“Next time those jerks at school mess with me, I won’t chicken out,” Hank told himself as he walked home from school with his head down. He watched his shoelaces slap the concrete sidewalk with every step, wishing he could be another person entirely. Hank wasn’t unlike the other kids at his high school, experiencing typical teenage hormones and the angst that accompanies them. He was awkwardly tall and very shy, but that’s not what made him the primary target for the ridicule he had become accustomed to receiving. Hank came from a family of modest means, he was a loner, and being the newer kid in town only made him an easier target.
Once he was in his dark, cave of a room, he turned put on his headphones and drowned the outside world out with his music. This was his way of personal escape; the only place he could seem to find a sense of belonging and forget about his life as a forced outcast. He couldn’t help but replay the days earlier events in his head. Michael King was the alpha male in his group of underachieving friends. They had been waiting for him in the school parking lot when Hank set out walking for home. “So, since you don’t have a mother, are you the woman of the house?” a taunting voice called out from behind Hank, startling him. Michael and his gang of groupies were behind him in no time. The biggest boy in the group pushed Hank on the ground while two other boys took turns kicking him when he tried to get up. Michael took his backpack and emptied the contents on the ground beside him. “You really should just come out of the closet,” one boy shouted. Hank picked up his belongings in defeat and held back the tears he refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing .“See ya tomorrow, buddy.” Michael and his cronies laughed as they left their helpless victim to lick his wounded ego.
Now back in his room, Hank felt his embarrassment turning into seething rage. He threw his headphones across the room and pulled a tattered notebook from the bottom drawer in his desk. Inside was page after page of his inner thoughts, the things he always wanted to say in retrospect. He always hated that he choked up in the heat of the moment when all he wanted to do was explode. He channeled his anger through this notebook; anger at his mom for leaving, anger at his dad for letting her leave, anger at kids at school, and anger at himself. He flipped to a fresh page and wrote “MICHAEL” boldly across the top. “Today, you treated me like I was nothing. You made fun of me for no reason. I bet you didn’t know that my mother left my dad and I the day after my birthday last year. I had no idea anything was wrong. She was there, and then she just wasn’t. I bet you also didn’t know that living with my dad is like living with a robot. He may as well be a piece of furniture when he’s even at home.” Hank could feel angry tears welling up in his eyes. He continued, “I want nothing more than to somehow make you feel, for one day, the pain and utter loneliness that I feel every single day. If given the chance, I would give you what you deserve.” Hank wasn’t really sure he meant it, but it sounded nice in his mind.
He then flipped back towards the front of the notebook until he found the page with the word “DAD” written boldly across the top. There were already a few pages dedicated to the man he felt he barely knew anymore. He flipped to a fresh page. “Why do you pretend everything is ok? Why do you act as if I don’t exist? How could you let her leave?! I know it’s your fault she left. I hate you! You never even apologized, not once! Why can’t you just talk to me? Do you even care that we don’t speak anymore?” Hank heard his dad’s footsteps approaching down the hall of their small two-bedroom apartment, so he put his notebook away and prepared for their routine conversation. He heard a light knock on his bedroom door. “Hank, your dinner is in the microwave. I already ate. Do you need anything?” “No, Dad, I’ll eat later, I’m just doing homework,” Hank replied. “Alright then, I’m going on to bed son, goodnight.” “Goodnight, Dad.” Hank got up from his desk and collapsed back on his bed in frustration. He and his father had been close when he was a kid. But after the divorce, his dad became, different person, living on autopilot. It seemed to him that his father had given up on life, and that only fueled the annoyance and pity he felt towards him. He wanted to scream into his pillow but knew it would do no good. He put his headphones back on and closed his eyes. He needed the music to drown out his negative thoughts and help him fall into a dreamless sleep.
In the room across the hall from his, behind an identical shut door, Hank’s father, Kirk, sat on the side of his bed with his head in his hands. The silence around him was deafening. He was lost in thought; grateful his son was in the other room preoccupied so he couldn’t see how disheartened his father truly was. He had thought moving to a new place would be a good idea, a fresh start for the two of them after his wife left, but he wasn’t oblivious to the fact that it was failing miserably. He knew his wife had been having an affair, but he’d hoped it was a temporary fling and something he could spare his son from knowing. He never imagined that he and Hank had meant so little to the woman he had shared a life with. He finally snapped back to reality and turned on his television, if only to distract his mind. He reached inside his nightstand and pulled out a worn notebook.
He flipped through pages filled with emotion, pages he couldn’t bare to pause on long enough at the risk of having to relive them for even a moment. He found a fresh page. “Hank, I feel like I am failing you every day. I wish you would open up to me. I wish it were easier for me to open up to you. I hope you know; your mother leaving wasn’t your fault. It was mine. I should have done more to make you both happy. I should have been able to protect you from this hurt. I hope you know that I love you.” He felt the ache in his chest as he wrote the words. He couldn’t remember the last time he and his son had said those words to each other. I love you. He returned his notebook to the nightstand and left the television on to give himself some solace, however brief. The background noise distracted the racing thoughts in his mind just long enough for him to fall into a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Hank walked into the kitchen and found his dad the same way he did every morning. He sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, and didn’t look up. “Who even reads actual newspapers anymore?” Hank thought to himself, annoyed already. He fixed himself a bowl of cereal and sat at the table. He was absentmindedly scrolling through his phone when he heard a soft sigh, one that said nothing and a million things at once. He looked up and saw his father sitting across from him, matching his gaze. Seeing his father’s misty eyes, Hank could feel his emotions boiling to the surface. “BE A MAN!” he wanted to scream to his father. “Do anything to show me you’re still alive inside this shell you have become!” Instead, all he could muster was, “It’ll be alright, Dad. I’m fine. We are fine.” Kirk managed a weak smile. “You bet, buddy. We will be.”