If he could have painted any portrait it would be of that boy he loved. He wasn’t a painter, or an artist of notable merit, but the face of someone you love has a way of etching itself onto the mind. The nights that they had spent together had his damaged mind hooked. It replayed in a variety of ways, each one written in a language so beautiful that it almost seemed foreign. When things got unbearable, when the monsters in his misunderstood life became too rough, Alex retreated to that special night; the one he had written a note about, depicting the evening in detail to his friend; the same note his dad had found in the school blazer pocket. When he read the note back now the hand-lettered words seemed as though they were penned in a foreign alphabet. The name of the boy he loved shone like stars written in midnight ink. His heart swelled and threatened to burst. He needed to see that boy again. That was such a happy time, completely alien to his current circumstances. Running back to that special moment was all Alex could do to stop himself breaking under the monsters that held him captive; monsters that wore the faces of men to hide their insidious nature; their ignorance bearing its teeth still from behind their masks. It was all Alex could do to tie-down his sanity, before those monsters cut it loose. Yet the more days he was trapped here, in a role that was now a husk of a former façade, in a time that wasn’t ready for him, the more the process of remembering anything happy felt like a child blindly scrabbling over boulders at a lakeside. The four walls of his room were, on some days, solitude, but on some nights, they were a prison.
His father started saying something about a girl. Despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to find any affection for her in the heart of his son. It wasn’t simply because his son, like all teenage children, made a subconscious choice to systematically reject anything his parents suggested, but rather because he had trained his eyes on someone else. The scene of them together seared too brightly for his father to watch, but it played out on an endless loop in the heart, and the mind, of 16-year-old Alex Neel. Alex’s father first discovered his son’s fondness for the same sex after unfolding a note tightly tucked away within his school blazer. He’d stumbled and pitched ways to approach the topic with Alex’s mother; he’d rolled out several ideas and carried the crushing weight of ‘it’s just a phase’ on his shoulders for months before eventually he relented and sought out help from a professional. His son was sick after all and the decade ahead promised no easy path for his son’s lifestyle choices.
He lingered outside in the hallway, rocking back and forth, juggling with no real-elegance ways to open this fragile topic of conversation that lay just beyond his son’s bedroom door. He paused, remembering the letter that came announcing his wife’s pregnancy. It was September of 1940 and he’d been off serving his country in the war. When the news of his wife’s pregnancy arrived at the base where he was stationed, it rose up in him like a summer sun edging up the horizon after a stormy night. The war had a cold and impersonal look to it, but the promise of fatherhood began to thaw that cold, and soon the war became personal to his Alex’s father as well; seeing him fighting with a greater weight on his shoulders – he had to protect his unborn son.
Since that day right through the sixteen years that followed he’d done exactly that, protected his son. He’d fended off bullies and aided him with his school work. He dedicated hours of patient-filled time teaching his son to ride a bike and to climb trees. Tending to every cut knee and burst lip with utmost gentility. He’d employed every ounce of a love a father can muster for his child and showered Alex with it every day. This was different though; what was happening now wasn’t as easy to deflect and shelter his son from. Mr Neel couldn’t shrug off the gnawing sense of conflict he felt as he stood at Alex’s door. He raised his arm, poised and ready to knock on the dark-stained oak, and gently tapped it the door three times. He was greeted by a voice that had become a daily symphony to him. He loved his son much, but he was sick. Homosexuality was a mental illness and he needed treatment. What sort of parent would turn a blind eye to their suffering child? He entered the room and was welcomed by a boyish smile that he now, after reading the letter written by his son to one of his class mates, noticed was inherently feminine; bearing an uncanny resemblance to his mother. Throughout the conversation his father hadn’t the nerve to look down at his son, who was perched on the bottom of his bed, rheumy eyed and disappointed. In the weeks following their discussion Alex grew colder, resentful, and when his appointment date came through to start treatment and therapy, he’d backed his bag and under the guise of a dimly-lit night sky he left home.
Alex felt creepy as his snaked his way through the sleeping streets. The only blessing about making his escape during this hour was there was nobody about to ask why a kid was out that late. Yet as he walked he felt someone lurk behind him, someone or was it something. Its presence floated in the night air, as though it was formed of a mist so fine that the human eye couldn’t see it. He kept walking, circling, further and further down darker roads. He had no real direction other than anywhere but home. It was a clammy night to be out on the street; the air was stale and the sky poorly lit by a lazy moon blanketed by dense clouds. After a couple of hours, he reached a clearing. He’d past this spot multiple times when he was travelling to school on the bus. Alex had heard that this was where local kids of a dubious nature liked to gather, and sure enough the information he received was correct. A cluster of boys, perhaps a few years older than Alex, stood in a fractured circle. Armed with cigarettes, whiskey and bad attitudes they swore gallantly and without remorse, hatching out fables of their conquests. With his head sinking down he sped past them silently, letting lightly footed steps fall on the stony ground below, becoming more mouse than boy. As he tip-toed over the ground, one of the boys called over but received no reply. Alex rambled forward, pleading ignorance and pretending not to hear. Again, the boy called out, and again no reply was offered. From across the clearing he heard sniggers emerge from the gaggle, a prelude to hastened footsteps to followed as the group headed toward Alex. Before he had a chance to dart away and escape, the group aligned themselves around Alex, forming a square-like shape that prevented him from walking further. With a wrinkled brow the ring-leader of the group gently placed his clammy hand on Alex’s shoulder, and he shivered as the boy looked him dead in the eye.
‘And you are?’ The leader paused; waiting on a reply that never came. Alex pulled back, his face was tucked down, as if he had suddenly developed a new shyness. ‘What’s the matter, can’t you talk? You look familiar.’ Again a snigger of laughter lit up the clearing; like a taunting chorus from a pack of jackals who were playing with their prey. Surprised and flustered Alex’s face went redder than his natural colouring suggested possible. Another member of the pack took Alex’s hands and waved them about, provoking a sheepish protest from Alex which cheered on more laughter from the group. As the laughing stretched out the boy again took Alex’s hands and motioned his wrists, flicking them in a camp-like way. The laughter from pack rose into a piercing wail that carried itself into the night. Snatching his hands back, Alex span around and tried to prairie his escape, building up just enough strength to crash through the two boys standing on his right-hand side. The pack became giddy and vertiginous at the surprise playfulness of their prey, and just before Alex could run the ring leader brained him across the back of the head, causing Alex to wheel backwards and tumble to the ground. Before he knew it he had become a human punching bag, upon which kicks from boys that seemed fifteen times stronger than Alex landed at sporadic locations all across his body. Kicks to his face, his ribs. The leader, and the one that jerked Alex’s hands around as though he was helpless puppet, signalled for another two of the pack to hold the squirming boy’s legs open before he delivered a final kick to the now blood-covered boy’s groin. From where he was lying all Alex saw was a sea of wild expressions swept across every one of his attackers faces, before they dragged him to his feet again. Alex twisted but they refused to let go, and his arms reached back, as if trying to swim himself through the night air and return to the arms of the boy he loved.
With the image of that boy running through his head, a fire inside him caught and burned up his legs-then-through his body as he thrashed his limbs around, desperately trying to fend off his attackers. He crashed into the ground. His efforts paid off as he landed, half-winding himself in the process, at the feet of those from whom he’d fallen. Affording no time to catch even the slightest of breaths, he threw himself through the legs of the faceless figure in front of him, his lungs pleading for air, and grazed his elbows as he landed on the other side. Using the fiery strength still surging through his legs, he locked down his determination to escape and took to his feet, signalling to the night sky and its audience of stars that this show wasn’t over. The company of boys turned feral that had surrounded him trained their eyes on Alex and set their sights on the fleeing boy. Distance spread between the group and between the terrified boy and, in a flash, the gap was too much to close.
Careful in his steps, Alex ran. He was weary and observed the night-covered ground carefully; taking each bound with as much grace as speed would allow, stopping only to wipe the oozing blood from a wound in his head. Eventually he reached the edge of a muddy, over-grown river bank and before he plummeted into the water he dragged himself to a halt. He steadied himself, clutching his burning ribs and his throbbing groin, inhaling what little air he could during those brief moments before taking off again. As he sped through the woods and along the water-bank, moonlight cast down the slightest flicker of its nocturnal light, allowing the boy to more carefully place his hurried steps. As the pale glimmer seeped through the cracks in the roof of trees that towered above him, he couldn’t help but be drawn in by the beauty of this night and the way it illuminated and crawled over his entire body. Had fear not taken such a strong hold over him, he may have experienced this moment in another way. Under different circumstances these views would have captivated him and running would have been the last thing to creep through his mind; but these views weren’t for fun, and thus Alex wasn’t able to admire the beauty of their stillness. Instead they were little more than passing blurs smudged together in the race for his life.
After what felt like weeks of walking, and seconds of resting, the landscape threw succour in his path in the form of a walkway. Under the dark his sense of geography was limited, and he seemed deeper into the woods now than he thought possible. These woods aren’t that big, he argued with himself, but quickly remembered that their most salient feature was how they always seemed to change and mould into different shapes every time they were visited. Once he was firmly on the path he slowed his pace, gracing his lungs with large helpings of night air. Finally he caught his breath as well as some relief. He walked, and took no pains to cover or conceal his tracks or silence his footfall. After his sprint from his attackers his legs felt so heavy that he couldn’t imagine lifting them off the ground much longer, so when a light caught his eye he threw himself forward and toward it. In the clearing just in front of him sat a car. He was convinced he had either out-run his attackers, or they had given up Nevertheless he willed his wobbly and weary legs forward as fast as they were willing to wander.
As the woods fell further behind him and he approached a small gorge, the lights of the car shied away and a moment later he heard the door opening and closing. Alex turned and scanned the area for a way out until his attention was snatched by a familiar voice from besides the lifeless vehicle in front of him. He steadied himself and picked up the densest and sharpest looking branch he could find and stood ready. Blood trickled down his face, he could already feel bruises forming all over his body. Yet he himself looked sharp, like a soldier standing to attention, as if he was now more hunter now than prey. He peered into the darkness, as if trying to disturb some unknown monster from its hiding place. That feeling from earlier, the one that whispered he was being watched, maybe even followed, returned and laid down its roots. Whatever lay just out of sight was the culprit of this feeling. Alex knew it was something more than the boys that had just beat him and with that certainty he found himself paralysed with an altogether different fear; one of much more potent origins. Needling his way across the mucky ground, a tall figure crawled out from the darkness. Alex imagined this half-creature, riddled with sinister impulses, consuming him. He pictured its jaws chattering and a serpent like tongue slinking from its rotting mouth. In his mind it wore a suit blacker than the night he was trapped in. Every day was a nightmare of insults and rejection; of fear of being disowned and shunned for the alleged illness he had, the one that never made him feel sick. Every monster he battled was faceless, yet still he pictured their limbs snapping into unusual positions and their gangly legs, which seemed almost spider-like in their movements, stalking towards him in a series of inelegant, almost-fractured, steps. He closed his eyes. He stood waiting; his steadiness was unwavering. The man creaked his neck forward and landed its head in the slither of spotlight that shone down from the moon: A face hung sallow in the night’s diminishing light. Alex’s eyes remained closed.
A spark of malice soon engulfed the shadowed face. A look that was as foreign as it was terrifying to the man upon who it had consumed. Alex willed his eyes to remain shut, but after he felt a hand clasp across his mouth, causing the air to became poisonous and the forest spin rapidly., his eyes flickered open and Alex saw his father’s face lingering above him, tilted to side so he couldn’t make eye contact. Feeling fainter, Alex tried to recoil but the nascent face clamped his hand tighter around his jaw. He placed his other hand on Alex’s shoulders, ‘Alex, I’m so sorry,’ whispered from the man’s mouth and into the dark. ‘I followed you as soon as I saw you left the house.’ He blinked as the cloth he covered Alex’s mouth with seeped a damp, odd-smell into the air. Suddenly night became dark and Alex tumbled into an almost dreamless state; one that was bursting with horrifying images that felt like reality.
Alex was now standing in a dank field in the blackest of nights, wrapped in a grave-like coldness. The smell was filthy. There was a flash of lightening and suddenly a shapeless figure was in front of him. Unable to move, Alex watched as his feet became rooted to the spot and a web of spiders started to scurry all over his body. The sunken cheeks of the figure widened as it grinned, before plunging its rotten finger nails in the flesh of Alex’s shoulder. It dragged him, effortlessly, through the wetted mud until it reached a dying tree. The creature held him still and wore a pale red murderous look upon its face. Alex had never seen anger so pure; it burned through him hotter than an inferno. The creature snatched the nape of Alex’s neck and suddenly Alex’s hands were tied by small bones bound together like thread. The figure cast a noose around the terrified boy’s neck and with little more than a deathly look, Alex was raised up into the cloak of the night. The noose tightened and he found himself swinging from the branch of the dead tree. Looking out across a valley of decaying scenery, the noose stiffened and stole all air from his lungs. There was another crack of thunder and a spark of pure blindingly white lightening. When it past Alex saw himself hanging from the tree, lifeless and rotten. The corpse of the 16-year-old boy swayed in a crude motion, batted from left-to-right by a howling wind; the letter about the boy he loved lay soaked and mud-covered below his dangling feet. The nightmare faded, silence crept in, and suddenly he was lifeless and his father was broken.
He wasn’t getting better. This logic echoed like a fragile explanation through Mr Neel’s mind. He did what he did out of love; the only way to rid his poor child of this illness. An illness that cause his heart to beat for that of another boy. He stroked his face and wiped the tears that now blurred his vision. As his eyes dried he saw his son’s body dangling there and his heart sank as he saw a thick purple and blue bruise, decorated with tiny flecks of grey, delicately wrapped around the entire circumference of his throat. As he stepped forward to leech his arms around his son’s-swaying legs, he felt a crunch beneath his mud-laced boot. Doing so, he directed his vision down and was greeted by a note, in familiar penmanship, the one that was the catalyst for all of this. With trembling hands he read the scrap of paper, once white but now bruised by a muddy boot-print. The inky words bathed in midnight illuminated a monster that, generations later, is still living among us. His father read the note again:
“His kiss feels like someone granted me furlough from my body and we’ve had a handful of nights together. Maybe we’ll discover a new path forward. Maybe all we need is to share this one secret, and let people have a true glance of us. Maybe one day they will understand how this will work and keep on working. I know it’s not traditional but it works for us, because we make our own rules and this is our life. I don’t know what will happen. All I know is that when he’s away from me my life is as cold as a headstone. All I know is that this is love and I love him and nobody will tell me that makes me sick.”