“Who’s going to the hospital today?” Mum said. “Dad’s back to work. I need one of you to come with me.”
I looked at Jake. We were sitting across the table from one another eating breakfast. He had to go today. He just had to. I’d been yesterday and I wasn’t sure I could handle it again today.
Laura had been lying there for weeks. First with tubes in her nose and her stomach and her arms, and the pumping, the pumping that was breathing for her, keeping her alive. Then she was out of the coma, breathing on her own but still unconscious – still not Laura. She looked like she was sleeping, but the difference was just that she never woke up. And it was the same now, almost eight weeks on. Still, she was sleeping.
“Jake – will you come?” Mum said.
Jake looked at me quickly as Mum turned back to the toaster.
“Will you – please?” I mouthed across the table to him, so Mum couldn’t hear.
He blinked back at me. In the blink there was a yes, but he shook his head. He didn’t want to go at all.
“Yeah, Mum. Sure,” he said, standing up and walking to the sink with his cereal bowl. He dropped it in with a clatter and I knew in that moment he hated me for not stepping up. I followed him over and picked his bowl and spoon out of the sink and put them in the dishwasher before Mum had a chance to have a go at him. That was my thank you.
“We’ll go after school,” Mum said. “I don’t want you missing anything. I’ll meet you there, at the hospital. By the main entrance.”
We’d only just gone back to school. We’d been back a week. Mum said she wanted us there for the first day of the new year – sixth form college for Jake, Year Eleven for me. She wanted us to start the term just like everyone else. That was why she wanted Dad to go back to work too. She wanted things to be more normal. And he was fine with that. As soon as Mum suggested he should think about it, he agreed, and said he’d go in on the Monday. He went straight to his laptop to email the office and let them know. He’d almost looked excited. Mum had watched him walk out of the kitchen and she’d put her hand to her mouth as he went. When she saw me looking at her she turned and gazed out of the kitchen window. She didn’t want me to see her tears. I just went up and hugged her from behind. She let me, but she didn’t hug me back. That was the week before last. It had been like that with me and Mum for a while now.
The thing is, Dad wasn’t good at being at home. And part of what was so “not normal” about the last seven or eight weeks was Dad not working; him being around all the time just felt wrong. I know that sounds weird, but I think I wanted him to go back to work too. I figured that if he did, then it was only Laura not being there that was different. If Dad was at work then you could actually kid yourself that nothing had changed. Mum would be upstairs folding the washing or something – because these days she was always at home. She’d stopped working last year. It was stress. That’s what they’d said. Jake would be in his room with the music on and I would be watching TV or reading or something. We’d all be doing what we normally do. And Laura could have been out with her friends. I could pretend that she was out. And then I could pretend that none of the horrible stuff that happened had actually happened. But whilst Dad was home, there was a constant reminder that something was wrong, and not least because he didn’t know how to be with us.
Every day he’d get up and try and suggest things we might do together. Stupid things. Things none of us wanted to do – like going for a walk, or a coffee, or visiting someone we hadn’t seen in ages – things that just felt wrong when Laura wasn’t there. And of course all that did was make it worse. Because the thing about Laura lying unconscious in the hospital was that there was literally nothing anyone could do. Nothing. But at the same time not doing anything, and leaving Dad pacing around the house, that wasn’t right either. Dad being at home was just a constant reminder of the really bad place we were all in.
“Like normal,” Mum had said. “I want us all to try and just get on like normal.”
I was up for that, I really was, but part of me wanted to remind her that things weren’t really that normal before. It was like everyone had forgotten that. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t forgotten at all.
I texted Max when I got upstairs to my room after breakfast.
Walk in together? Tx
I’d known Max since primary. He’d been my friend when I talked and my friend when I didn’t, and that made him my best friend in all the world. My only friend. And he lived just over the road.
He texted straight back.
Yeah. Knock for you in 10.
Max knew that when he knocked for me and the front door was open I wouldn’t speak. The front door has to be PROPER SHUT for me to speak in my house. That’s just the way it is for me. The way it’s almost always been, since I was five years old. And no, I don’t know what started it and no one else knows either. I was shy. I was always a bit shy. I didn’t really talk much. I don’t think anyone even noticed that at first. But then I just stopped talking when I wasn’t at home, and when I was at home I only talked to the people I knew really well – like my family and really close family friends. And by the time everyone noticed there was nothing I could do. If anyone talked to me, asked me to speak, I couldn’t. In fact that made it worse – much worse. I mean if you’re scared of spiders and I give you a spider, it’s not going to make you better, is it? And it’s the same with me and talking. If you try and talk to me, or ask me a question, you’re going to make it worse because all you’re doing is pushing me to try and do something I really can’t do.
I’m selectively mute. Selective Mutism. That’s what they call it. SM for short. Some people think I don’t have SM. They just think I’m really rude or really stubborn. They think I am choosing not to speak. And I guess that is how it looks – to them. But I really don’t have a choice. No one knows how I feel when I’m outside my house. And the nightmare is, I can’t really tell them. I can’t explain. I guess I’ve always felt the world is a scary place. Even before what happened to Laura. And people have tried to make me feel better about that, like my mum, my dad, and my speech therapist, Anya. They’ve all told me that if I speak – if I find a way through my fear about talking – then everything will feel better. They truly believe that. But I don’t see how the words make anything better. There is nothing good you can say to make a bad thing less bad. If anything, what happened to Laura just proves that I’m right – that I’ve always been right; the world is a terrifying place. There are no words that can make it better.
When I opened the door to Max he was getting out his headphones.
“Hey, Tessie,” he said.
I smiled, holding the door. He’d had his hair cut. All short at the sides and kind of floppy on top. It looked like he’d used gel on it or something. He looked nice.
“We should go,” he said. “I want to get a sausage bap before we start. Had band practice last night. We finished really late. Didn’t eat after. Woke up hungry, had breakfast, still hungry.”
I smiled and nodded and pulled the front door shut behind me, and Max passed me an earbud.
This was our routine. Every morning. We walked, and we listened to music together. One earbud each so we could hear the same thing. We’d been doing it since the middle of Year Seven, after Max told me he found it awkward walking to school together in silence. I am fine with the silence. Silence is safety. It’s my cocoon. But I know I’m different, and Max doesn’t like it that way. I do get that.
“Today it’s all about The Who,” he said. “Lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, drummer Keith Moon – who died of a drug overdose and was replaced by Kenney Jones. One of the best rock bands of the twentieth century, in my opinion.
I won’t say any more for now. You tell me what you think later, yeah?”
I listened. It sounded tinny. Old. But all Max liked was old music. It was his dad’s music. Max’s dad had died of cancer five years ago, and the thing that had got Max through that first year without him was playing his dad’s vinyl. Max genuinely believed he was born in the wrong generation. I never argued with him about that. I’d always nod like I thought he was born in the wrong generation too, but inside I was really thinking how the music just brought his dad back for him – in a good way. It didn’t matter if it was Pink Floyd, The Stones, Santana – if it was from the seventies with serious amounts of guitar – it was all he needed. And now I was becoming an expert too.
I looked over at Max as we walked. He seemed happy. I’d forgotten what happy looked like. In that moment, happy, for me, was Max. Seeing Max. I wondered if that was what love was? Being with a person, doing nothing in particular, and just feeling happy. When I’d asked Laura she’d said it was more than that. She said you had to fall
to know, and that when I fell – like she’d fallen for Joe – I’d know. And she had this smile on her face that lit her up. That was the week before her attack. I guessed that meant I didn’t love Max. I didn’t feel any fall. But still, I wasn’t sure, because somehow what I felt for Max felt something like love. There wasn’t another word I could think of to describe it. And anyway, right now, all I could see in Laura’s version of love was pain.
Joe was the police’s main suspect in the investigation into Laura’s attack. He was missing. He’d not been seen since. All that lay between Laura and Joe now was a whole heap of the horror of what had happened – and somewhere – we didn’t know where yet – him lying low, alone, with his guilt. That wasn’t love. It wasn’t what Laura meant when she talked about falling in love with Joe.
I took a deep breath in.
None of us wanted to think about what had happened to Laura, or what Joe had done. It hurt too much. But I couldn’t stop; every thought I was thinking seemed to end up with her.
“You okay?” I felt a hand on my arm.
“You know if you ever want to talk to me about Laura when we get back to yours, one day, or at mine, after school or something – then…well, you know you can… Can’t be easy coming back to school after this.”
Max didn’t look at me as he said it, but I put my hand on his arm, just like he’d done to me, and I smiled and nodded back.
The words that I would have said if I could have said them were: Yeah, I know, Max. Thanks. I know.
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