back in contentment. With every word I said, a fraction of my heart seemed to break. I could never, not even with a gun pointed at my head tell Harry’s mum the truth about Harry’s life at Hudson. That would be the most merciless cruelty. I would only make her suffer, knowing that her son had been regarded as an outcast, that he had been shunned and called a monster, that I was his only friend. Why tell her those things?
“Apart from him being an amazing student, he is so kind to everyone. He is a golden boy, and I knew I would fall in love with him as soon as I met him. He talked to me as if I was the most important person in the world, and he made me feel special since the beginning.”
Theresa sniffed, squeezing my hands.
“He just keeps making me proud!” She said, looking at Mr Hansen for confirmation. I looked at him, begging him not to reveal my lies. He simply nodded, agreeing with what I had said.
“And how was Christmas? Did you stay at Hudson with him during the holidays? I missed him so much on Christmas day.”
I gulped “Yes, I did in fact. Luckily some of our friends stayed too. We had such a wonderful time. I have to admit, Christmas with Harry was amazing. He was so... So generous to everyone. He really made me feel like I was at home.”
I kept looking at Mr Hansen, tears threatening to fall down my face again. It was taking all the power in me to sound mildly convincing, and I was afraid I would crack any second.
“But what about you and him?” Theresa asked, her eyes filled with adoration and pride “You know, I never really told him, but I was always looking forward to meet his girl, and here you are!”
I felt my heart landing on the floor. How could I maintain composure while I was doing the unthinkable, deluding a dying woman? It felt like I was telling her the story of a completely different person and not her son.
In that moment, with that question, I knew I could not lie, and I knew what I wanted to say, what I had planned to say.
I took a deep breath and braced myself.
“Theresa,” I started “I know he have only met now, and I know I have only known your son for some months, but believe me when I say that no one had ever treated me the way Harry has. He has accepted me for who I really an and he has shown time and time again that he really loves me. It’s in the simple things, the glances we exchange, the way we can communicate without speaking, his humour, the way he understands me... But I’m not going to lie, it’s not always a sea of roses, but sometimes that’s good because those are the times where I can be sure how much he loves me. I just wanted to tell you, if you don’t know yet, that he is capable of loving things in a way most people cannot, and that is something so special about him.”
I still wanted to say more, but the lump in my throat was stopping me from talking. Harry’s mum was now crying with tears streaming down her face, and I wondered if crying was physically painful for her. I started to regret putting her through such a rollercoaster of emotions, but then I was reassured with her words.
“You have no idea how much joy you bring me, Summer,” she said, taking me into her arms. I leaned closer, smelling her clothes, feeling the strange texture of her face.
I felt hands land on my back. I looked upwards, Mr Hansen looking down at me.
“Do you want to go find Harry?” He asked, nothing but kindness in his eyes.
I pulled away from Theresa’s embrace, forcing a smile. I couldn’t believe what I had just done.
I walked out the room, glancing back and noticing Mr Hansen had taken my seat next to the bed. I closed the door softly, the clicking sound of the door latch sending a wave of relief throughout my whole body. That relaxation was shortly lived as my adrenaline pumped again at the realisation I had to find Harry. Without seeing him, I knew in what state I would find him, and my heart would be broken, again.
I looked around, studying my surroundings. Harry knew as much as I did about that house, so he couldn’t be very far. I decided to walk down the corridor of that floor, reaching a living room with bright green plants suspended from the ceiling.
I heard Harry before I saw him. He was crying softly and once I entered the room I saw him with his back leaning against a wall, his hands close to his face. His face was washed in salty tear, his eyes puffy and his lips trembling.
“Harry?” I called him, my voice weak and breaking at the end. Instantly, he turned to me and looped his arms around me.
“I’m sorry for leaving you there with her, but I couldn’t take it anymore,” he confessed, his body shaking.
“It’s okay, I understand,” I told Harry to sooth him, his head buried in my neck, “You did great, you were very strong, I’m proud of you.”
He sniffed, not responding to my words.
“Did you see how she looked?” Harry asked, pulling away and wiping his eyes “She looked, she looked as if she was already... She looked like a corpse.”
“I know, I know, don’t say it,” I reached for him, my hands running down his arms. I wanted to touch him, I wanted to reassure him I was there with him.
“She...” he shook his head in disbelief “She looks so different.”
I nodded, paying full attention to him. I could only imagine how he was feeling, what thoughts were clouding his mind.
“Maybe it was better if we hadn’t come, I was not ready for this,” he said, taking his hand and covering his forehead.
“Don’t say that,” I said, “Do you know what she just told me? That she is proud of you and that she is so happy to see you, and to see me as well!”
Harry took a deep breath, his cheeks, eyes, and the end of this nose red from crying. He took a seat at the arm of one of the couches in the room, and I reached for his hands.
“I have to go back there,” he said, although I was sure that was the last thing he wanted to do. I had thought that once Harry saw his mum he would not leave her side, but now, seeing him so devastated, that perfect imagine in my head where all would be fine vanished. He needed all the strength he could get to go back there.
“Mr Hansen is there with her, don’t worry about leaving her alone,” I tried to reassure him, but that only made him more distressed. For some moments I had forgotten Harry and Hansen couldn’t stand one another, just as I couldn’t, but when Mr Hansen placed his hand on my back in support, my opinion about him changed, “Don’t worry, we both know deep down that Mr Hansen cares about us.”
“Oh really? Look at the way he treated us! He knew I would see my mum in such state and he didn’t even have the decency to tell me-”
“Okay, that’s true, but as you said, right now he need to put our differences behind. And besides, he was very kind to me in there.”
That sparked interest in him “How so?”
“Well, when he saw I wasn’t feeling very well he comforted me and told me I could come look for you.”
Harry didn’t respond to that comment and stayed silent, his hands fidgeting with mine. Again, I noticed the trait he shared with his mother.
Harry sighed, looking at the floor and pondering his words “I need to go back, there are things we need to talk about, I was just too overwhelmed before to do anything other than cry.”
He got up, rolling his shoulders as if preparing for a boxing match.
“Before you go, I have to tell you something,” I said, gulping. He looked at me expectantly, and I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to what I was about to tell him.
“When I was with your mum,” I began “She asked me how things were going with you and with us, and I, well, I told her happy things.”
He looked confused “Happy things?”
“Yeah,” I looked at the ground, as if a child admitting to a crime “I told her we had many friends at Hudson and that you are top of the class, and that when we met we instantly became friends... You know, happy things.”
He stared at me for some seconds, not saying anything. My anxiety grew as I feared his reaction, but then I remembered he himself had wrote letters to his mum saying the exact same things, so the burden of the lie wasn’t all mine to carry.
“Good,” he answered, “It’s better that way.”
We made our way out of the room, Harry more in control of his emotions. I, however, was still apprehensive about having to lie even further to Theresa, but I preferred to feel guilty than to leave Harry alone.
As we walked back inside, Theresa’s eyes shining bright once she saw Harry, Mr Hansen getting up.
“Ah, here you are!” He said, a bright smile on his face “Summer, I would like to talk to you outside if that’s okay.”
Instead of looking at me he looked at Harry, asking him instead of me if he was okay with me going outside. I looked at Harry and found no objection in his eyes. Instead, I found intrigue and a plea to return soon.
I smiled at Harry and followed Mr Hansen outside, both relieved to avoid that room but nervous to hear what Mr Hansen had to say.
Mr Hansen’s POV
I walked with Summer outside and motioned her to sit on one of two chairs outside the room. Some nurses walked past us, intrigued from hearing such commotion, but they said nothing. I had warned them that once the two teenagers arrived they should expect to hear some noise, but I never expected that both of them would crumbled with such intensity. I should have known better, I failed in recognising that witnessing any death was complicated, and a death of a loved one even more so.
When Harry entered the room, my nerves still boiling from what he told me when he arrived, it was as if I was seeing him as a child. Defenceless, unknowing of what he would him, and completely and utterly devastated. Watching him speak his first words to his mum after two years absolutely broke my heart, and I felt a wave of regret so strong it was overpowering. Why had I tried so hard to keep him from visiting his mum? Yes, it was what she wanted, but was it really the right choice?
When Harry left the room, leaving Summer behind, I felt like it was my time to intervene. But I had no clue of what I should have done. Go after Harry and comfort him? Stay with Summer in the room and comfort her instead? What could I possibly say to Harry that would cheer him up? Would I make it worse?
I realised the severity of my mistake when Summer’s lies fell from her mouth like an avalanche. My mistake was not being the adult I should have been. I should have controlled that situation, I should have prepared them and not let them go in without knowing what to do or what to say. It was like sending them to battlefield without an armour, making me responsible for their misery. But I did not fail just there. Theresa had asked me to take Harry to Hudson so I could take care of him, and I did nothing of that. Yes, he was safe, he had food on the table and a bed to sleep in, but that only scratched the surface of what caring for someone really is. I should have bonded with him so when the time came to say goodbye to Theresa he would feel like he could lean on me, that be was safe with me.
I had a feeling Summer had filled that spot.
“So,” I began, crossing my legs “This has not been the most pleasant experience.”
“No, it hasn’t,” Summer answered, looking at everything except at me. I was terrible at starting conversations, especially now when there was no way to speak of what was happening casually.
“You see, I think we started on the wrong foot. When I greeting both of you outside I wasn’t very... Inviting.”
Summer didn’t answer as she looked at anything but me. This was going from bad to worse. I decided to skip the small talk and go straight to what was important.
“You were very brave to come here, Summer,” I said, looking at her. She visibly grew more uncomfortable with my words, and I knew she wasn’t going to understand where I was coming from until the barrier between us didn’t break.
“I didn’t really have a choice. Where Harry went, I went,” she said, glancing at me just momentarily.
I leaned back on my chair, pondering her words.
“I know what happened at Hudson, I know what they did to you,” I admitted. Summer drew a shaky breath, clearly not comfortable talk about this “Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?”
She looked at me while I waited for an answer.
“There was nothing you could have done, no one could’ve stopped it really. I learned how to accept that.”
Her words, although being very true, were still hard to accept. Being mistreated wasn’t something someone her age should simply accept. It wasn’t right.
“Anna was the who made me realise what happened,” I admitted, Summer’s eyes suddenly coming to life, “She said it loud and clear.”
“I’m not understanding, loud and clear?” Summer was now faced to me, not looking away.
“It was on the day the two of you left. She stood up to Amanda during dinner in front of everyone. It was indeed a sight to see.”
Summer filled her chest with air, her eyes twinkling.
“Of course, at the time I was extremely confused because I thought Anna was Amanda’s best friend. After all, it was the first time I was hearing anything about it.”
I prepared myself to say what I really intended from the start as I looked around the room.
“I have to apologise,” I said, Summer furrowing her eyebrows, “In order to get clues on what you and Harry were planning to do I had to read the letter you wrote her. It was something very personal and I shouldn’t have read it, but at the same time I started to understand your point of view, why you had to lie and why you had to stop being their friend.”
Summer shrugged her shoulders “It’s okay, I don’t mind that you read it, I have less things to explain. I was actually planning on sending one to my parents, but I didn’t want them to get worried.”
She looked me in the eyes for the first time during that conversation, and I noticed that they welled up in tears.
“Did you tell my parents?”
I sighed. I knew this question would come up.
“No, I didn’t. But I will have to, and I know you understand why.”
“What are you going to tell them?” She asked, again growing nervous.
“What do you want me to tell them?”
In that moment I felt like we had established a bond. That simple question indicated that I was taking her wishes into consideration, which at a time like that was the least I could do.
“I... I think I want you to tell them that I only did what I did because I like Harry very much, and... And that they shouldn’t get mad because we had a smooth trip. And you also shouldn’t tell them that I wasn’t treated kindly at Hudson, that my decision to come here was entirely because I wanted to be with Harry.”
She was growing more distressed by the second, and I feared she would start crying. I didn’t want her to cry anymore.
“Why should I tell them this? More than half of it is a lie.”
A crystalline tear ran down her cheek “Yes, I know that, but telling the truth now won’t change anything Mr Hansen. It will only make them worry about me and they shouldn’t because I’m alright.”
The seriousness in her voice was evident, and I realised how much she had matured since I last spoke to her. I sighed again. That girl’s selflessness was making me realise firstly how selfish I had been, and secondly how I should have protected her more “Are you alright, Summer?”
She smiled weakly, but that wasn’t enough to stop her tears from overflowing and falling from her eyes. She sobbed, taking her hands to cover her face as if she had been defeated. To my surprised, for the first time that day I knew what to do. I wrapped my arms around her, her body feeling even smaller under my arms. My heart was hammering in my chest, feeling nothing but extreme gratitude and respect for the girl who was feeling and carrying far more than she should.
“Thank you for what you’ve done for my family. Thank you for lying to Theresa, that was the bravest thing you did and I am eternally in debt to you. I can’t begin to imagine what would’ve been of Harry if you hadn’t come into his life. Thank you.”
The words felt easy as I said them. They seemed right, and even though letting go of my headmaster façade was something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, I felt like I was more than a headmaster to Summer, like she was my niece or part of the family, someone I had to protect as much as Harry. One thing I was certain, I was responsible for her and I had failed.
We stayed in silence for some moments as her tears subsided. I looked at the clock on the wall: it was almost past eight, and I wondered if Harry and Summer had eaten anything before coming here.
“Do you mind if I go call Harry for dinner?” I asked her.
She shook her head, getting up.
“Do you know where the bathrooms are? I want to wash my face,” she said, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
“They are just down the corridor to the left,” I said, “Harry and I will wait for you here so we can go down together.”
She nodded and made her way down the corridor, but stopped midway.
“Mr Hansen, can I ask you something?”
I stood awkwardly in the middle of the hall and moved towards the door of Theresa’s room as I nodded.
“Why did you lie about being Harry’s uncle?”
That question caught me off guard. I could tell from the moment I saw her enter the palliative home with Harry that he had told her about our affiliation by the way she didn’t find my presence around Theresa strange, as if she had already known we were cousins. But I did understand where she was coming from with that question. It was more than her right to know the truth.
“Well, it’s complicated, but I guess I lied because of the same reasons you lied. We knew people wouldn’t accept us for who we really were.”
Summer nodded, accepting my answer and making her way to the bathroom.
I turned around and faced the door of Theresa’s room. I turned the doorknob very slowly, feeling the springs contract as I applied pressure.
Very slowly I peeked inside, not wanting to disturb them. I looked immediately towards the bed, finding Harry and Theresa both sleeping, Harry sitting on the chair next to the bed with his head resting on the wall. They were holding hands, and I was extremely relieved to find Harry in such calm state.
I walked towards him, placing my hand on his shoulders. His body became tense, indicating that he had woken you.
“Summer and I are going down to have dinner. Do you want to come with us?”
Harry looked up, his features soft.
“I don’t want to leave her alone,” he said, his voice groggy from sleep.
“You can stay here the whole night of you want, but you need to eat.”
Reluctantly he got up, sliding his hand very softly from Theresa’s.
We walked out the room silently, careful not to wake Theresa up. I motioned Harry to walk out first, placing a hand on his back as I guiding him out.
I looked back at Theresa before closing the door, taking in her pale face and slender body. I needed to give Harry all the strength he could get, for I knew Theresa wouldn’t last much longer.