Author's note: May contain more mistakes than usual because I only finished writing it this morning. WARNING: contains details of Henry's injuries and how they happened. Oscar is triggered by it and we finally learn what happened between him and his father at the end of Chapter 02. (The beginning and end of these particular bits will be marked by sentences in bold. Don't read anything between them if you would rather skip those parts).
HENRY'S LONG JOURNEY
After all the things Helena told Jean, everyone seemed to think the blond had become someone who was at best inconsiderate, at worst some kind of monster. We did not see him for the rest of the day. Hannah did not try to defend her friend, but only came back to our group after we promised not to question her decision to stick to his side. She was worried about Henry too, and that was all we needed to take her along when we headed to our friend's house after school.
Henry lived in a nice neighbourhood, of the kind that had started with similar-looking one-floor houses that were very difficult to tell apart, but that had through the years mostly been converted to two floors buildings with an extension at the back as their owners became increasingly well-to-do. The area had plenty of trees, a small playground for children, and not that many cars around, even at this time of the day. Henry's house was painted light blue with a sky blue door and window frames. The driveway had two cars parked and the front garden was just a grassy patch with a tree. Two small windows had been added to the roof, probably a sign that the loft had been converted into a bedroom. Hannah took charge of our mini-group and rang the bell. We did not have to wait for long.
"You must be Henry's friends. Please come in. I'm Sybella, Henry's mother." A woman in her mid-fifties wearing a simple and rather worn jumper opened the door to us. Her hair was light brown and frizzy; similar to her son's, though messier, and she wore glasses with thick plastic frames. She reminded me of the kind of grandmothers I saw all over TV shows, but had never met in real life (my grandparents were nothing like anyone I had ever seen on TV).
"It's nice to meet you, Ms Watson." Hannah answered for everyone. "How is Henry?"
"He's very happy that you wanted to come for a visit. I hadn't seen him smiling for a while now." Ms Watson answered in an uplifting tone. Despite her cheerfulness, her comment made me wonder if Henry had been having problems with the bullies for longer than we thought. At first I felt guilty for not having realised it and for not doing anything to help, but then I remembered that I had once compared Henry's situation to my troubles with my father. I was still terrified of my friends finding out; it would not be too hard to imagine that Henry might not have appreciated an early interference either.
"How bad did they hurt him?" Helena asked, making most of us turn to her in alarm. This was the kind of intrusive question that should never be asked at a time like this. Thankfully, though, Ms Watson did not seem disturbed by it.
"He had a twisted ankle and exposed fractures on both his arms from trying to protect his face; the doctors rushed him to surgery to avoid infections. I honestly don't know how a group of kids could do so much harm..."
"That's terrible." Olivia agreed sombrely. Ms Watson nodded, smiling at my girlfriend with the kind of gentle gaze we had seen on Henry's face many times before.
"I just want to warn you that the doctors had to put metal structures around his arms for the bones to heal properly. He can't move much and some of the bruises are still visible. Please try to act normal around him; it will be good for him if he can be distracted from all those things."
"We understand." Hannah answered promptly. Most of us nodded in agreement, though Ariadne seemed a little reluctant. Helena squeezed her hand reassuringly until we were invited into Henry's room. Mr Watson took us to a room at the back of the house, near what looked like a brightly-lit kitchen recently built.
"This is usually a guest room, but with Henry in a wheelchair we had to put him here for the time being." Ms Watson explained. She knocked on the door and Henry told us to go in. "Have fun." She said before opening the door. Ms Watson left us alone as soon as all of us had gone into the room.
"Hi, guys." Henry said, smiling as well as he could when one of his cheeks was still twice its normal size. His left eye was covered by an eye-patch and chunks of hair had been shaved off his head to make room for stitches. "How are things?" He asked, looking at each of us as best as he could. Even after he had seen all of us, he still seemed to be searching for someone else.
"Jean is not coming." Hannah blurted out, probably noticing the same thing I did and reaching the most obvious conclusion. "We thought that…"
"We though it would not be a good idea considering this whole thing is his fault." Helena harshly interrupted, facing Hannah as if challenging her to defend her friend. "And he isn't even sorry."
"I don't think it's his fault…" Henry whispered, doing his best not to look at the girls.
"Oh, please, and the Easter Bunny is real!" Helena retorted. "Of course it's his fault! Those guys came to you on the day Jean declared he wanted to have wild sex with you in front of the whole canteen!"
"They had been coming before that too." Henry admitted, the visible part of face turning a bright shade of red.
"Yes, but they never beat you enough to break bones and send you to hospital." Helena insisted, speaking like her words were poison. "Their stronger reaction came because of what Jean did, and if you can't see that you seriously need help."
"I'm doing fine." Henry insisted, avoiding everyone's gazes.
"Tell me that after you learn to use your arms again. Do you have any idea how long it's going to take for you to make a complete recovery?" Helena insisted. The rest of us were beginning to fell uncomfortable, even Hannah.
"Yes, the doctors told me."
"And I bet they said it won't be in time for the exams. You do realise that you'll need help for everything when and if you come back to school, right? You're anything but fine now. Jean turned you into a walking target and you somehow convinced yourself this is ok. Your stupid crush is making you even dumber than Oscar."
"That last comment was unnecessary." Surprisingly, it was Hannah who spoke in my defence.
"Oh, so you're defending Oscar now? First you side with Jean, now that? What the fuck is wrong with you?" Helena turned to Hannah, her voice gradually going from a threatening hiss to a full-fledged angry scream. Ariadne retreated to stand next to Edward, and Olivia and I got instinctively close together. Henry did not make a sound, but no one was really paying attention to him anymore.
"There's nothing wrong with me. I just think now is not the moment to be angry with Henry; he's just been discharged from hospital and is recovering from a huge surgery. You don't need to throw even more painful thoughts into him now." Hannah answered, matching Helena's anger while speaking in a barely audible whisper. "You want to talk about Jean? Fine, let's take this outside and you can scream and shout all you want, but here you'll leave Henry alone."
"Ok, you're coming with me now!" Helena hissed back, and the two girls were soon out of the room.
"I'm sorry about all this." Ariadne told Henry, approaching his bed. "I didn't think they would argue like that…"
"What happened at school today? Did Jean do something?" Henry asked. The metal structures his mother mentioned were hovering over his forearm, linked to his bones by pins menacingly inserted close to his wrist and elbow. His right arm had two of those, while the left only had one. Angry lines of stitches spread all over his skin, marking the places where the bones had broken to the surface. His arms had swollen to about twice their normal size and were supported by two piles of pillows, while a third pile supported his equality inflated ankle.
"We asked him if he was worried about you and he said he didn't care because you didn't want to fuck him." Edward answered, making an apologetic face for being so frank. "Hannah defended Jean, so Helena is now angry with her too."
"I see…" Henry dropped his head. "So our group is fighting again. If I tell Jean I want to have sex with him, do you think he would care?"
"You want me to ask him that?" Edward asked, astonished. Henry looked so hopeful, however, that he did not have the heart to discourage him. "I can try, but…"
"I've been thinking…" Henry began, focusing his gaze on the pack of ice covering his ankle. "I had lots of time to think over the past couple of days, at least when I was not asleep because of the pain killers…" The four of us cringed in more or less synchronised fashion, trying to avoid thinking of how much all those injuries must hurt. "I think that maybe the way to show Jean that life is not just about sex is by playing according to his rules, speaking his language… something like that…"
"Show Jean there's more than just sex by having sex with him? Interesting…" Olivia raised an eyebrow. She seemed to be able to understand Henry's logic better than the rest of us. "It actually makes sense. Go for it." She smiled, and Henry returned the gesture. The rest of us decided not to argue.
"I think I'll go check on Helena…" Ariadne declared, looking nervously towards the door her girlfriend had slammed not long before. "The last thing we need now is for their fight to escalate…"
"I'll go with you." Edward volunteered, assuming the posture of a man ready to go to a war he had no hopes of winning, but that still needed to be fought in the name of a noble cause. "Someone needs to be able to separate them if they actually fight…" Nobody in the room felt like telling Edward that Hannah and Helena would probably skin him alive and display his severed head at the school gates if he ever tried to interfere. We sensed he was not all that comfortable around Henry to begin with, so this was probably his best excuse to leave without offending anybody.
"I hope they're ok." Olivia wished as Ariadne and Edward left the room.
"Me too." Henry sighed. "I hope our group won't break up because of me."
"It's not because of you. It's Jean who's being problematic." Olivia returned, trying to cheer Henry up. She approached his bed, standing close to his head.
"But if I hadn't got hurt, he wouldn't say those things and no one would need to fight." Henry insisted. Olivia roller her eyes, but decided not to argue. Instead, she changed the subject.
"When are you getting back to school?"
"Now only after the exams. The doctors want me stay home at least until the metal things are off." Henry seemed considerably more cheerful talking about his injuries than about Jean. I felt a bit creeped out by this kind of talk (it reminded me too much of my own past injuries and my anxiety for having to hide everything at school), but I decided to not say anything because at least it seemed to be distracting him.
"How long are you staying with those?" Olivia asked, seemingly not at all uncomfortable with the topic. She even got a little closer to Henry's right arm, the one with two metal fixtures.
"A month, and after that they'll put a plastic cast on for two months."
"That long?" Olivia's eyes became twice their size and her eyebrows shot up under her fringe. "But why…"
"They were open fractures." Henry looked away from Olivia and took a deep breath. He was definitely not comfortable anymore. My girlfriend tried to say he did not need to elaborate, but he shook his head and carried on nevertheless. His voice became suddenly colder, like he was somehow narrating a scene he had seen from far away, not something he had seen and felt first hand. "I tried to run when I saw them, but I fell and couldn't get up because my ankle hurt. They reached me and they kicked my head…"
Suddenly I was not hearing Henry's voice anymore. I saw things I had been trying to forget, narrated by my own apathetic voice in the same tone my friend was using. I saw it all over again like the scariest movie ever made. He threw me to the bed. Told me not to move. His belt was already in his hand when he ordered me to strip…
"I tried to cover my head with my arms, but they didn't stop. I asked them to stop, but they said they would only kick harder if I screamed."
I lay on his lap. He made it clear I would regret moving away or making a sound. The thick leather strap burned against my skin and I had to choke all my screams, though the tears found their way out no matter how hard I fought them.
"They shouted at me; said I was a dirty fag who was going to 'pass it on' to the whole school. They said they were protecting the school from people like me, that all faggots should die painfully and burn in hell…"
He said it was for my own good. Every hit was aimed at making me a stronger man, hardening my outer shell so that the shameful feminine impulses could never again make their way in. He said I would thank him. He told me to stop crying and man up.
"I don't know why they stopped. I just heard a crack and saw blood pouring over my eyes. My arms hurt so much I was almost not feeling them anymore. My bones were poking out. I couldn't keep my arms up anymore. Something hit my head and the next thing I know I'm waking up at the hospital and my parents are crying and even with painkillers everything hurt."
There was blood all over his shirt, over my bed-sheets and even the floor. He made me clear it up before throwing me in the bath. He rubbed alcohol on my wounds and told me to stop crying. The water turned red and I felt sick. I saw it getting redder and redder as the wounds stung and hurt and he might as well be tearing me up again. I felt sick and I held it in, fearing his reactions. The next thing I knew I was crying myself to sleep, not daring to move in case the wounds opened up again and I had to clean another set of bed-sheets or lay on my own blood.
"Oh, Henry!" Olivia somehow found a way to hug Henry without touching his arms. "I'm so sorry, so sorry you had to go through all this…" She hugged him as tightly as she could, caressing his hair and sounding like she was about to burst into tears. In contrast with her emotional outburst, Henry did not move or give any sign that he realised she was there. I was still too caught up in my own memories to do anything, so we just stayed like that until Henry's mother knocked on the door a while later. I had no sense of how much time had passed, but judging by her tone of urgency it had probably been a while.
"Sorry for interrupting, but your friends seem to be fighting in the back garden. I don't know what is wrong, but they've been screaming at each other for some time now…"
"Oh, I see…" Olivia turned to face Ms Watson, who was pointing at the window with a certain degree of fear. We turned to see what she was trying to show us and sure enough, Helena and Hannah seemed to be going at each other for real while Ariadne and Edward watched helplessly and probably just as scared as Ms Watson. "Shit." Olivia looked at the other three people in the room. She probably noticed something about our mental state, because she erased all traces of her worries for Henry and put on a determined face. "Oscar, stay with Henry. I'll see what is going on."
I did not think Olivia alone would be able to do what Edward and Ariadne had failed to accomplish, but as I watched her marching to the back yard like a small red war tank, I had to admit it did not seem all that impossible anymore. We could not hear their conversation from behind the double-glaze window, but Olivia's anger seemed to match Hannah and Helena's. Edward and Ariadne approached after a while, and all five of them made their way back to Henry's temporary room looking considerably friendlier.
"Sorry, Henry." Hannah said, doing her best to look at her friend, even though her body was still somewhat turned to Helena. "We got carried away."
"Olivia said you actually want Jean to come back. Is that true?" Helena interrupted, also looking at Henry with her body turned to Hannah in a threatening stance.
"I want Jean to realise there's more to life than sex, yes." Henry answered, raising an eyebrow at the girls' attitude. "I don't blame him for anything, so please stop arguing about him now. I don't want Jean out of our group, at least until I've had my chance to talk to him."
"You do realise you won't be able to have sex for a while, though?" Helena asked, also raising an eyebrow. It seemed Henry's plan amused her.
"But I can let him know that I'm definitely interested, and that we can look for ways to do things even while I'm like this." Henry moved his head to indicate his immobilised arms. Edward made a face like he had just realised the implications of Henry not being able to use his hands for the next three months.
"If anything, you have the perfect excuse to ask him to 'relieve' you…" Olivia nodded, smiling suspiciously. Henry smiled at first too, until he realised his mother was still in the room. He looked at her like the world was about to end, but Ms Watson just threw her arms in the air and shrugged.
"I didn't hear a thing. Now if you excuse me…" And she left the room winkling suggestively to her son. Henry became as red as a tomato and some of us found it hard to keep a straight face.
For the next couple of days I was chosen to bring all notes and homework to Henry after class. I told my parents I had been asked to help a second-year student prepare for exams (as suggested by Olivia), and thankfully they believed this new lie as well as all the other ones. The exam season was set to start on Friday, at which point we would be on a break from classes until the beginning of June.
Seeing Henry and his family every day for three days in a role was an interesting experience. Henry's parents were considerably older than mine, and in many ways behaved more like what I imagined 'traditional' grandparents should do. His father Stephen was fifty-eight years old, but had already retired because of an accident at work five years earlier that caused him to lose part of his leg and become partially-sighted in one eye. I learned all that on Tuesday during family supper. The Watson invited me to stay as a thank you for helping Henry and started talking about those things without me saying anything or asking any questions. It was somewhat creepy at first, but Mr Watson seemed like a nice man, so I tried not to feel bad about it.
Henry's mother used to work at a care home for the elderly until Henry was born, at which point she decided to stay at home to take care of her son. When Henry was born she was almost forty years old, so her pregnancy, although very well-received, had come as a surprise. Despite the family's working class background, they had managed to buy and rebuild their house with the help of a distant relative who was making a considerable amount of money working abroad. I did not ask for any of this information either, but Henry's family talked about everything with a sense of pride, like they would gladly tell their story to the whole world if they could.
"I'm sorry about my parents." Henry told me after supper on Thursday, the last day I would spend with him before exams started. "I hope all the TMI hasn't scared you or anything."
"No, it's ok. Your parents are nice." I assured him, thinking of the times his mum would knock in the door to offer biscuits and other treats while I was showing my notes to Henry or helping him revise. Early evening was also the time she would come to clean the metal spikes in her son's arms as part of the treatment to prevent infections. On top of that, Henry was still taking antibiotics and painkillers, which made him woozy after about half an hour. That was usually the time I returned home.
Everything Henry's mother did was gentle and carrying. If Henry complained of pain when she was messing with the metal fixtures in his arm, she would apologise and wait until he was feeling better before continuing with her work. If Henry complained about anything else she would do her best to attend to his needs, never telling him to shut up or just get on with it. At first I thought it was because she had worked for so long with older people that it affected how she dealt with the young, but little by little I realised that maybe this was not the only reason.
"I love you, sweety." Mr Watson would tell her son every time she finished cleaning his wounds. She would then kiss him on the forehead and leave the room while telling us to have fun.
"Are your parents always like this?" I asked him, amazed at how different his family seemed from mine. My mother would never smoother me like that, or tell me it was ok to complain or show my pain. I kind of expected any moment now that Henry's mother to get fed up with him and tell him to shut up; it was hard to believe someone could be this patient and this unbothered by all his whining.
"Yes, why? Aren't yours?" Henry asked in return, looking puzzled. Just as I assumed there was something out of place in his family because I was used to what mine was like, he probably assumed families everywhere worked like his.
"Not so much." I told him, not willing to admit we were not at all similar. The more I realised families like Olivia's and Henry's functioned on a completely different set of assumptions, the more I felt an urge to hide what my father did to me. I did not want my friends believing there was something wrong with me, or thinking my parents were some kind of monsters. Joseph Schubert was still my father despite everything; all he did was for my own good.
We had dinner together again later that night. Probably because of our brief talk earlier, any kind of interaction Henry had with his father resulted in me having unwanted memories invading my mind. When Mr Watson helped Henry to sit on his wheelchair to bring him to the dinning room (which he managed despite standing only in one leg himself), I remembered my father telling me to shut up and keep walking after I fell and cut my leg on a hiking trip. When Mr Watson asked Henry about his day, I remembered my father demanding to know why I had not been studying like he ordered me to. Even Mr Watson walking on his crutches and making some incredible contortionism to kiss his son's cheeks after he was put in bed reminded me of how my father would rather mock-fight with me and rant about my lack of aggressiveness than say any kind of praise.
"I love you, son."
"Me too, dad."
I did not realise how much this little exchange hurt me until I was approaching my own home. I felt relieved this had been my last day as Henry's 'private tutor' and that it would be a while before I returned to his house.
More than that, I was probably afraid that doing so would make me reluctant to step into Joseph's home again.
Author's note (yes, another one):
This was probably the most difficult chapter to write so far. At first I wasn't inspired at all (which is why I only finished it this morning), but then I did some research, put together a proper calendar/time line for the story and the inspiration came back.
The bit where Henry and Oscar relive their traumas at the same time kind of wrote itself. It wasn't planned at first, but as soon as it started I couldn't stop. For me this has been the most heart-wrenching scene of the whole story.
A bit of a disclaimer: I've never been through this kind of situation, so all I wrote is based on things I've read about people who did. If you feel there is anything wrong and you know it's wrong because you have more experience than I do with the subject, please feel free to call me out on it.
As always, criticism is deeply appreciated, though probably for this chapter more than most.