Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
It was the night after New Year when everything came to a head. The nightmare was more vivid than ever before. Mum was louder and her disappointed look had somehow turned to a horrible scowl to match her furious voice. Her hands were on my throat and I was choking and I knew this was the end. She was finally going to take her revenge and strangle the life out of me. I felt the weight of her on my chest, and my eyes were starting to bulge as she yelled her accusation into my face "You should have told me!"
I woke fighting off Charlie's hands, screaming at him to leave me alone, sucking oceans of air into my aching lungs. Finally I got myself under control and looked at them, still panting. I gulped down the glass of water Michael offered me.
"I think this has gone on long enough. You have to talk to us, Ben. We can't help you if we don't know what's going on in here," Michael said as he tapped my forehead and then ran his fingers through my sweaty hair, concern etched on his face. "Is this about what those two men did to you?"
"It's so much worse than that," I whispered. "If I tell you, you'll send me away."
"Ben! Nothing you say will make us send you away. Nothing." Charlie's voice was fierce.
"It's easy for you to say that, but you WILL send me away. You won't let me stay, and I don't want to leave. I don't ever want to leave." I was getting upset because I didn't want to see the disgust in their eyes after I told them. Once you open some doors, you can never close them again.
"Ben," said Michael softly. "If you don't talk about it, you'll never start to heal. And we won't be a real family." I thought of what Steven had said that first night in Haunamoa. There really was poison inside me. I sighed and looked at them both. It was time.
"I killed my mother." I said simply. Michael breathed in sharply.
"No, you didn't," said Charlie.
"You don't know, Charlie. You weren't there. It was my fault. I killed her."
And so I told them. I had to start somewhere, so I told them about the two men who had come to our house that day a few months before, how I'd sensed they were trouble when I saw them opening the gate, how I'd tried to get my things and get out, but there wasn't enough time so I'd shut myself in my bedroom and tried not to make a noise. How I'd been bursting to pee and when I couldn't hold it anymore I'd tiptoed to the toilet. How he'd been standing outside when I came out. The look on his face when he saw me. His grabbing hands pulling me into mum's bedroom. Her shocked look. The slap when she said 'no'. The one who held me there while the other one sucked on me hungrily, pushing himself into her at the same time. The knife sticking out of the pocket of a pair of jeans thrown over the back of a chair. The memories seemed like a film somehow, like I was describing a scene with actors. Charlie and Michael didn't say anything, they just let me talk.
"When it was over, the one with the knife threw some money on the bed and walked out. Two fifties." Charlie stared at me, waiting for the final part of my story. I closed my eyes and took a breath. "A couple of days later Mum said she wanted me to go to Big Mick's house to pick up a baggie for her." I told them what had happened there, leaving nothing out. "When I got home, all I could think about was the stain on my T-shirt. It stank of him. It was disgusting. I went into the bathroom and showered and scrubbed my shirt. And I forgot to tell her what Mick had said. How strong the drugs were. How much she should take. I just forgot. And she died. How can anyone forget something that important?" I was too exhausted to cry anymore. I just stared at them, waiting for them to tell me I wasn't such a good kid after all. Waiting for them to tell me to pack my things. Michael still couldn't look at me. He was just staring at his hands.
"You didn't kill your mum, Ben," Charlie said at last. "She died of cancer."
I stared at him, grateful that he would make the effort to tell such a huge lie just to make me feel better. He stood up and went out of the room. Michael went on staring at his hands, still not speaking. When Charlie came back, he was holding a file with an official looking seal on the front. He looked through the papers inside until he found what he was looking for.
"This is the last time you'll ever see this piece of paper, so take a good look." He held it out to me. It was a coroner's report. At the top was my mother's name. Sara Imogen Collins. Halfway down the page, the cause of death was listed as 'Heart failure due to multiple organ failure.'
Further down I read. 'Widespread carcinoma causing failure of the spleen, liver, and kidneys. Significant quantity of heroin in the bloodstream, insufficient to cause death.'
I looked up at Charlie, confused.
"She had cancer just about everywhere. Her organs failed and her heart just stopped beating while she was asleep. You didn't kill her, Ben. And Mick ripped her off. The drugs she took were piss-poor, cut with all sorts of garbage. It was only a third as strong as normal heroin. She could have injected herself three times and she still wouldn't have overdosed, but it did help her to die without any pain. She must have been in agony for weeks before she died, but not at the end."
"The reason you didn't say anything to her was because you were in shock," Michael said, speaking up at last. I realised that he had looked away because he didn't want me to see the tears in his eyes. "Not because you're a bad kid. Your mind couldn't deal with what had just happened, so you just sort of shut down." I remembered sitting at my desk, doing my homework, thinking about anything but what had happened before. I'd been a zombie.
"I only got hold of this today. I was planning on telling you tomorrow. I wish I'd told you earlier now."
"She was so sick she could hardly get out of bed. I thought it was the drugs," I said. I felt a strong arm on my shoulders as I bowed my head.
I'd love to say that she came to me that night, smiling and proud, to tell me that she loved me and that she wasn't angry at me anymore, but she didn't. I didn't dream at all. I slept soundly. When I woke, it was almost noon and I was starving.
"We're taking you to a psychologist," said Michael, putting down his newspaper.
"Yes please," I said between mouthfuls of toast.
Fifth form was a huge step up for all of us. Our teachers made sure we understood that this was the beginning of our drive to get good enough grades for university, and the curriculum would be tougher than any of us had imagined. Homework would double, and there would be more tests and exams than we had ever experienced. At lunch, there were plenty of subdued teenagers staring thoughtfully at their plates.
A couple of weeks into term one, I came home in a foul mood to find Connor sitting in the living room. He'd stopped asking if he could come over and just appeared whenever he felt like it now. After almost two months of learning from Connor and a month of being tutored by Tamati, my signing was good enough to hold a conversation, even if Connor still had to slow his down for me.
-I'm so angry I signed, throwing my bag into the corner and joining him on the couch.
-jerks at school making fun of me all day
-what for? Oh I get it. Gay parents. Just don't tell them your best friend's deaf
-ha-ha. What am I supposed to do?
-nothing. Just wait until they find something new to talk about
-C-A-R-T-E-R has convinced everyone we all sleep together in one big bed
-don't you? Ouch that hurt
-yes we do there's room for you if you want to join us
-sounds lovely. Which way would I face?
-we could turn you around like a chicken on a spit
-you're so rude
-seriously rugby practice is going to be a nightmare. Everyone laughing at me in the showers
-is it that small? Ouch that really hurt
-I've nothing to be ashamed of. I hope. Whatever, you're right, there's nothing I can do about it.
After dinner, Charlie had to do some paperwork for work so I helped Michael with the dishes.
"Do you think Connor likes me?" I asked as he handed me a plate to dry.
"Well he's here almost every day, so I think we can assume he does."
"Not like that. I mean LIKES me?"
"Ah. That's a bit different."
"I suppose so. I know he's not gay but I really like being around him."
Michael sighed. "Ben, I know it sounds harsh but you just have to be patient. You can't turn Connor gay just by liking him. What's going to happen when he gets a girlfriend? You know yourself that we are what we are, and that applies to straight people as well as gay. I think he feels the same friendship for you as you do for him, don't you?"
"Yes, but I just wish we could go on like this forever."
"You have to be careful now, Ben. If you want him to be your friend in the future, you can't start blaming him for not being gay. Falling in love with straight boys is never a good idea. He likes you for who you are, and I think that's worth holding on to."
"I'm not in love with him!" I protested feebly.
"Well at least 'in like' with him," Michael said with a smile.
"Yeah, that sounds about right," I said with a sigh.
I'd never been to a psychologist before, so I didn't know what to expect. I put on a clean pair of socks in case she wanted me to lie on a couch, but in the end Dr Simpson and I just sat in armchairs opposite each other. The first session was all about 'getting to know each other,' she said. A week later, she asked me the question I had been dreading.
"Do you want to talk about what happened with the two men and your mother?"
"I suppose I have to," I said cautiously.
"No, you don't. But I think you'll feel better if you do," she said with a smile.
I sighed. "I knew it was wrong, what they made me do. But they would have hurt Mum. So I just shut my eyes and thought about something else."
"One of the men performed oral sex on you. Is that right?" she said. I felt myself blush. I nodded.
"Was that your first sexual experiences?" I nodded again. "How did you feel afterwards?"
"I don't understand. I didn't feel anything," I said, feeling anger rising up in me.
"During the act or afterwards?"
"What do you mean?" I heard my voice getting louder. "I was disgusted. It made me sick!" She stared at me for a while.
"Were you aroused?"
I stood up, spilling my glass of water. "How can you ask that?" My voice was shaking. "What kind of doctor are you?"
"Sit down, Ben. Take a few deep breaths and we'll continue when you're ready."
"I want to leave."
"Answer my question first, then you can leave. Were you aroused?"
I sat down slowly. "Yes," I said, unable to meet her eyes. "I tried to think of something else, anything else. But it was still…" I ran out of words. I stared out of the window. "Everyone keeps telling me what a good kid I am. Ben the Good Kid. They don't know me really. If they did…"
"You have to learn to accept what happened. You knew it was wrong. That was Ben the Good Kid. You became aroused. That was Ben the fourteen-year-old boy who was a jumble of chemical and physical reactions that took control for a few seconds. Think of it like striking a match. When you're holding the match, and deciding whether to strike it or not, you have control. Once it's struck, however, you don't have control anymore. You can't make it stop igniting. The important thing is that you knew what was happening was wrong, and the only reason you allowed it to happen was to protect your mother, not because you're a bad person." She paused to let me think about that. "What do you think is going to happen when you meet someone you really like, someone you want to do those things with?" My head was starting to hurt.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't think about it."
"Yes, you do," she said. "You think about it all the time."
"Yes," I said. "I do."
"So what do you think will happen?"
"I don't know."
"Think, Ben. You know the answer."
"I might feel ashamed if I enjoy it," I said quietly. Doctor Simpson smiled at me.
"And that's what why we're here together in this room today, Ben. Are you ready to start working now?"
A month into term one, Connor was standing outside his house signing with a girl when I got home. He saw me and called me over.
-this is Ella. We go to the deaf club together
-you must be the famous Ben
-Connor talks about you all the time
-he does? Nothing nice I suppose
-he loves your macaroni and cheese
-that's the sign for macaroni? Who thinks these up?
-I know right? Your signing is really good
-you should come to the club one day. Meet Connor's friends
-he has friends?
Later that evening:
-that hair! Gets everywhere
-you kissed her!
-is she your girlfriend?
-I don't know. We just hang out
-did she mean it when she said I should come to the club?
-you never invited me
-you had a lot going on remember?
-yeah you're right. So Ella speaks as well as signing?
-I was surprised
-because you don't
-everyone can choose. No big deal
-so you never wanted to speak?
-I don't want to talk about it
-why not? I don't care either way
-then why mention it?
-because I'm curious
-if you don't like my signs then talk to Ella instead
-wow I really don't get it
-no you don't.
School got worse before it got better. Carter seemed to be seeking me out, prodding and digging, always trying to get a reaction.
"Hear you've got an older boyfriend or two, Collins."
"Must be nice having a choice every night, Collins."
"Better get yourself checked, Collins. We don't want any nasty diseases in the showers."
I ignored his jibes and eventually he gave up trying to needle me, especially after Steven found me and sat at my table for lunch. It was unheard of for a sixth-former to sit with the juniors and since Steven was the openly gay boy at the school, it would probably just make the rumour mill turn even faster. Still, I was grateful to him for coming to check on me. When he stood up to go to his next class, I noticed some of my classmates looking at me differently. It was almost as if they were jealous. For the first time since school had started again, it felt good to be me.
It was weird visiting the deaf club for the first time. Ella rushed up to me outside and kissed me on the cheek. Putting her arm through mine, she practically pulled me up the path towards the dilapidated building. Connor trailed behind helplessly. About twenty kids and adults of all ages were staring at us as we tumbled through the door.
-hey everybody this is Ben. He's hearing but don't hold it against him
I looked at the forest of hands signing their greetings to me and realised I knew nothing about the etiquette of signing in a group.
-hi everyone. Please don't be offended if my signs are bad. I'm still learning
One by one I got to know everyone, trying to remember the signs for twenty different names. I met a few of the parents, who mostly looked confused. I was really happy when I saw Tamati, my signing tutor. I asked him why half of the kids spoke while they were signing and half didn't.
"Oooh, dangerous territory, Ben my boy. Best to stay away from that one for now. "
When I got the chance to be alone with Ella, I told her about my row with Connor.
-you shouldn't ask deaf people about their voice. It's really personal
-but why? You either speak or you don't
-for some deaf people, it's like being naked in public. If I told you I wanted you to take your pants off every time we spoke you wouldn't do it
-but you do
-yes well I have a nice bum
-okay. Just think about it. Signs are his voice, his language. When you ask him to speak, you're telling him his signs aren't good enough. Deaf people live in a deaf world, and their signs are all they have. If you tell him they're not good enough for you, then you're telling him he's not good enough for you either.
-so why do you speak?
-because my dad is hearing
-so is his mum
-Ben! It's his decision, not yours
And later, still at the club:
-I'm sorry I upset you. Ella explained how rude it was to ask. I didn't know.
-it's ok, it's just that people ask me a lot. When deaf people speak, people stare. You can see them laughing sometimes because it sounds strange. I don't want to be laughed at.
-I said I'm sorry. Are we still friends?
-I like it here
-so do I
Gradually he got over whatever was upsetting him. In March we both turned fifteen, celebrating together in a pizza place down on by the shore. Despite my jealousy, Ella became the third person in our friendship. We rode out to Ahuriri in the evenings, Ella sitting on Connor's saddle while he stood up on his pedals, her arm wrapped around his waist. On long autumn evenings at Perfume Point, Connor and Ella watched the sunset, her back pushed into his stomach, his hand playing idly with her hair. The first time they kissed in front of me was pretty bad, but I liked her enough to let it go. The first time she kissed me, on the other hand, was weird.
"Why did you do that?" I said, not sure if I was pleased or annoyed.
"I just felt like it."
"Perhaps you could ask next time"
"Well you should have asked."
"It's kind of like you're kissing him."
"Well I kissed him, and now I kissed you. So, in a way, you kissed him too."
"You know you want to kiss him."
"Ella! He's my friend. It's never been like that between us."
"But you'd like it to be."
"You don't know what I want."
"You watch us all the time, Ben."
"It's hard to ignore you two. You're like Siamese twins."
"No, you're the Siamese twins. Ben and Connor. Conjoined spirits, not bodies."
"You don't make any sense."
"You sound like my mum."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]