CONTENT WARNING: death
Something was different.
Alex had been through the hall door down into the basement many times before. But when he stepped on to the cold floor that day, and felt the shadows closing in around him, it seemed he had entered a new world. It was frightening. His mother was already sitting in front of the computer, her long nails clicking against the keyboard as she rapidly typed. She didn’t acknowledge him until he was standing right beside her.
“Go lie down. You don’t need the password yet.”
Alex nodded and began pulling his shirt over his head. He dropped it to the floor nearby and continued removing the rest of his clothes before laying down on the cold table. All heat was slowly leaving his body in a desperate attempt to warm the air around him. It was a futile effort, and he felt a chill run along his spine.
He reached with his fingers for the nearby controller, pressing the small button at its center. That was the signal to begin. Every nerve in his body felt a slight but jarring pulse that worked its way through his muscles. It was not enough to really warm him, but just enough to make his skin feel as though thousands of needles had begun to prick him. Alex tried to concentrate on the numbness of his body, trying to release anything he felt, both inside and within his skin.
The feeling stopped and the lights went out. A soft, white sheet slowly slipped over his body, resting just under his chin.
“I’ll give you the password later,” his mother promised. “Let’s just concentrate on getting you ready for tomorrow.”
With that, she hurried out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Tomorrow. Yes, he had to be ready for tomorrow.
Alex looked up.
The boy looked strangely familiar.
That big smile beamed at Alex, just begging to be recognized.
“Do I know you?” Alex asked.
“It’s me. David!” he replied, sliding into the desk across from him. Alex remembered now. The two of them had gone to the same elementary school.
“David… yeah, it’s been a long time.”
“Years! I almost didn’t recognize you,” David admitted. “So where have you been?”
The teacher came in before Alex had time to answer and all eyes turned to the front of the classroom. Alex couldn’t help but glance nervously over his shoulder at David every few minutes. He hadn’t expected anyone to remember him. Not with this being his senior year of high school.
But David was someone different.
He was the type of guy who didn’t forget his first best friend.
You see, Alex bruised easily.
In elementary school, Alex was what his teachers called a “big ball of energy”. He was the boy who fidgeted in his desk all the time, ran around the room if the teacher stepped out for a moment, and was the last person to leave the playground during recess. Consequently, he was always bumping into things and tumbling off things, sporting brilliant purple splotches all over his white shins and elbows.
But that’s not what finally caught his mother’s attention.
It wasn’t what caught David’s attention.
It was those large purple splotches that formed a circle around his stomach. Sometimes they would be there one day and then disappear completely the next day. His mother began to make a point to look for them, subjecting Alex to seemingly endless questions each time one appeared.
Then, one day, it happened. Someone noticed.
It happened at school, during recess. David and Alex were playing together, just like they always did. Alex was dangling from the monkey bars when his shirt fell down to his chin, revealing his tummy and the ring of ugly bruises.
“What hurt you?” David asked him. Alex sat up and pulled his shirt back down.
“What hurt you?” David tried again, reaching out to grab the tail of his shirt.
Alex placed his hands over his stomach protectively. “Nothing hurt me.”
“Do you want to go tell the nurse?” David asked.
“NO!” he said, jumping down off the monkey bars and running away. “Leave me alone!”
“Wait, don’t go, I’m sorry,” David tried. It didn’t work.
Alex didn’t go back to school after that day. His mother wouldn’t let him. He wondered about David. If David would be mad at him. If they were still friends. But as the year continued, Alex found less time to think about David. Eventually, he’d forgotten all about him.
Obviously, David hadn’t forgotten.
They had three classes together. He tried to talk with Alex before each one, and even a little in the hallway. It had been such a long time, they didn’t know where to start, where to pick back up. Alex wasn’t sure if he wanted to.
“So, your mom’s a teacher, right?” David asked.
“Yeah, she teaches biochemistry at the university,” Alex replied. He couldn’t remember anything about David’s family. He was a bit ashamed. “Uhm, how’s your family doing?”
“Good. I have a baby sister now! She’s four years old.”
“That must be nice.”
“She’s real cute. You’ll have to come by the house sometime and see her.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to do that.”
Alex ducked into his next class without another word, but he saw David pause a moment at the door to watch him. This wasn’t going the way he’d hoped it would.
Alex dropped his book bag in the corner, where his guitar should have been. His shoulders felt so tense, he was eager to ditch the pounds of textbooks. He stood at the foot of his bed and fell back on to the jumble of sheets that had become twisted around his black comforter. The covers sank beneath his weight, cradling his neck just the right way and relieving the pressure from his lower back. His lips parted and a sigh escaped him. There was a gentle knock on the bedroom door and Alex sat up.
“Come in,” he called. It was his mother, of course.
“How was the first day?” she asked, coming to sit beside him.
“Fine. I’ve got a load of homework already.”
“Did you talk to anyone?”
“I asked a question in class, does that count?”
She frowned. “You know I’m only trying to help you, Alex,” she reminded him. “I have to know these things if I’m going to keep an accurate record.”
“I know, Mother. I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”
She smiled weakly and suppressed an impulse to reach out to him. It had been so many years since she’d really touched him. “Yes, I’m sure it was very different,” she whispered.
Once she had gone, Alex went to the mirror and took his shirt off. If the bruising had started back already, there was no hope. But there was nothing there. Not yet. He sighed with relief.
It would not be good for his resistance to break down after only one day.
“Hey, Alex,” David said, sliding into the seat across the table. Alex looked up from his tray and smiled. Genuinely.
“Hey, David,” he replied. Lunch with David had become a regular thing. At first, Alex had tried to discourage him, but David didn’t care.
“So since your mom is a biochemist, I guess you’re pretty savvy when it comes to science, right?” David asked.
“Yeah, I do alright,” Alex agreed.
“Nice. I have this chemistry project I’m working on, but I need some help. How about coming over Friday night? We could do a bit of homework and then watch the game on TV!”
“You’re not busy, are you?”
“So I’ll tell my mom you’ll be there for dinner,” David said.
Alex took a breath. “Ok. Sure. Why not?”
“Where did the bruises come from?” his mother asked as she paced around the table. She disdainfully eyed the two large purple stains on his otherwise flawless white stomach. His abs were tender to the touch, he had already admitted that.
These were not mere “flesh” wounds, they were deeply rooted.
He reached down and gently touched the bruises that had appeared that afternoon. They were smaller now, and didn’t hurt as much, but they had not disappeared. They should have disappeared after the treatment session.
But they wouldn’t.
For some reason, he couldn’t seem to stay numb anymore.
After all these years, after all the things they'd done to protect him, he still wanted to feel.
“So your Mom is ok with you coming over, right?” David asked.
“Yeah, I told her we were studying together,” Alex lied. Actually, she thought he was studying alone at the library, doing research for a paper.
“Nice. My parents are excited about seeing you again,” David told him. “Hope you won’t mind, but my mom’s going to probably pull out old photos of us.”
“You have some?”
“Yeah, don’t you remember? She was always taking pictures,” David reminded him. “You ever get any good with that guitar?”
“I was good when I took lessons.”
“You’ll have to mess around on my dad’s,” David suggested. “I never really got to hear you play, you know.”
Alex had loved playing the guitar. It had started with the one David gave him for his birthday. Alex had devoted himself to that instrument. He never took lessons. He taught himself, learning every chord pattern, mastering the most difficult runs.
It only took a few minutes before they arrived at David’s house. It was in a nice development near the school. Most of the windows were lit up, making it look warm even from the outside.
“I’m home!” David called, dropping his book bag by the door. Alex followed suit. It wasn’t long before they heard rapid footfalls just around the corner. A little girl bounded up to them, her arms extended to David. He swooped her up in a big hug.
“Hey sis,” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek.
“You’re home!” the little girl cheered happily, her tiny arms wrapped tightly around David’s neck.
“Alex, this is Amy,” David introduced them.
Amy seemed to notice Alex for the first time. She smiled at him, her eyes almost closing.
“Hey, Amy,” Alex said softly. She giggled.
“So where’s mom and dad?” David asked her.
David set her down and she hurried in front of them back around the corner. They walked down a short hall to the living room. It wasn’t long before Alex found himself with a beautiful Gibson in his hands. He’d tried to back out, but David would not let up.
It had been so long, but the music was something he could never forget. His fingers moved with ease up and down the neck of the guitar, forming the chords that had, at one time, been the most beautiful sounds he’d ever heard. He played one of his own songs, the one’s he’d written during the hours of sitting at home, alone. Within the song was every sorrow, every longing, every suppressed desire he had ever felt. It was beauty birthed out of pain.
As he played, he knew something was happening to him. The walls his mother had so carefully constructed around his mind were crumbling. The folds of his resistance were unraveling. But he didn’t care. It felt so right, so safe there.
Alex looked up from the guitar. David was sitting there, his mouth gaping open.
“Alex, that was… amazing,” David said.
Alex went down to the basement alone. He sat at the computer, slowly opening a piece of folded paper that was next to the keyboard. He’d finally convinced his Mother that it was time. That he was ready.
Alex typed the word into the white bar and pressed enter. There were several files on the desktop. One labeled “treatment”, one labeled “observations”, and a third labeled “hypotheses”. That was the one Alex wanted.
He double clicked the folder and scrolled down to the latest document which had been added. He opened it and began to read. He read for a few minutes before he finally came to what he needed to see.
“I have discovered that these wounds, the longer they are allowed to go untreated, eventually sink deeper into the body, so that they penetrate not only the skin but the muscle beneath. It is my fear that one day they will continue to deepen until they break through to the most vital muscle within the body. When this happens, there is but one possible result.”
That was what he’d been looking for. He’d already suspected this was what awaited him. The reality that he had no future sank in slowly. With or without these emotions that caused such little wounds inside, the result would be the same. He was going to die.
He was dead already.
It was another Friday night. Another night Alex was “studying” at the library. David and Amy sat next to him on the sofa, watching his fingers with intensity. He played the run for her once more, this time even faster.
“Again!” she begged.
Alex smiled, setting the guitar down. Amy seized the opportunity and jumped up into his lap. As her small body pressed against his stomach, Alex grimaced and suppressed a groan.
“You ok, man?” David asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Amy, get down,” David told her. She slipped down quietly, afraid she’d done something wrong. “Really, what’s up?”
“It’s nothing, I said.”
David sighed heavily and told Amy to leave the room. She carefully kissed Alex on the cheek and slinked away.
“You’ve been really sore lately,” David remarked. “What’s going on, Alex? Did someone rough you up?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Well then what?”
“Just leave it alone, David, please?” Alex asked.
“Oh, you mean like back in elementary school? You think I don’t remember those bruises, Alex? Who’s been doing this to you all these years?”
“You just don’t understand… my mom…”
“Your mom did this?”
“No! It’s not her fault. I don’t know whose fault it is. It’s just always been like this,” Alex said, standing and turning away.
“What’s always been like this?” David asked.
“Look, David, it’s not important, ok?”
David sighed heavily, shaking his head. He glanced at the clock over on the mantelpiece. It was almost six.
“Well, we better hurry up and leave if we’re going to get you to the library before you mom catches us,” he said. Alex looked at him with surprise. “What? You think I don’t know you didn’t tell her that you’re over here? Well I do.”
Alex laughed, but only for a moment. His muscles were too sore.
“Well thanks for keeping my secret,” he told him.
“Which one?” David asked.
Alex moved slowly down the hall, afraid he would collapse before reaching his room. He could hardly wrap his hand around the doorknob, his muscles were so weak. The treatments were getting less and less effective. The bruises hardly faded at all, now.
It had gotten so bad that he could hardly stand the feeling of his clothes against his skin. His stomach, his back, his shoulders were covered with knotted bruises. He wouldn’t be able to hide them much longer.
He saw his mother at the other end of the hall and hurried inside his room, turning the lock as soon as the door was shut. She was home early. He’d hoped she wouldn’t see him. It wasn’t long before she was standing outside.
“Alex, let me in,” she demanded.
“I’m busy right now,” he told her. “Come back later.”
“No! I want to see you right now!”
“I said go away!”
Alex collapsed on to the floor, a flood of pain rushing over his body. He couldn’t move, but he could hear his mother fighting with the lock on the door, twisting the knob frantically, trying to figure out a way to get to him.
She finally broke the lock, flinging the door open and running to his side. She placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to help him sit up. He groaned in pain at her touch
“Oh my God,” she gasped, pulling off his shirt. She almost screamed when she saw the bruises that covered him. She tried to pick him up, but she wasn’t strong enough. “Alex, you have to help me. We have to get you downstairs so we can treat this!”
“We have to! You’ll die if we don’t put a stop to this!”
“I’m already dead, Mom! I’m not living, I’m not even existing. There’s nothing here, nothing in me. I want to feel again!” Alex cried. “I want YOU to feel again.”
He felt tears running down his face. He hadn’t cried in so long. At first he didn’t even know what was happening.
“Mom,” he called. She didn’t answer. “Mom, please.”
Slowly, very slowly, she dropped down beside him. She gently wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close, letting her tears fall against his neck. She held him, rocked him back and forth.
“I love you, Alex,” she said. “I love you so much.”
Alex rested in her arms, releasing all the fear and the anger. Finally making a space for the happiness rest, even for a moment. It didn’t matter how many years he could last. He wanted to indulge in each second of the time he had left. He wanted to feel. To laugh. To cry. To experience every exquisite emotion that had been forbidden to him.
And he would. For as long as he could.