“Well, here we are,” my mother said as the car slowed to a stop across the road from the bus terminal. They were the first words she’d said to me that day, besides a brief “Okay” when, about an hour earlier, I’d told her it was time for her to drive me to Nashville, or I’d risk missing my bus. Thanksgiving dinner, the previous evening, had ended up being completely unremarkable once she’d kicked uncle Adam out of the house; but that day, she’d been remarkably sullen, while I’d spent the whole day with my siblings, as promised. Now it was Friday evening, so I had to take the bus and head back to Bradford McKinley.
I hesitated, unsure about what I should say. In the end, I just nodded. “Thanks, mother,” I said. Then, after a brief pause, I added, “I’ll see you at Christmas.”
She nodded in return, but didn’t meet my eyes. I got out of the car, retrieved my suitcase from the back seat, and started crossing the road.
“Theo,” my mother said, getting out of the car, too. I turned around, and she beckoned me to come closer; when I did, she hugged me tight – tighter than she had in quite a while, probably ever since the day we’d buried my father.
“Have a good trip,” she said, once she released the embrace.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Tell Peter and Leah I miss them already. And you too, of course.”
I started to turn away, but she spoke up again. “You know you can always talk to me, Theo. About anything.”
She held my gaze for a few moments, and then I nodded. “Of course.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I turned my back to her, crossed the road, and walked to my Greyhound. I got settled into my seat and, as the bus set off towards Toledo, I thought about my mother’s words. What did she mean by that? By saying I could always talk to her about anything? That, combined with how she’d behaved the whole day, was very weird. It was unlike her.
Maybe she thought I was hiding something from her? True, there were some things I hadn’t told my family: for one, I hadn’t told them about Roger or Miles being gay – or bisexual, in Roger’s case – except for briefly mentioning that I had some queer friends during dinner the previous day, in the heat of the moment. But I couldn’t just up and out them to my family, could I? Maybe they didn’t want their sexuality to become public knowledge, even if they seemed to be open about it.
And, besides that, there were some things children just couldn’t tell their parents. Especially where I lived, there was still quite a bit of hostility towards queerness: even though it was getting better in recent years (which had for instance allowed Redfield to introduce his boyfriend to his family), I’d heard many a story about a son or daughter getting disowned by their parents. So I couldn’t just up and tell my mother I was gay without some careful consideration.
Not that I was gay, of course. I was just thinking generally, that was all.
“Kid. Hey, kid.”
A voice shook me out of my thoughts. I turned towards the speaker, the man who was seated next to me: he was older than me, probably about sixty to sixty-five; he looked a bit ragged, his eyes were bloodshot, and he coughed and sneezed every now and then.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Sorry to bother you,” the man said. “I was wondering, do you have a Kleenex? I’m afraid I’ve run out.”
“Yeah, sure,” I replied; I fished around in the pockets of my coat until I found a pack of tissues. “Here, you can have this, I have more.”
“You’re a life-saver, my friend,” he thanked me as he took it. “I just had to go and get sick over the holidays.” He loudly blew his nose.
“I’m sorry,” I reflexively said.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a bad cold, I’ll be fine once I get some sleep,” he said. “And about that: good night, kid. Thanks again for the tissues.”
He smiled at me, bundled himself up in his coat, and tried to get comfortable in his seat. I did the same: no sense in staying awake for the whole trip, after all.
I closed my eyes, and let the gentle shaking of the bus lull me to sleep.
“Hi, Pat!” I greeted my roommate, entering the room I shared with him. “How was Thanksgiving? Did you have fun?”
“I did,” he said with a smile. “It was nice to see my parents and sisters again.”
“Nah, I’m the only boy in the family,” he replied. “And I’m the youngest, too: my parents had three girls, and then me. To be honest, I kinda enjoyed being babied by them as I grew up.”
“That sounds nice,” I said.
“And what about you? Did you have fun?”
“I…” I hesitated. “Yes. Kinda.”
Pat’s eyebrows rose in puzzlement. “Kinda?”
I sighed. “We had a fight over Thanksgiving dinner,” I explained. “My uncle was a homophobic bigot, and instead of just sitting there and taking it I talked back to him. It ended with my mother throwing him out of our house.”
“I see,” my friend said, frowning. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s just…” I sighed again. “He’s always been like that, spewing absolute nonsense about what is good and proper, citing the Bible, and so on, and I’ve always ignored him, but this time I found myself thinking about who he was talking about, and I just… Snapped.”
I started pacing back and forth through the room. “I mean… Who gave him the right? Why does he get to judge how other people live their lives? It’s so infuriating.”
Pat stood up from his seat and put a hand on my arm; I stopped pacing, and looked at him.
“I get it, Theo,” he said. “Trust me, I know how maddening it can be when someone behaves like that. You did good in talking back to him.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Pat. I know that, but it’s still good to have someone tell me.”
“Hey, that’s what friends are for, right?” he replied, and lightly punched my shoulder. Then he leaned in, and looked at my face closely.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing, it’s just… You’re a bit red in the face. And your eyes are moist.”
“Huh. Weird,” I said. “Guess I’ve been a bit worked up about my uncle.” I took a deep breath to steady myself. “In any case, wanna go grab something to eat?”
“Got ya covered,” he replied. “My mom gave me lots of leftovers to share, I’ve almost filled up the fridge with Tupperware. Why don’t you take a look, see if you can fix something up?”
I looked directly at him. “So I’m the housewife who takes care of cooking while the big strong man brings the food home, am I now?”
Pat blinked in response to my words. “Uh, I didn’t mean it like…”
“Nah, I’m just kidding,” I smirked. “You know I don’t mind cooking, as long as you help me with the dishes afterwards.”
He smiled back. “You know, you almost got me there.”
“Let me see what I can make,” I said, and opened the fridge.
After dinner (I made turkey noodle soup with some of the leftover meat Pat had brought from home) I went straight to bed after setting my alarm clock: I wanted to be well rested for the next day, when I would resume my morning run routine, and I was feeling a bit under the weather – though that was probably the result of having travelled in miserable conditions for nearly twenty-four hours. I bid goodnight to Patrick, turned off the light, and fell asleep right away.
When I woke up, I felt weird. It was strange, I was well used to waking up before dawn to go on a run, I did it every day, it didn’t affect me anymore. But that morning I felt terrible: I had a bit of a headache, and I felt dizzy. I groggily turned off my alarm clock – belatedly realising it had been going off non-stop for at least a couple minutes, hopefully the buzzing hadn’t awoken Patrick, too – and laid in bed for a couple minutes, just trying to get my bearings. I was having a bit of trouble thinking straight, too: putting one thought after the other was quite difficult, my mind seemed to jump around without rhyme or reason.
The thought of skipping my morning run for the day popped into my head, but I dismissed it right away: keeping up with training was extremely important if I wanted to stay fit, and if I wanted to stay on the team. I’d already missed several days because I’d been travelling to my family home and back to college again, so I really needed to get up and get going.
I turned on my bedside lamp, swung my legs off my bed and got up.
The room started spinning; I felt myself losing my balance. I grabbed my nightstand to steady myself, but my legs betrayed me and I collapsed to the floor, dragging the small table after me with a loud crashing sound.
“Bwhauh?” I heard Patrick mumble; in the gloom, I saw him turn over in bed to search for the source of the noise. When he saw me lying there on the floor, his half-closed, groggy eyes shot open, and he was on his feet immediately, turning on the room’s ceiling light; I mumbled something in protest, and weakly tried to shield my eyes with my hand.
“Theo? Jesus, Theo, are you alright? What’s happened?” he asked, crouching over me.
I tried to formulate a response, but couldn’t get more than a groan and a muffled cough out.
“Theo, come on. Are you hurt?”
“Gotta go run…” I muttered.
Patrick blinked. “What the hell?” he replied, with a chuckle. “You and sports. Just… Here, let me help you up.”
He grabbed me, swung my arm over his wide shoulders, and pulled me up.
“Holy shit, you’re hot,” he commented.
I don’t know why, but I gave him an almost drunken smile. “You’re hot too,” I replied.
“No, I mean you’re burning up. I think you have a fever.” He put his hand on my forehead, and shook his head. “Definitely a fever. Let’s get you back to bed.”
“But runniiiiiiiiiiing,” I drawled out.
“No running for you until you’re in better shape,” he said in response. He gently guided me back to my bed and under the covers, and tucked me in. “Hold on, I’m going to call someone.”
He pulled my nightstand back to an upright position, and then retrieved his cellphone from his own bedside table; he dialled a number and waited until someone on the other side picked up.
“Hi, it’s Patrick, Patrick Murphy, room 206. It’s like, five. Yeah I know it’s early, Darrell, but you’re the emergency contact for the dorm. Of course, I wouldn’t be calling you at this hour, on a Sunday even, if it wasn’t. It’s Theo, he’s sick or something, I think he has a really high fever. Yeah, okay. See you.”
Patrick turned back to me. “Darrell will be here as soon as possible,” he said.
“That’s good,” I replied; my voice was barely a whisper. And then I fell asleep again.
I was walking on a path through the woods; it was barely a path, more of an animal track really. I was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group, the clothes and shoes I was wearing weren’t appropriate for this place: long skirts tend to get tangled in the underbrush, and I had had to slip off my low heels and walk barefoot because they kept sinking into the soft soil of the forest.
“Hey, wait up!” I called.
“Ugh, again?” the tall man in front of me asked, turning around. I knew who it was: Tomàs. He was an experienced archer and ranger who’d offered to guide us to the goblin village, so we could trade with them; he was quite gruff, but good at heart. “Allie, you know we can’t be late, King Jareth is expecting us.”
“Just… Hold on a second,” I panted, stopping beside Tomàs. “Let me catch my breath. It won’t be long, I promise.”
“You really should’ve worn trousers for this one, dear,” Helena the warrior said.
“I know, but, since I’m my village’s envoy, I wanted to look good. I had to wear a skirt for that, trousers are just… Ugh,” I replied.
“What, you don’t like them?”
“I don’t. Skirts are much nicer and cuter, if you ask me.”
I awoke to the sound of the door opening. “Thanks for coming, and sorry,” I heard Pat say.
“Don’t even mention it,” came Darrell’s voice. “That’s what RAs are for.”
I heard some shuffling; I opened my eyes a crack, and saw Pat and Darrell crouched over my bed.
“Hey, scholarship kid,” Darrell said. “How are you feeling?”
“…Don’t call me kid,” I replied.
He smiled. “Scholarship boy, then.”
I made a face. “How about scholarship girl?”
Darrell and Patrick both blinked; they seemed surprised by my words, but through the fog that was hanging over my brain, I couldn’t understand why.
“Alright then,” Darrell said, and pulled out a digital thermometer. “Let’s take your temperature, girl.”
I laughed. “Do I put it in my butt?”
“Your armpit will do,” he chuckled in reply. He helped me put the thermometer into position, and waited until it beeped before pulling it out. He frowned. “103.”
“That’s… Bad, isn’t it?” Patrick asked.
“Not good, but not terrible either,” Darrell answered. “As long as it doesn’t get any higher, he should be okay.”
“She. Girl means she,” I mumbled. They didn’t seem to hear me, or they ignored me if they did.
Darrell turned to me again. “Can you sit up? I want you to take a pill.”
He and Patrick helped me rise to a half-seated position, and he placed a white pill in my hand.
I looked at him. “Do I put it in my butt?”
“No, you just swallow it,” he replied. “What is it with you and butts today? Patrick, can you get some water?”
Pat walked to the bathroom, and was back in short order with a glass of water; with some difficulty, I gulped down the pill, and then laid back down in bed. Almost in a haze, I heard Patrick and Darrell talking.
“Okay, so. One of these pills at lunch, and one at dinner,” Darrell said. “They should keep the fever down. Make sure he drinks, and have him eat something warm for lunch if he can keep it down. And take his temperature every now and then, like once an hour or so, if it gets above 105 or if it doesn’t go down by the evening, we’re calling a doctor.”
“A doctor?” Patrick answered. “You sure? I don’t know how he’s doing from an insurance standpoint.”
“Health is more important than money.”
“Right. Okay,” Pat said. “Alright. You can get back to sleep, I’ll call you if I need you.”
I heard the door open and close again, and then footsteps approaching me.
“Did you hear that?” Patrick asked me.
“Mmhmm,” I replied, without opening my eyes.
“Get some rest,” he continued. “I’ll take care of you for today.”
“’kay,” I whispered. I turned over on my side, snuggled into the covers, and fell asleep again.
“Hi Allie!” Lexi exclaimed. “Ready for PE?”
“You know it,” I replied, grinning at her. I grabbed my backpack and followed her and Lena out of the classroom and to the gym changing room.
“So, you know,” Lexi said, “I had a really great date with Roger yesterday.
Lena smiled at her as she took off her top. “Sis, do you have to brag that you have a boyfriend? While we don’t?”
“I do,” Lexi answered, matter-of-factly. “Roger is a great guy, so I wanna show off a bit.”
“Right,” I said, rolling my eyes. I turned away from them to unhook my bra.
“Oh, come on, Allie, there’s no need to hide,” Lena said. “We’re all girls here.”
“Yeah, but…” I said, then sighed. “I just wish they were a bit bigger, that’s all.”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “They’ll grow eventually. We’re only fourteen after all.”
“And besides, you’re an athlete,” Lexi added. “Small breasts go great with your toned body, miss state champion.”
I swatted at her, but still, I smiled. God, I loved my friends.
“Hey.” I felt someone gently shaking me. “Hey, wake up.”
I cracked one eye open; Pat was standing over my bed.
“You have a guest,” he said, smiling and stepping aside to reveal Lena.
“Hi, Theo, how are you feeling?”
“Allie,” I mumbled.
She blinked at me. “Sorry?”
“Name’s much nicer.”
Lena looked up at Roger, giving him a quizzical stare, and he shook his head. “He’s completely out of it. Must be the fever.”
“She,” I muttered.
Lena turned her gaze back to me. “How are you feeling, Allie?” she asked.
“Understandable,” she nodded. “I don’t know where you caught it, but this looks like a really nasty bug.”
“Are you hungry? It’s almost noon, and you haven’t had anything since last night, have you?”
I nodded my head slightly. “Mmhmm.”
“Do you have anything she can eat, Pat?” Lena asked. “Something warm, and easy to digest.”
“Is turkey noodle soup okay?” Patrick replied. “We have some left over from yesterday evening, Theo… Allie made it.”
“That should be fine,” Lena nodded. “Can you go warm it up?”
Pat nodded back at her, grabbed the Tupperware with the soup from the fridge, and left the room; Lena sat on my bed, right beside me. Through my brain fog I found myself wondering why she’d come over, it was a Sunday after all.
“Why’re you here?” I asked.
“Patrick texted me you were ill,” she said, “So I thought you could use a friendly face. Besides him, I mean.” She started running her fingers through my hair.
“Mmhmm, that feels nice,” I whispered.
“Enjoy me pampering you, because I’m definitely not doing this again once you’ve recovered.” She paused. “Or maybe I will. Depends.”
While we waited for Patrick to come back Lena took my temperature, and had me swallow one more pill – apparently Pat had relayed Darrell’s instructions to her.
“Here’s the soup,” my roommate said, opening the door.
“Good,” Lena replied, taking the container and the spoon from him. “I’ve checked her temperature, it’s 101.5, so that’s better.” She turned to me and asked, “Can you eat on your own?”
I nodded and, helped by Patrick, sat up in bed. “Oh, you’re completely soaked,” Pat commented when he grabbed my arm to help me up. “You’ll have to change your PJs after you’re done eating.”
I nodded again, and began to eat the soup; meanwhile, Pat and Lena chatted among themselves, sitting on Pat’s bed. I didn’t hear what they were saying, I was still having trouble concentrating so I had to focus on eating to avoid spilling soup all over my bed, but I noticed – just barely – that they glanced at me several times as they were talking.
Once I was done, Patrick helped me get to my feet and walk to the bathroom – I could’ve probably made it on my own, but my legs were still a bit unsteady, so better safe than sorry – where I changed out of my moist pajamas and into a dry one; then I sat down on the toilet, and relieved myself, before being helped to my bed again by Pat – Lena, meanwhile, had exchanged my bedsheets for fresh ones. I smiled at her in gratitude, and settled down in bed again.
“I should probably get going,” Lena told Patrick. “I have some things to do this afternoon, but I’ll see if I can swing by again tonight. Do call me if you need, though.”
Patrick nodded, and after saying goodbye to me, Lena left the room.
I slid all the way under the covers again, with only my head showing; that illness was taking a lot out of me, I was feeling real tired. I yawned, and was asleep again before long.
“Are you ready, Allie?” Lena asked.
I gulped, looked down at myself, checked my white dress one last time. “I am.”
“Great. Let’s go then,” Patrick said.
We hooked our arms together – Lena on my left, and Pat on my right – and walked down the aisle towards the dais. Pat looked really handsome in his tux, and Lena was dazzling in her white dress.
We stopped in front of the preacher, who smiled at us.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” he began.
I woke up in the mid-afternoon, feeling much better: my mind was clearer, and I felt like my fever had gone down. Patrick was sitting at his desk, studying, but he turned around when he heard me move. “Hi there,” he smiled at me. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” I replied.
“Let me check,” he said, and handed me the thermometer. We waited until it beeped, and looked at it.
“100,” he nodded. “Good. You’ll probably still need to take tomorrow off from school, and maybe the day after tomorrow, but I think you’re out of the woods.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile.
“No problem. And don’t worry about dinner, I’ll order take-out.” He got back to studying.
I thought back to the day, and realised something: I barely had any memories of it. I’d been slipping in and out of sleep so often, and I’d been really confused when I was awake, everything was hazy. But I had a feeling…
“Yeah?” he asked, turning back to me.
“Did I say something weird today? To you or Darrell, or Lena?”
He looked at me for a couple seconds, then said, “No, not at all. Why?”