This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Chapter 10: Taking Flight
"Hi Julian. You okay?"
It was the familiar tone of Ben's mellifluous treble voice.
The lesson had ended and Ben had immediately come to the front of the room to see me as the classroom emptied. No doubt there was some other agenda on his mind this time, though his upbeat greeting, and the genuine empathy in his tone, was touching and uplifting at the same time. I was actually glad to see him. If I was honest, I had truly missed the little guy. It was the first time I had seen him since the party last week at Mr Slater's house. I had meant to ask him about his weekend. But as I turned towards him from tidying away the stuff on my desk, I saw the dark contusion under his eye.
"Perhaps I should be asking you the same thing," I countered.
Ben looked puzzled for a moment, his cute features furrowing in a questioning frown. It was obviously not the response he was expecting.
"What do you mean?"
"What happened to your face?" I demanded, "Don't tell me your mom..."
"No, no," Ben interjected, "It was an accident, look..."
And he drew up his shirtsleeve to show me the corresponding injuries on his wrist and elbow.
"I went cycling with Tony at the lake," he explained.
He held up his elbow for me to take a look, exposing his thin little forearm to show me his injuries. His smooth young flesh was grazed so badly that you could see the tracks that had been etched into his skin where it had scraped the ground, and where the once bloody wounds were starting to heal over. He actually seemed pleased about it, and was smiling. That was so sweet, I thought. How boyish. No doubt his injuries lent him an air of credibility, so that he was proud to show them off to the other boys too.
"That looks nasty," I said, "It must have been some trip."
Ben chuckled and his pretty gray-green eyes sparkled with pride.
"I'm okay now," he said.
He stood there beaming at me, his diminutive frame rooted to that same spot by my desk, as usual his laptop bag suspended from his shoulder, resting against his pert little butt. When he made no attempt to leave, I knew there must be something else on his mind.
"Did you want to see me?" I asked.
"Take a look at my story," he insisted, proffering a sheaf of papers which he had already clutched in his little hand, "I wrote it last night."
"Okay," I said, and perched tentatively on the edge of my desk to read his work.
I took a few moments to scan the first page while Ben stood diligently and patiently before me and waited. His words drew me in from the very first sentence. His story was so good that I almost read the whole thing there and then. I was stunned by the sheer depth of his composition. He had written a touching little story about two young boys with a very special friendship. His characterization was extremely vivid. It was a rich and descriptive text, effusing with thoughts and emotions. Not only was it immaculate in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, but for a short story written by a twelve-year-old boy, the plot was remarkably complex. It sure made a change from all those slap-dash, superficial, meaningless compositions written in unintelligible English using undecipherable handwriting by boys whom you could tell had no enthusiasm for the task whatsoever. I swear, Ben's work was a breath of fresh air to a jaded English teacher like me. This was the kind of composition that made the job of marking a true pleasure. Not only was the story touching and poignant, it was very original and showed exceptional promise. I was sure Ben was going to be a very accomplished writer some day.
"This is excellent work," I said, looking up.
Ben swelled with pride, clearly chuffed by my compliment.
"Yes. Well done Ben. I'm so pleased that SOMEONE is paying attention in my lessons."
I went to hand the papers back to him, but he made no attempt to take them.
"Keep it," he said, "It's for you."
I looked at him blankly, my hand still outstretched. He was still standing there smiling at me, looking a little cocksure, and I hesitated for a moment, unprepared for such magnanimity.
"Yeh," he nodded, "I wrote it for you."
I was momentarily lost for words, overwhelmed by his unexpected gesture.
"Oh, that's very kind if you," was all I could say, "Thank you Ben."
"You're welcome," he replied brightly, and he turned to go, shuffling out of the classroom, silently turning out of the open doorway still beaming to himself, no doubt delighted by my endorsement.
Ben's sweet head was just visible above the glass partition of the classroom as I watched his diminutive little figure disappear down the corridor, and his little act of kindness filled my heart with joy and humility. That he should want to write a story just for me was a beautiful gesture, and a very personal one, which left me in no doubt how much Ben revered and admired me. I stuffed the papers into my document wallet, intending to read his story through again later. It was certainly worthy of a second reading and I wanted to savor it and enjoy it once more in my own time.
As it turned out, it was a morning of quite extreme emotions, because immediately after that brief encounter with Ben, I was summoned to the Principal's office. It was not entirely unexpected. In fact, another visit to his office had been on the cards for some time, and was probably overdue. So, less than fifteen minutes later, I was sitting before the Principal braving another of his famous sermons.
"You did such a good job with the school play, Julian," said Perkins, "You have built an excellent reputation here. Don't spoil it all by letting your standards slip."
I nodded, by this time my head in my hands, partly out of shame and partly out of despair.
"I'm sorry," I said again, for the umpteenth time.
"This cannot continue," said Perkins, his heavy jowls staring at me gravely from across his desk, "I thought I had made that clear."
"Yes, I know," I offered, feebly, "And I'm sorry. I promise I won't let it happen again."
"You said that last time," he went on, unimpressed, "Clearly your promises are worth nothing to me."
"I'm going through a bad patch at the moment, that's all."
He huffed impatiently, and looked away, unmoved by my rationalization.
"This bad patch has been going on for months," he said, with a note of irritation, "It's time for you to put it all behind you and get on with your life."
He was right of course. I was late for school again that morning. It was becoming a regular occurrence and his tolerance was starting to wear thin. I was late because I had slept through the alarm. That was because I had been up late drinking last night. I had drunk myself into a stupor, as usual, and fallen asleep in an alcohol sodden haze. I woke up in a panic, my head sore, my mouth dry and my whole body aching, with the horrible realization that for everybody else the day was progressing as normal in my absence. I had rushed to school without any breakfast and missed the roll call. Inevitably I was required to account for myself. So here I was once more, in Perkins' plush little office, trying to placate him and enter into yet another round of bargaining to stave off the disciplinary action which we both knew was long overdue and probably inevitable.
"Look Julian," he said, leaning towards me across his desk with an earnest stare, "I've given you so many chances. I've bent over backwards to help you..."
"I know, Robert, and I am grateful..." I interjected.
"...but there's a limit to how far I can go on covering for you."
I stared back at him from across his desk, taking in his gray hair and gray eyes and noted how the lines on his face were so deeply etched into his cheeks and brows. Perkins was an imposing man, thick set and tall. He commanded authority and had that indefinable quality of being able to strike fear into you and commanded instant respect - a useful trait for a school principal.
"You're a good teacher Julian," he said, "I don't want to lose you."
It was the first time he had alluded to the very real consequences that might result.
"What are you going to do?" I asked, resigned to the fact that I had probably left him no choice. I was out of chances, and we both knew it.
He took a deep breath and leaned back in his big, leather executive chair, swivelling uncertainly from side to side.
"I will have to discuss it with the governors," he said, "And we'll see if disciplinary action can be avoided."
The way his statement was couched inferred that the outcome was most likely already decided, barring a small and probably unlikely miracle.
So, I left Perkins' office lower than I had felt for a long, long while. Now that the distraction of directing the school play was no longer taking up my time, the bottomless pit of sadness that I somehow managed to keep submerged, was once again threatening to boil over. That vast well of grief that I knew was always there, was now starting to bubble up and make itself tangible again. The school play had taken so much of my time recently, and I had thrown myself into it so completely, there hadn't been time for me to wallow in self-pity. But now that I had nothing else to focus my attention on, I found myself thinking more and more about Joey again, and in doing so allowing my misery to take over. Day to day life was hard enough, so that even the simplest of things became a struggle. I was so fragile that I was perpetually on the brink of breaking down at any moment. I was so vulnerable that being hauled in front of the Principal was enough to send me scurrying for sanctuary as soon as the encounter was over. I fled out into the parking lot to the car, the only place I was guaranteed solitude and privacy, and I sat in the passenger seat for a long time feeling sorry for myself. Strangely, even as I pondered my plight, I was still clutching my document wallet with Ben's story still in it. Perhaps with the exception of Ben, I received very little consideration from others these days. It was as if no one understood, or if they did, they didn't really care. And it didn't help when people recited pompous clichés at you; snap out of it, pull yourself together, as though it was a conscious decision to feel like this. What did they know? I wondered if any of them had ever known real grief. At times like that I wondered if anybody truly had one iota of compassion or altruism in them, so bent were they in making other people's lives a misery.
I sat in the car for a good long time on the verge of tears. How did it come to this? My life had been so good. There was a time when I was happy, when I had everything - all I could ever want. I had a beautiful, cheerful, intelligent little boy who brought joy and wonder into my life. I was content and optimistic. Yes I had it all, back in the days when Joey still had a future and we could still make plans and where everything good was yet to come. Everything was perfect. How did I now find myself in this terrible limbo where my life was perpetually in crisis? It felt like my life had been in crisis since the day that Joey's illness was diagnosed, the day when everything changed, when there was no more future, when all our plans were decimated and where everything I had ever believed about the world and life in general was turned upside down. From that day on everything had spiraled out of control, ever downward, down into the very depths of hell itself, until I was so deeply into the pit of despair that there was no realistic hope of ever pulling myself out. Now, after losing Joey, having to learn how to exist without him, it seemed I was in danger of losing everything else as well, my job, my reputation, my livelihood, even my self respect.
Ironically, it was precisely at times like this that I really needed Joey. He always knew how to make me feel better. I remember one particularly memorable afternoon, not long after he had come to live with me permanently, when our relationship had just begun to blossom. I had had the day from hell, the type of work day when every conceivable problem had got on top of me. The lessons had been noisy, the kids disruptive, and all kinds of distractions had served to irritate and annoy. Even the tiny details of the day had added to the general despondency: the weather was cold, and the car wouldn't start. To cap it all, I had been called in to see Perkins. Yes, even then, visits to the Principal's office had been an occupational hazard. He was angry too. He had received a complaint from a parent of one of our students. That displeased him greatly. He had had to grovel and plead and give reassurances that the matter would be dealt with internally. So he had managed to divert any possibility of an official complaint. But he really bawled me out, criticizing my decisions, questioning my judgment, and even casting doubt on my teaching ability. And I had to sit there, braving his tirade, not really able to justify myself or defend my corner. Not that I could condone any of the things he accused me of. I came out of his office feeling as low and demoralized as it was possible to be. That encounter with Perkins tainted the rest of the day. And so it was, that I got in from work and carelessly slung my laptop case onto the kitchen counter as I came in from the garage. Joey was in the drawing room sprawled on the floor on his tummy, watching TV. His feet were as usual waving around in the air. He curled around and took a cursory look at me as I appeared briefly in the kitchen. We said hi, and then I went upstairs to get changed. I didn't want to disturb him during his TV time. We had very clear rules about that. I didn't impinge on his TV time so long as he made sure he stopped to do his homework later. I climbed the stairs and shut myself in my bedroom. I laid down on my bed still in my work gear, one arm draped across my eyes as though trying to shut out the memory of the day.
I must have dozed off for a bit. The bed was soft and the room was warm, and I was tired from not having slept well the night before. And so it was that, not long later, I was gently awakened by Joey climbing onto the bed. The mattress shook slightly and I opened my eyes to see Joey clambering onto the bed next to me. On the nightstand he had put a little tray with a bottle of bourbon and a can of Coke. He had even thought to put some ice cubes into a spare glass so that I could mix myself a bourbon and Coke - the drink he knew I liked when I had had a particularly beastly day. That was pretty unique of Joey. He observed and he noticed things that most kids of his age would never even think of. And he was considerate too. He didn't know how to mix drinks, but he knew the next best thing - to bring me the required paraphernalia so I could do it myself. And he was incredibly astute - because all I'd said was "hi" and appeared only briefly on my way upstairs, and yet that momentary glimpse was enough for him to gauge my mood precisely. And based on that, he had taken the initiative to prepare a tray of drinks for me. The amazing thing was that he didn't say a word. He laid down on the bed next to me, a little further down so that he placed his sweet white-haired head on my chest and had one arm resting warmly across my waist. Then he looked up at me, his cheek against my heart, and with genuine empathy in those pretty, piercing, cobalt blue eyes of his.
"Are you okay?"
"Yes Joey, I'm good. Much better now that you're here."
He snuggled to me even closer as we laid there, and he flipped on the little TV that was on the dresser, so we could watch TV together. I remember how much I relished Joey's company. He always made me feel better just by being there. He had eased my tension and lifted my spirits. And he had selflessly sacrificed his TV time, all for me. That was the kind of boy Joey was.
I went to see Mr Trebusz after school, to help him to bring a cache of firewood in from his back yard. He had taken delivery of some ready-split logs and just needed them brought into the house so they were easily accessible, neatly stacked just next to the fireplace. It didn't take long and he paid me very well for what was not even an hour's work. I finished just in the nick of time because when I left it had just started to rain outside. I quickly ran home and got back to the apartment just as the shower gained in intensity, narrowly avoiding getting wet. When I got in, I stepped straight into the kitchen to wash my hands because I still had ingrained dirt on my palms from shifting the firewood, and by then the rain was already crackling against the window pane.
As soon as I got in I could sense the tension in the household. There was always tension in the air because Petey and I were forever getting bawled out for some trivial infraction or other. It seemed we were getting bawled out more and more these days. But maybe that was more to do with the fact that my mom was drinking more heavily, and more frequently. I was constantly finding abandoned beer bottles around the apartment, sometimes half full, long forgotten, without any attempt to clear them away. They left sticky ring marks everywhere. Her habitual drinking made her eternally bad-tempered and left us constantly in the firing line, in fear of incurring some unwarranted outburst and the fear of her focusing her rage on us was causing an atmosphere almost like being besieged.
After drying my hands, I went into the family room where Petey was sitting well back on the sofa, his little feet jutting over the edge of the seat. On his lap was a bowl of chili which he was eating with a spoon as he watched TV. It was fairly typical, I thought, that mealtimes in this place constituted no more than a bowl of tinned chili. Opening a can was about the extent of my mom's culinary prowess, so that we had come to consider it a luxury if she even bothered to warm it up in the microwave.
My mom watched me as I crossed the hallway, hovering just by the kitchen door with a drunken leer, wolfing down smoke from her eternal cigarette.
"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded, in a slightly slurred and uncoordinated way, and as I passed by her I could smell the fumes of her beer breath, tinged with stale tobacco.
"Mr Trebusz," I replied, tersely, already resenting her inquisition.
"Hah! You spend so much time round there, why don't you just move in with him?"
I ignored her remark. It was a ridiculous assertion. I didn't actually spend that much time with Mr Trebusz. Even so, it was a good deal more conducive to being at home. At least Mr Trebusz valued me.
"That is if you really are with him and not skulking around with some slut of a girlfriend," my mom rambled on.
That was an even more ridiculous assertion, though typical of my mom that even an innocuous hour spent doing a good deed for a neighbor should be twisted into something slightly perverse and duplicitous because of her own bitterness and distrust. Even if I did have a girlfriend, why would I feel the need to 'skulk around', and why would that necessarily make her a slut? Again, I ignored it, though I did start to wonder what was behind my mom's thinly-veiled and even slightly offensive provocations. It was as if she was spoiling for a fight. Her truculence and aggression was tangible this evening.
At this point, Petey was drawn into the exchange. He had been engrossed in some preteen drama on the TV while he ate his dinner and, having overheard my mom's unkind remarks, swallowed the mouthful he was chewing and turned to defend my corner, as he was frequently apt to do.
"Benny doesn't like girls," Petey piped up, quite innocently, helpfully pitching in with a correction, "he only likes boys."
"No Petey!" I yelled, instantly thrown into a panic by his guileless interjection.
Petey immediately realized the implications of what he had just said. Wide-eyed with alarm, he clasped a hand over his mouth as though to force the incriminatory words back in, but it was too late.
My mom loomed large and menacing in the doorway, blocking the exit from the family room, and stood there swaying unsteadily, her drooping eyelids and bloodshot eyes a testament to her state of intoxication, and she regarded me with a scowl of anger and contempt.
"So that's it!" she exclaimed, triumphantly, "That's your big secret is it?"
She stamped into the room and took another very deliberate drag on her cigarette before snatching the bowl from Petey's little hands and crushing her cigarette out into the remainder of his chili. She tossed the bowl of his now spoiled dinner down onto the coffee table and stood in front of Petey, blocking his view of the TV. This all happened so quickly that Petey barely had time to assimilate what was going on.
"So how do YOU know so much about it, you little shit?" she demanded.
This frightened Petey, and he recoiled from my mom's raised voice and threatening tone. His face was wracked with fear so that he visibly shrank back on the sofa.
"He... he told me," Petey stammered, "He doesn't like girls. He... prefers boys."
"No Petey!" I called out to him, to stop him saying any more.
My mom turned to me slowly, ratcheting up the drama by taking her time and clearly determined to get to the root of it now that the cat was out of the bag.
"Oh, you do, do you? How does HE know? Have you been doing stuff with him?"
"Of course not!" I protested, "That's ridiculous!"
Then she turned back to Petey.
"Tell me the truth!" she demanded, "Did he ever try anything with you?"
Petey was visibly repulsed by her aggressive tones and you could see that he was confused. But I wasn't angry at Petey. He was blameless, totally oblivious to the implications of his remarks. I was only sorry that he had to be embroiled in all this.
"Like what?" he asked, completely naive of her objective.
"Did he ever get you naked?"
"What do you mean?" Petey asked, visibly discomfited by her unrelenting interrogation, by now drawing his legs up and curling up protectively on the sofa.
"Did he ever take your clothes off?" she demanded, phrasing it as though it was a simple enough question.
But it wasn't a simple question. Petey couldn't possibly have known the implications of what she was inferring.
"We slept naked," said Petey, innocently, "Benny doesn't wear pajamas."
"You slept with him?"
"Sometimes," said Petey, wondering why that should be such a big deal.
"I knew it!" my mom exclaimed, already huffing with disgust.
"But we share a room!" I interjected, trying to restore some sense of reality.
She ignored me, determined to continue grilling Petey. She reached down and grabbed him by both arms, pulling him off the sofa and pushing him backwards into the wall so hard that his little head jerked back violently with a thud. The pain instantly wrested tears from Petey, and I knew that must have hurt. But despite his little howl of pain, she held him there, pinned against the wall with one hand on his chest. I will never forget the sheer terror in Petey's tear-filled eyes.
"Did he ever touch you down there?" she demanded, pointing to his crotch.
Petey was confused, not knowing how to answer that.
"He... he might have," he sobbed hesitantly, clearly thinking that the safest option.
"Did he ever try to put anything in your bottom?" she asked.
Petey thought, desperately running through all the scenarios in his immature little mind, trying to work out what to say - what was going to get him off the hook - and then appeared to strike on the right option.
"He squirted cream on it once!" Petey blurted out through his tears, hoping it was what she wanted to hear, but clearly not understanding what she was driving at.
"No Petey!" I shouted, momentarily focusing my anger on him, realizing that it was all sounding so wrong.
"That's it!" my mom proclaimed, "You abused your brother!"
"No!" I retorted, "I would never! I love Petey."
She turned to me with narrowed eyes, exuding sheer hatred, even curling her lip with contempt, with Petey still pinned against the wall.
"I know your kind of love," she rasped, "You disgust me!"
As she was turned briefly toward me, Petey tried to run away. He bolted for the door, but she grabbed him by the neck of his t-shirt and pulled him back. His t-shirt stretched improbably as he struggled, riding up and exposing Petey's midriff, so that you could see his tummy and little innie belly button. My mom held him out at arms length, as though he was something contagious, and forcefully marched him out into the hallway, shoving him into the vacant bathroom and slamming the door.
"Get in there and stay in there you little shit! I'll deal with you later."
I could hear Petey's little fist hammering on the door, frantic with fright, crying and screaming to be let out. Then she grabbed a chair from the kitchen and propped it up against the bathroom door, jamming the lever of the handle so it couldn't be turned. I wondered where she had learned that trick.
I was standing in the kitchen doorway, alarmed at how quickly the situation had deteriorated into violence and confrontation. But I was not surprised. One thing I had learned from living with my mom is how irrational and belligerent people become when they drink - and that you can never reason with a drunk.
Having disposed of Petey, she turned back to me with a vitriolic snarl. I moved backwards into the kitchen until I was up against the sink. My mom approached menacingly, clearly determined to start on me. But I wasn't going to let her do that. My back was against the wall, and like any trapped animal, I knew had no alternative but to fight back. I prepared to repel her, and as she closed in, I could hear the howling wind outside as the rainstorm battered against the window pane behind me.
She stopped and regarded me with a look of utter loathing, still swaying uncertainly, her wrinkled, pasty skin and her greasy, straggly hair, making her appear far older than she actually was. Then her invective began again.
"You! I curse the day I ever gave birth to you!"
"So why did you?" I shouted back at her.
"You were an accident," she retorted, "I never wanted you!"
"Yeah?" I shot back, "If I was an accident, what does that make Petey?"
"You want to know the truth?" she snapped, shouting so closely at me that she was almost spitting into my face, "I wanted to have him aborted. I was all ready to have the little parasite destroyed. But something went wrong. The doctors screwed up and I was stuck with him!"
"No," she countered, "That's the truth. Petey is nothing but a failed abortion!"
She actually smiled cruelly as she said it, almost as though she reveled in her own iniquity. It was hardly credible that a mother could express such hatred for her own child, so that I did wonder how such a sorry state of affairs could ever arise. It was a horrible thing to say. But, much as I feared her, and much as I was horrified by her antipathy towards Petey, at that moment I actually felt pity for her.
"Go!" she screamed, "Get out of here. You're no son of mine. Get out!"
And with that she reached for the nearest beer bottle that happened to be on the kitchen table, and grabbed it by the neck, raising it as though to throw it at me. But she was too slow. I managed to sidestep her missile, but she threw it anyway, and it ended up smashing against the wall behind me.
The sound of breaking glass added to the gravity of the situation, ratcheting up the danger to a new level, and I knew I just had to get out of there. My mom was deranged and dangerous, but the downside of drinking so much was that she was not so quick on her feet. In fact she was slow and uncoordinated. I had the advantage, so I quickly darted down the hallway to my bedroom. I was quick thinking enough to remember to take my stash of dough from the little metal tin on my bookshelf. In my haste, I scrabbled manically to find the place I had hidden it, sending the books flying in all directions. I snatched the tin, clasping it to my chest, and dashed back out into the hallway. My mom was stood swaying unsteadily with a sardonic smile, blocking my access to the front door. Drunk though she was, the malevolence was tangible in her eyes.
"That won't help you," she sneered.
I hesitated a moment, not quite sure what she meant. Then I opened the tin and peered inside. It was empty! My stash was gone!
"If you're wondering what happened to your little nest egg," she hissed, "I drank it!"
At that moment, the sheer horror and vindictiveness of her treachery hit me like a punch to the stomach. All my hard earned money was gone! But there was no time to lament. My anguish at this realization was superseded by my immediate fear and my instinct for self-preservation. I burst into tears, frightened and defeated, threw the empty tin down in frustration, and looked around helplessly. Petey was still locked in the bathroom, still hammering on the door, crying and begging to be let out. But there was nothing I could do. The funny thing was that, even amidst all this madness, I noticed that the door to my mom's bedroom was ajar, and inside, through the narrow opening, I could see Alan in bed, apparently fast asleep. He was snoring away, completely oblivious to the altercation that had taken place. He had slept through the entire shouting match! In some ways, that was pretty symptomatic of Alan - never of any use to anybody and certainly of no help even to children in distress. He was useless. Utterly useless.
Out of options, I darted for the front door. I pushed past my mom, knocking her aside in my panic. She stumbled and fell against the wall, flailing around blindly. And while she was momentarily off balance, I made it to the door. I fumbled for the latch, threw the door open and fled, with no time to take anything with me other than the light clothes I was wearing. I ran from this madhouse. I fled down the stairs and out into the night. I ran out into the pouring rain. I ran because even that was preferable to this tortuous hellhole that purported to be my home. I ran and ran through the darkened, rain-lashed streets, braving the biting wind and stinging rain, without any clear idea of where I was even going.