The weeks following Farrow’s death pass slowly, to the point where, some days, time itself seems to stand still. The days after I returned home from Starlight Shores, and the day of Farrow’s funeral, are a blur. If I try to hold that day in memory, or if I strain to think about it, all I see is darkness.
Jed came. I remember that much. I remember him gripping onto my elbow as they lowered the coffin into the ground, as though he was afraid I would jump in after it. I remember him taking away the drink I had in my hand when he had deemed I’d had enough. I remember the expression on his face when I screamed at the stars.
Most of all, I remember the feel of his arms around me, the way he held me together as my whole world fell apart.
* * *
About a month after the funeral, I celebrate my eighteenth birthday. Well, I say ‘celebrate’.
I am actually hidden away in the Riverview Library, working on a report to impress my new bosses when I officially start at Doo Peas next week. I have been going into the office most days, though I’m not getting paid for it yet, and have been searching through old files for any topic that sparks my interest.
So far, no luck.
I have, however, found some fascinating information about tax returns (not), so I thought I’d write a report on how the company can save some money. Companies always want to do that, right?
I know my family and Jed will be mad that I’m determinedly hiding here on my birthday, but I don’t care.
The past week, today’s all Mum’s been able to talk about, although her painted on smile seems to be cracking. Yesterday morning, I found her in Heidi’s old room, her face buried in the stuffed bear Farrow had owned as a child. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs. I wanted to comfort her, to say something to ease her pain, but there was nothing. I felt as though I had intruded on a private moment, a snatched snippet of time when she did not have to remain strong for my father. For us. I slipped away as silent as a ghost.
Later, whilst I watched my father scrub plates until his hands were raw and bleeding, I wished I had at at least managed a hug.
I felt hollow. I was dust.
Mum seems to believe that my eighteenth birthday will be the glue that can hold together our crumbling family.
Sometimes I just want to let it crumble.
The words on the screen are beginning to swim. I press my knuckles against my eyes with a groan.
I start at Jed’s voice and whip around to face him. A guilty lump settles in the bottom of my stomach.
“You found me.” My voice sounds strangely flat, even to my ears; Jed frowns, but doesn’t mention it.
“It’s your birthday, Elery. Everyone’s waiting for you.”
Jed scrubs a hand over his face, barely holding back a sigh. “I know, but he wouldn’t want you to miss out on your birthday. Would he?”
I think about this.
Jed’s right, really. To Farrow, birthdays were always a big deal. Something to celebrate with a bang, with streamers and balloons and brightly-wrapped presents.
They were certainly not days on which to work.
A long, low sigh escapes me as all of my resistance trickles away.
“All right,” I say. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Jed does not seem to trust that I won’t escape, as he maintains a tight grip on my elbow the whole way home.
I don’t really know what I was expecting when we walked through the front door. Mum and Dad sitting at the kitchen table with a sadly-wilting birthday cake in the centre. Heidi trying to rouse everyone for a game of musical statues, her smile strained and eyes red and swollen.
But that’s not what I see.
Jed (or someone, but I’m betting Jed) has managed to get hold of my friends from the Henry Whitestable Institute, and Jack, Oakley and Alistair are sprawled in my living room like they’ve always belonged there. Heidi is perched on the sofa next to Jack, twisting a strand of her hair around one finger and laughing at everything he says. It takes me a moment to realise that she’s flirting, and that’s only because Jed nudges me with his elbow.
Mum is bustling around the kitchen, seemingly filled with a new purpose. The table is heaving under its load of party food: warm sausage rolls, mini chipolatas, fairy cakes with sprinkles, mini doughnuts, mini quiches, pineapple and cheese cubes, and more.
My father is nowhere to be seen, but that’s nothing unusual.
I look around, taking it all in, and, suddenly, I feel like crying.
“What is all this?” My voice breaks on the final word, but I try to cover it with a cough.
My mum’s smile is genuine, the first in what seems like forever.
“It’s your eighteenth birthday, sweetheart. We all wanted to make it special.”
I look around at my friends, speechless. Oakley raises an eyebrow at me from across the room.
“Plus, you know, you haven’t been returning our calls.”
My cheeks flush with heat.
“I – I’m sorry, I’ve been-“
“Never mind that now,” Alistair says, with a Look at Oakley. “We’re just happy to see you, Elery. We’ve all been worried.”
There’s so much I want to say, but all I can manage is, “Thank you.”
It’s hard at first, but soon enough I begin to enjoy myself.
In honour of the occasion, Mum had bought alcohol, though she did warn us that being able to legally drink did not mean it was okay to get totally smashed. She needn’t have worried on my account as, although I did manage to become pleasantly tipsy, I did not much enjoy the taste.
Jed seems to be getting on well with the other guys, which eases my mind. I had been worried that he would disapprove of them, or that they just wouldn’t like each other, which could have been awkward.
But, thankfully, I needn’t have worried. Jed and Oakley soon become involved in a deep, passionate discussion about books, some of which I’d never even heard of.
At some point, Jack gets out his guitar (he never goes anywhere without it) and begins playing a whole host of popular songs (though tactfully avoids any hits by Jabberwocky). He even leads everyone in a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, goading them to sing louder and louder until I just want to melt into the floorboards with embarrassment.
I don’t have a proper cake, as I was adamant to Mum that I didn’t want one, but one of the fairy cakes has a little candle in and I blow it out to cheers and wolf-whistles.
Then, after that, Alistair insists it’s time for presents.
Alistair, Jack and Oakley have, between them, bought me my very own games console and a couple of the latest, most popular games. Mum, predictably, starts to fuss about how expensive it must have been, but the three of them just laugh and reassure her that it’s no big deal.
For a moment, I feel embarrassed for my family’s obvious lack of money compared to my friends’, but their smiles are so wide, so eager to please, that I find myself smiling back. They didn’t think about the money – it probably didn’t even occur to them. All they were thinking about was my happiness, and I realise how lucky I am to have such good friends.
Jed’s present is more modest, but no less amazing.
He has bought me a box set of classic novels he is always bugging me to read. Once I have unwrapped them, he grins at me.
“You’re a big boy, now. You can handle them.”
I stick my tongue out at him in response, but then just hug him tight. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t forgiven me.
Heidi gives me a brightly-coloured scarf she has knitted herself, and a tight hug. I give her a smile when she lets me go, and she looks as though she’s going to cry. Thankfully, she doesn’t; she just gives me a little nod and moves away. I notice that Jack takes her hand in his when she stands beside him.
Mum gives me an envelope with fifty pounds in it, just as she had with my brother and sister before me, before she too enfolds me in a hug.
“This is from your father and me,” she says. “Spend it how you want, but once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
I nod, and give her an extra tight hug. Mum gives me a wan smile, but I can’t help but notice the way her eyes flick to her and Dad’s closed bedroom door.
For a moment, I wish my father was normal.
Then I smile, forget about him, and turn back to my friends.
* * *
Later, when everyone else has gone home, my father makes an appearance.
He hovers at the top of the stairs, clutching something behind his back. I look away and do my best to ignore him, still stung that he didn’t bother to come out his room whilst my friends were here. He doesn’t speak, but stands there in absolute silence, shifting slowly from foot to foot.
Soon, I can’t stand it any longer.
“What do you want, Dad?”
There’s a loud clunking sound, and my father says, “Happy birthday, Elery.”
Curious, I glance around. A bowl of soil is sitting beside my bed and, as far as I can see, there is nothing in it.
“Um… thank you, Dad.”
My father sits on the edge of my bed, his gaze on the bowl of dirt. “It’s a grape vine.”
I look back at the soil to see if there is perhaps a sprig of greenery I have missed, but nope. Just dirt.
“I don’t see it.”
“You have to wait. I only planted the seeds this afternoon.”
Realisation dawns. I struggle to remember if I’ve ever shown an interest in gardening, but draw a blank.
“It’s to help you remember,” my father says, and I stare at him.
“That life goes on.”
I open my mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. His words are like a punch to the stomach. Tears prick the corners of my eyes.
I’ve been selfish. So selfish.
I lost my brother, sure, but my parents have also lost their son.
My father stands, before pausing. He fumbles for a moment in his pocket, before turning to face me. There are deep lines on his face that I never noticed before, and dark smudges under his eyes.
“There’s also this.” He holds out a crumpled envelope, his fingers trembling. “They found it amongst his things.”
I shuffle to the edge of the bed and take it from him, then smooth it out on my lap. Familiar, spiky writing stares up at me.
‘Elery. Happy 18th.’
His name escapes in a rush of air. “Farrow.”
My father remains where he is. He is staring unseeingly out of the window, his face pale and strained. He looks so unbearably miserable that all my anger at him evaporates as if it was never there.
I put the envelope carefully on my pillow and get to my feet, hesitating.
Then, without a word, I put my arms around my father, wanting to make all of his pain go away. He remains stiff in my hold for a long while, so long that I think about pulling away, but, just as I am about to, he relaxes. Sags, almost.
“I should be holding you,” is all he says.
I don’t reply, but press my face into the soft fabric of his jumper. He smells like damp earth and freshly cut grass, the scents I have always associated with my father. I close my eyes and tighten my arms around him, trying to ignore how thin he has become.
After a time, he turns and wraps me in his arms. It’s an awkward, tentative hug, but he rests his cheek on my hair the way he used to when I was small.
For a moment, I allow myself to be comforted.
Just for a moment.
* * *
Later, when I’m alone, I hold the envelope in my hands – tentatively, as if it is a bomb wired to explode.
I am terrified of the contents, of what Farrow has to say to me from beyond the grave. Is it a letter? A photograph? Just a cheerful birthday card bought long in advance?
I wonder what would be worse.
I slide my fingernail slowly under the flap of the envelope, peeling it open, breath held. Blood pounds in my ears as I carefully fish out a folded scrap of paper. The black scrawl of Farrow’s handwriting covers both sides, words curling around the margins and crammed into the corners.
Hands shaking, I unfold the paper.
I hope this letter finds you well. Happy birthday, little brother. I’m sorry I’m not there to see it.
I close my eyes for a moment, head spinning. My breath seems stuck in my throat, my chest tight. Was I wrong? Did Farrow plan this?
I force myself to open my eyes and keep reading.
I’m sorry for before, about everything I said. We never really worked things out properly, did we? You know, despite everything I did or said or whatever, I’m proud of you. I don’t know how you got up in the morning sometimes. I couldn’t if I was you, but maybe you’re just a stronger person.
I know you are.
After all, here’s me, checking out of life early. And there’s you, still here. There. Wherever.
I’m sorry, Elery. You won’t understand. You can’t understand. You don’t have any memories of before, back when we had more than a shell of a father.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t his fault. This is nobody’s fault.
I’m going crazy, Elery. I’m going crazy and I don’t want to end up like him. I want to go out on a high, riding the concert adrenaline all the way to the muzzle of a gun. I want to be known as young and reckless and the one who died before his time, not some old mumbling fool who wakes screaming in the night.
I’m going crazy. I’m seeing things. Hearing things. I wake in the night, covered in sweat, screams echoing in my ears.
I’m not going to be remembered for that, Elery. No way. Don’t tell anyone, all right? I just wanted someone to know the truth, and I know I can trust you.
Remember that I love you, and I’m proud of you.
PS. He says you can see him too.
My heartbeat sputters.
I crumple the letter in my fist and fling it from me. It hits the wall and then the floor, just an innocuous ball of paper.
My chest constricts so tightly I feel as though I will never be able to breathe again. What the hell had Farrow been talking about? He couldn’t have been talking about him – surely not?
I scramble off the bed and thud to my knees, snatching the paper up again. I can’t let anyone find it.
I shove the letter into my cupboard and slam it shut. My breath comes in heavy, ragged gasps.
My fingers fumble with the lock.
Everything is spinning, and there is a roaring in my ears. I stagger to the bed and fall down onto it, grabbing onto the sheets as though that will stop the world from heaving.
I screw my eyes shut tight, feeling sweat beading on my forehead and trickling down my temples.
If only everything would stop moving for long enough for me to get to my phone.
Am I going crazy too?
* * *
I wake with a pounding, throbbing headache, and with my mouth as dry as dust. The first thing my eyes land on is the bowl of soil my father gave me, and the night before comes rushing back.
My stomach twists. I shut my eyes tight again and pray for the strength not to throw up.
When I open my eyes again, at least the world has stopped moving.
I get to my feet and head downstairs, still wearing my rumpled clothes from the day before. Mum’s sitting at the kitchen table peeling vegetables, but she turns and gives me a smile.
“So, big day Monday?”
I shrug and cross over to the fridge to fix myself some cereal. “Guess so.”
Mum’s smile quickly became a frown. “I thought you were looking forward to starting work.”
I attempt to smile at her, but it comes out more like a grimace. “I am. I’m just tired, Mum, don’t worry.”
I want to tell her about the letter from Farrow, to share my fears with her, but I’m too scared I’ll end up locked away. Like my father was.
A frisson of anger startles me, and I shut the fridge perhaps a little harder than needed. Mum doesn’t look convinced.
“If you need to talk, Elery -“
“I’m fine, Mum. Seriously.” The words come out harsher than intended, and I attempt to backpedal and soften them. “Thank you, by the way. For yesterday.”
Mum actually smiles at that. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
I nod, and then sit down at the table and begin to eat my cereal.
“What are you going to do today?” Mum asks. She’s stopped peeling vegetables and is watching me with some measure of concern.
I swallow my mouthful of cornflakes, poking my spoon at the remainder. “Library, probably.”
Mum picks up the vegetable peeler again. “You’ve been spending a lot of time there recently.”
“It’s for work, Mum.”
A carrot is waved in my direction. “Are you sure you aren’t seeing a girl?”
I practically inhale a mouthful of cornflakes. Mum leaps up and pats me on the back until I stop coughing.
“No, Mum! I’m writing a report on the company finances. I’d even show you if it wasn’t confidential.”
Mum – to my surprise – begins to laugh. “All right, all right. I believe you, Elery. But you should have seen your face.”
Mum stops laughing, though she is still smiling as she says, “Gabe, come and join us.”
I swivel in my seat as my father comes out of the bedroom. Then, abruptly, I turn back to my cereal, stabbing at the cornflakes with my spoon. Seeing the tentative smile on his face has forced a swell of anger to rise in my chest.
It is all his fault.
“I don’t know how you can stand to smile.”
The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
A shocked silence follows. I attempt to eat another mouthful of cereal, but the cornflakes stick in my throat and taste like cardboard. Gaze lowered, I shove back from the table and stalk over to the kitchen sink. I clatter my bowl and spoon altogether too loudly, but that isn’t enough to drown out my father’s soft, anxious voice.
“What to you mean, Elery?”
I know I should stop before this gets out of hand, but every word from his mouth is like a needle under my skin.
I try, though. I really try.
I clamp my teeth together and shake my head, once. My hands are clumsy as I wash up the breakfast things, hindered by my desire for a speedy escape.
As I lift my bowl to dump it on the draining board, I think I’ve got away with it.
But then, my father speaks again.
“Are you all right?”
Suddenly, the bowl is flying across the room. It hits the floor by my father’s feet, shattering into a hundred shards of white.
“It’s all your fault!”
Mum is on her feet in a flash, before I can draw breath to shout again.
“What on earth had got into you?” Her voice is a crazy mixture of angry and upset. “Don’t talk to your father like that!”
It is as though a dam has been breached. Words and feelings flood out of me with unrelenting force, and it’s all I can do to stop myself from slamming my father to the floor.
“It’s his fault Farrow’s dead! Everything’s his fault!”
“Maybe if he’d been a real dad none of this would have happened! Maybe if he hadn’t spent all that time locked in the fucking loony bin, Farrow wouldn’t have been so scared of going crazy!”
Farrow had told me not to tell, but I find I care little for his wishes. After all, he’s dead now. Nothing can hurt him.
“Maybe he wouldn’t have seen ghosts – just like you, Dad!”
The last word is tossed out like an insult, twisted and laced with poison. It rings loudly in the silence.
My breathing is ragged and laboured, as though I have just run a marathon. Instead of triumphant, however, I just feel sick at heart.
Mum is staring at me, open-mouthed, as if I have just sprouted an extra head. She seems to have lost the ability to speak.
And my father…
My father is cowering on the floor. Tremors wrack his too-thin shoulders, and he gasps for air like a man drowning.
I did this.
I flee out of the door before anything else can be said.
* * *
Later that evening, I leave the library with my report for Doo Peas finished and polished to near-perfection. I feel calmer now.
Calmer, but drained.
I slip my hand into my pocket, curling my fingers around my phone. It’s been switched off all day, and I’m afraid of what I might receive when I turn it on.
Ten missed calls from my mother? Twenty? One hundred?
None at all?
As soon as I switch it on, a message flashes up.
One missed call from Home.
Not as bad as I was expecting.
I dial voice mail, expecting anger. A tirade.
What I hear is much worse.
“Elery, I’ve had to take your father to the hospital. They’re thinking of admitting him to the home for a while.” Mum’s voice is tired. Resigned. “I won’t be back tonight.“
End of message. A dial tone.