We’d discussed the information Liam had disclosed at the party. It had been difficult to pry the content of the encounter from him. Harry still wouldn’t tell me of the person who requisitioned his thoughts when the topic was approached. But that didn’t matter, at least he was talking about it; I took that as a positive development concerning his need to bottle things up. It was some weeks before we decided to visit his old neighbourhood and the memories locked in the landscape. I hadn’t forced or pushed the situation, it wasn’t my place. It was only as we were returning from a visit to his sister’s that a detour had been made and the car pulled up to the curb just outside a park.
“Jess and I used to come here on Saturdays to play on the swings. Mum had given us some money for ice-cream, but I didn’t want mine, I gave it to Jess and she bought two scoops instead of one.”
It was unusually quiet, the cooler Summer months transforming into the burning colours of Autumn. Harry took my hand, navigating an apparently familiar set of leafy paths. It was pretty; a classic park with benches and conker trees, an earthy scent that took me back to my childhood.
The sprung, metal gate was held open for me and I proceeded to take advantage of Harry’s gentlemanly gesture, entering the almost deserted playground with him following after me. I smiled upon hearing a delighted squeal; the young child hiding in the wooden fort as his dad sought him out.
The bark chip made for a cushioned walk under my boots as I joined Harry by a set of swings. The bomber jacket he wore was zipped up to the neck, fighting to suppress the blustery breeze. I shoved my hands into my pockets, lightly nudging his shoe with mine. He warmly motioned for me to emulate his position.
“We’d bought her ice-cream and came here. She’d insisted on getting sprinkles and that I had the chocolate flake,” His expression softened with the memory. “There were a group of boys; a couple I recognised from around where we lived. They knocked the cone out of her hand and laughed.”
I perched on the swing next to Harry’s, immersed in the words so much so, I could see it playing out before my eyes. A younger Jess and her little brother. I’d seen pictures of both of them at the time when they were young teenagers, Harry all curly hair and dimples.
My legs straightened, lightly taking hold of the chains attached to my seat and swinging back and forth.
“I pushed him down; told him to piss off. One of his mates shoved me into the bridge,” Harry’s eyes magnetised to the small wooden crossing uniting the slide and monkey bars. “I punched him in the face,” he lightly chortled. “I got beaten so badly that day, but all I could think about was Jess. She practically carried me home, telling me how stupid I’d been to start a fight. I remember mum shouting at us, getting us clean and to our bedrooms before dad came home.”
Harry hadn’t looked at me whilst he recited, probably too caught up in images already played out. With his feet still making contact with the ground, he stretched his long legs, pushing himself back in the seat to begin momentum.
“I think that was the day my mum realised I wasn’t going to stand by any more…It frightened her.”
“This is your house?”
It was semi-detached, red front door and a pretty garden; a house somebody else called home. The surrounding area was quiet, a lady and her dog wished us a “good afternoon” as we passed her on the path.
“It looks nice, Harry.”
“Shame life inside it didn’t match up to the outside.”
He put on a small, forced smile. But I could tell just how haunted he was to be stood in front of his old house, wondering how many skeletons inhabited the closet.
“We can go if you want?” I asked, concerned that the visit was having a negative effect.
I didn’t want him to feel remorseful of anything that went on in that house. I imagined the trip to be somewhat cleansing, a sort of detox. However, it was clear that it would take much more than a simple car ride to extinguish the emotions connected to the building.
We stood together, Harry holding my hand almost as if he needed something to anchor him to the present and prevent him from wandering off into his memories. His posture was tight, unwilling to let his guard down. Harry’s previously dwindling concentration snapped back to attention upon hearing a crash from the house’s adjoining garage. I hadn’t really thought much of it until I was encouraged to follow after the curious boy.
Loud, incompetent banging could be heard as we approached the side door sheltered by a well-groomed hedge. It wasn’t the sort of noise that could be mistaken for carpentry or construction; there was no method in the banging. The sound fitted more to the struggle of a caged bird, desperate for escape.
“I was just gunna see if they were alright.”
His hand pressed to the door that was somewhat ajar, pushing it open to reveal a stumbling figure. It seemed our entrance had gone unnoticed by the man as he staggered into a wall of shelved paint pots. He was drunk.
My reflexes had me take a step back as he turned to confront us. My mind scanned for quick assessment, late forties, hard jaw, stubble, average height and eyes that could reduce even the most courageous into a quibbling mess. Those same eyes hadn’t strayed from Harry and his face was unreadable as I intruded on the staring match between the two males. A fearless warrior, ready for battle.
The man knew Harry’s mum. I had a feeling it wasn’t coincidence. His rough question was tinted with accusation.
“We don’t live here anymore,” Harry sharply replied, using our linked hands to nudge me lightly behind him. “This isn’t your home…You shouldn’t be here.”
The tone he held was an indication that Harry wasn’t just pinpointing this exact moment, it ran to a deeper level. The man was unwelcome in Harry’s old neighbourhood, had no right to be on the premises in which we were stood and he certainly wasn’t worthy of being in Harry’s presence.
“Your bike’s out by the gate,” he slurred.
“My bike was blue,” Harry recalled. “Mum got it for my seventh birthday. You reversed over it with the fucking car when you were drunk and then you blamed me for it.”
It broke my heart that he could recollect in such detail. He’d been carrying these traumatic childhood memories with him for years.
It was that small piece of information that had things clicking into place. It made sense now. Harry’s dad. It was his dad that was back. He was the man that Liam had talked about, the rumours that were whispered as if he were something of a terrible myth, renowned for the family he had tainted. Word had spread like an air-born virus among Harry’s friends who still remained in the area he grew up in.
“You shouted at me when I cried,” Harry roughly spoke. “I was seven.”
I desperately wished I could have been there; cradled the little boy mourning the loss of his cherished present. It should have been his father that comforted him, but it wasn’t.
“Mum couldn’t afford to get me a new one. You didn’t even say you were sorry.”
Harry hadn’t told me his name, wasn’t worth the time. The once mystified expression vanished, eyes hardening. A split second he had turned and I could sense the uncertainness Harry held. Alcohol fuelled confusion was combined with anger. The concoction of emotions was having a negative hold on the situation.
“You were a little shit,” he bit back with venom. “You never did as you were told.”
I couldn’t imagine Harry being anything but a frightened child. With a father like that, it would have been silly to disobey.
“And you were a pathetic excuse for a dad. You know what I wished for on my eighth birthday?” he rhetorically asked. “When I blew out my candles, I wished you would get hit by a bus.”
“I’m still your father.”
The fuzz of inebriation appeared to be lifting, and the formerly, almost sad bewilderment was laid waste to coarse words and eroded sentiment. His true nature could no longer hide behind the drunken muddle he had me believe when first encountering him. The monster was lurking.
“Why the fuck are you even here?” Harry asked.
“I came to find you.”
“We’ve moved on, we have lives that you’re no longer a part of. Mum doesn’t want anything to do with you.”
A barely visible flinch ticked his body at the mention of his former wife. But if he was disturbed by Harrys words, he refused to dwell on it, dismissing the response and continuing to chip away at the conversation.
“It looks like you’ve done well for yourself,” he observed with stony vision. “I’m proud of you.”
Harry’s posture stiffened with the last words spoken, his jaw twinging. I could tell he despised the thought of his dad feeling any sense of pride or achievement within him. Harry’s accomplishments were his own.
“That means nothing to me.”
His dad smiled, and it sickened me that he found pleasure in goading the boy stood closely to my right. It was when the devotion of his attention fell upon me that I felt myself recoil, fear and revulsion.
“That’s a pretty girl you’ve got there, son.” His crooked grin matched his patronising tone. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
I refused to make eye-contact, uneasily glancing away to find Harry’s hand firmly taking mine. I knew it was his way of silently confirming my safety but it I still felt alarmed. My grip tightened, begging Harry to move.
“Harry, come on, let’s go,” my voice a little shaky, grey irises keenly interested in our interaction.
“I’m not your son and she’s none of your business,” Harry coldly stated.
I was nudged further behind the masculine shield, inhaling his heavy scent and seizing the back of Harry’s jacket. It was an all too familiar memory playing out again. I peeked out from behind him.
“Don’t be frightened,” his dad’s supposedly comforting words had the opposite effect.
I didn’t want him any closer to either of us, but Harry refused to shift.
“I’m not going to hurt her,” he responded to our lack of movement, offended by the absence of trust.
“Just like you didn’t hurt my mum.”
“She was asking for it.”
The comeback was so sharp; I feared it could crack the thin ice he was skating on. There was only so much prodding Harry’s restraint could take. I’d seen his resolve crumble too many times.
“Fuck you!” Harry spat.
His body jerked forward with the poisonous words. But I sensed him relax a little under my careful touch. My hand soothingly rubbed against Harry’s back, whispering words only meant for him. I felt like a mother comforting her child after a nightmare, quietly hushing and reassuring that everything would be alright. But I couldn’t guarantee that. Especially as Harry’s nightmare was stood right in front of us.
“Would you look at that?” the man uttered in surprise, clearly baffled by the ease I could apply. “I’ve heard about you, you’ve made quite a reputation for yourself, son.” His vision dropped down slightly lower to connect with me. “And I’ve also heard that you’re the only one that can calm him down.”
“Please,” I desperately urged. “Harry, I want to go home.”
My fingers were wrapped around Harry’s middle and index, softly pulling his arm to me. I wanted to get into the car and drive away, to leave this mess.
“Take me home.”
My almost silent plea was unheard.
“Are you in love with her?”
My left arm came to hook around Harry’s waist, my cheek pressed to the plane of his back. I’d have given anything to be at home, the TV on, laid out on the sofa with Harry snoozing in my ear as I played with his hair. But when I opened my eyes we were still here; my heart plummeted.
I was guided around to stand by the side of Harry, hands almost fused together with the furious need to confirm each other’s existence; to know that we weren’t on our own.
“Oh, you are,” his dad curiously scrutinised.
“I’m not scared of you,” Harry firmly stated. Not anymore.
“But is she frightened of you, that’s the question.”
There was no hesitation in my answer.
“Are you sure?” He asked with a tilt to his head.
The man’s need to belittle me was beginning to get on my nerves. Harry was one of the very few people that I would trust with my life. His dad would never be able to comprehend the utter faith I put into his son because that sort of devotion was meant for the people you loved. Any potential love he held for his wife and children had been ripped away the second he’d laid a hand on Kathy.
“Harry wouldn’t hurt me.”
It was an answer he was expecting. The sneer he displayed revolted me, the pleasure he took in demeaning the relationship Harry and I had. It was as if he couldn’t comprehend the fact that his son could find a person that reciprocated the love he gave; chose to instead laughingly condescend. It was a far cry from what he himself had experienced. Maybe he’d just condemned himself to the thought that Harry would be sentenced to a life much like his, drunk, lonely and unlovable.
“Did he tell you where I got this from?”
I watched as Harry’s father tilted his head to the right, a sizable scar was revealed, cutting from just below his ear. Time had mended the dirty skin, but it still looked angry and red, like it had refused to heal with grace.
“Please,” Harry quietly begged. “Don’t.”
I was left perplexed as his once unbreakable hold slipped from mine. He appeared fraught, eyes pleading for forgiveness as he zeroed in on my focus. But I had no idea what clemency I was supposed to give. His head was shaking before he planted stable hands on either of my shoulders.
“Your boyfriend took a kitchen knife to my neck,” Harry’s dad continued. “Did he tell you?” he was enjoying it now.
My body had numbed, unable to move, face held in the shaking hands of my lover.
“Guess not.” He smiled. “Little Haz was only fourteen, weren’t you? He tried to slit my throat when I was sleeping on sofa.”
Harry was cold, like the life had drained out of him. The joy that sparked his forest eyes had been extinguished and all that was left was hatred, for himself, for his dad. There was a void. The person he had become was empty. I blinked and he was gone. The physical press of Harry’s palms still cupped my face, enough to know that the young boy stood before me was a figment of my imagination. Blood dripped from his trembling hands that hung limp by his sides. The tears seemed to weigh heavy down his cheeks.
“Did he deserve it?” I asked.
“My mum, he’d hit..”
I shook my head.
“Did he deserve it, Harry?”
That’s all I needed to hear. I took his hands from my face, holding them between us. To imagine the acts performed to drive a 14 year old boy to kill was inconceivable. I didn’t want to know.
“I’d have killed him a thousand times if it meant he wouldn’t hurt my mum again.”
Such a troubled boy. I would go to the ends of the Earth for him, and Harry knew I’d never stop searching.
“I love you.”
A soft smile curved upon his mouth. He knew.
“You have the left half of my heart. Keep it safe.”
His fingers slipped from mine, the small smile vanishing and Harry descended into the darkness he’d tried his best to keep from consuming him. It teased his judgement, playing with the fire licking up the walls of his restrain. All he could see was his target.
I’d watched Harry fight before, but this was unlike any other match. The fury behind his hits made me cower back, observing from a distance as he beat his dad, shoving him into shelves, having his right fist meet a bloodied nose again and again. The older man’s shirt was torn on the shoulder seam, ripped when yanked back in for his stomach to connect with a sharp knee.
It was a struggle for him to wheeze out the enquiry, but the breathless words knocked Harry back.
“How’s your mum?” he painfully coughed.
Harry remained silent, clenching his fists as his chest heaved. He knew exactly how to make is son tick. It was dangerous.
“Jess doing alrig…”
“Don’t say her name.”
His dad gave a curious look, glancing from Harry and then frighteningly to me. He was an absolute mess, scarlet streaks smudged from his nose, a blackening eye.
“Do I still not get to know her name?”
My hand smothered the sobs emitting from my mouth as I watched Harry being forced to his knees. As he’d turned to ensure I was still with him an arm had wrapped around his neck from behind. Our eyes were watering but for different reasons; mine pooled with tears, Harry’s with lack of oxygen. Desperate fingers were pleading for the forearm to be taken away from his compressed airway, his fingernails biting into the skin.
“Look! Look at her!” His dad barked. “You don’t deserve her. You’re not worthy of the love she can give you.”
I felt as though the contents of my stomach was going to empty out onto the floor of the garage, sick with pain and disgust.
“I hate you.” I spat. “How dare you tell him that? You’re a repugnant, abusive man. Your children…they needed you and all you did was shove them aside so you could drown yourself at the bottom of a bottle. Harry took care of his mum and sister when you didn’t. You’re nothing. Your words mean nothing!”
His arm slackened slightly, providing Harry with partial relief.
“Don’t talk to me like that, girl.” He aggressively threatened.
“What is wrong with you?” I angrily questioned. “Who are you to say what Harry deserves, you fucking coward.”
Harry choked on his breath, finally able to draw in the vital air. His hands soothed at the redden skin of his neck. But the relief was short lived as the wincing male stalked closer to me. It was then it hit me just how mundane looking he was. I’d pictured him to be a brutish man, cruel, inhuman. It just wasn’t the case, he was a wash of ordinary, someone you wouldn’t glance twice at on the street, and perhaps that was the most terrifying thought of all. Harry’s nightmare was now becoming mine.
I drew upon his strength.
“I still don’t know your name. But you don’t have to tell me. Harry will probably scream it soon enough,” he smugly spoke.
He had the advantage, backing me into the wall and shutting down my escape routes. I may not have been able to overpower him, but the man had underestimated the skill his son had passed on. The numerous hours Harry had spent teaching me defence had been in jovial spirit, thinking of it as nothing more than childish play fighting. But it just so happened that I’d retained the information.
I nimbly ducked, avoiding the fist that was intended for my face. My body skirted around his, no longer the barrier between Harry and me. I ran to him, the boy who possessed my heart. And he was waiting for me.
“Stay behind me.”
Harry was ready, now up on his feet and steadily building into the fury stoked fighter I’d seen before. I wouldn’t have been able to stop him if I’d have wanted to. The previously consumed alcohol had dulled his father’s motor skills, his reflexes and his ability to deflect a punch. At an undetermined point I’d closed my eyes, incapable of witnessing the onslaught any longer.
I’d never heard anyone’s ribs crack before, but as Harry kicked him again, I could almost count the excruciating breaks. Once my eyes had opened, they absorbed the scene. A broken man lay sprawled out on the concrete floor, clinging to consciousness as Harry loomed over him.
“You took out our front fence as well, when you ruined my bike. Mum had to take me into school on the Monday and tell the receptionist why I didn’t have a packed lunch and that we couldn’t afford the school dinner. She’d saved up to buy my bike, worked extra hours and hidden the money from you so you couldn’t spend it on whiskey. But that was all for nothing because she had to replace the fence. You were the reason Jess and I went hungry.”
I’d listened with a heavy heart as Harry talked to his dad. It was delivered with such composure; I struggled to accept that it was the same boy from minutes ago. My courage allowed me to take hold of his arm, fighting to drag him to me. Once visual contact had been shattered Harry’s focus fell upon me.
Police sirens were blaring in continuously close proximity. A phone call must have been made to the emergency services by someone nearby who had heard the commotion but dared not interfere. Harry had barely registered the situation and the potential outcomes that may have become apparent if he stayed. My hands caught hold of his face.
“Let me save you for once.”
“Come with me,” he tugged at my arm.
I resisted his attempts.
“You need to run.”
His mouth smashed to mine in a frenzy of fresh tears and realisation. Bruises had formed, an odd light purple on is cheekbone, angry blue upon his neck. There was a cut just above his left eyebrow and one hidden in his hairline. Our kisses found the words we couldn’t.
I was voluntarily abandoned with Harry still fresh on my lips; his presence still encompassing me even if he physically couldn’t.
“He’ll hurt you,” a voice gurgled.
I found Harry’s dad craning his neck in order to address me. The sight of him made my stomach turn. I’d never broken a bone in my life, despite my clumsy nature. My lack of experience in breaks didn’t hinder me in the identification of his disjointed arm.
“Harry is nothing like you and never will be. You’re a monster.”
“Well, at least I know I’m a monster. I don’t pretend to be anything else.”