Despite being told that they’ll be able see him the following morning, another two days go by before Miles, Jamie and Nick are actually allowed in Alex’s room. They take turns going to and from the hospital, sometimes spending full afternoons and evenings in the waiting room without result, missing out on several days of school as well. Miles begins to wonder if, in reality, Alex is the one who’s been refusing visitors rather than the nurses believing that he isn’t ready to see people.
But every time Jamie or Nick, or even Miles himself, feel like giving up, they remind each other that Alex has just lost his father and, most likely, his mother, too. If they don’t go to check up on him, if they don’t make sure that he is okay, no matter how long they’ll have to wait to see him, no one else will. Alex has never had much family, all of his grandparents have died years ago, except from one – his paternal grandmother who doesn’t even live in the city and who’s unable to travel anywhere due to her severe dementia. The doctors probably won’t even be able to explain to her what’s happened.
Alex has suddenly become utterly alone in this world with no one to take care of him. And despite Miles’s tremendous urge to be there for him, even he knows that he will never be able to offer Alex what he needs the most.
When they are finally told that Alex is ready to see them, the anticipation has become so enormous, so intense, that Jamie and Nick both find themselves taking a deep breath in order to ready themselves. Miles can feel his heart pounding madly and nervously; for a moment he believes it might actually break out through his ribcage. As they enter Alex’s private room, one by one, slowly and respectfully, they find the Helders family still by his bedside. Matt is sitting at the very foot of the bed whilst his Mum, Mrs Helders, is stood hovering over Alex when she sees the three friends entering.
“Let me know if there’s anything you need, darling,” she whispers as she presses a kiss to the top of Alex’s head. “We’ll be back shortly.” Alex nods slightly without looking any of Matt’s parents in the eye. Mr Helders merely clutches Alex’s shoulder for a moment, before they both turn around to leave the lads alone with him.
No one speaks for a moment. Then Matt jumps down from the hospital bed, gesturing for everyone to come closer and take a seat in the chairs gathered around the bed. But Miles, Jamie and Nick are too overcome to move.
“Look, Alex,” Matt speaks gently, “the whole gang is here to see you, man.”
Alex finally lifts his head and looks over at them. Though there appears to be a hint of interest in his gaze, his eyes appear hollow, empty, almost soulless. Miles’s guts begin to churn as he looks his friend over carefully. Alex’s broken arm is in a sling, strapped to his shoulder. He’s got a black eye and a cut lip, along with a series of random cuts and bruises along his jaw, on his neck and down both his arms. Miles now remembers Matt telling them that he had been ‘banged up’ slightly. But even if his physical injuries are mercifully mild, there is a broken atmosphere surrounding Alex, which seems to have everyone choking up around him as soon as they’ve entered the room.
He looks small and lost and impossibly young in his hospital bed. He looks abandoned. Scared, like a small child. Miles wants to kick himself for thinking the thought, but he’s already beginning to look like an unfortunate, helpless soul – a proper orphan.
“Hey, guys,” Alex speaks unexpectedly, catching everyone off-guard. He sounds deceitfully calm, though his voice sounds almost foreign to them. Miles is beginning to think that, perhaps, they’ve drugged him again. There’s no way that Alex’s calmness feels natural to him.
“Hi, Alex,” Jamie, Nick and himself all mutter in unison, making them feel like huge idiots. Miles cringes immediately, wishing he had the faintest idea of what is expected from him in a situation like this.
“It’s good to see you, man,” Nick ventures suddenly, though every spoken word feels like taking a huge risk.
“Yeah,” Jamie joins in, leaving Miles silent and even more self-conscious, “we’ve been worried sick about you. We’ve barely left the hospital for two days.”
Alex continues to look at them, though he doesn’t seem to have anything to say. Miles’s head begins to feel boiling hot as he’s mentally screaming at himself, pleading and bargaining with himself to open up his mouth and say something, anything, but to no avail. The pressure’s too overwhelming. He’s suffered a melt-down of some sort. When Alex keeps quiet and keeps perfectly still in his position, leaning up against the pillows in his bed, Matt steps in again in an attempt to ease the tension in the room.
“Look, Al,” he says, “they’ve all brought you flowers. Let me put them on the nightstand for you, mate.”
Matt walks over to the small group and collects the bouquets of flowers, along with some cards and well-wishing letters that they’ve had friends and even a few neighbours to sign, and he places it all on the nightstand for Alex to see. There are already a few bouquets and boxes of chocolates by his bedside, perhaps from Matt’s family, perhaps from distant relatives, perhaps from people that Miles wouldn’t even know. Alex is a popular and well-liked lad. But it seems that Alex has left everything unopened and untouched so far; every card, every present, every offering.
“Thanks,” Alex pronounces softly, though he barely looks at the flowers.
“I’ll find you some more vases later and put the flowers in water,” Matt tells him thoughtfully, “we wouldn’t want them to wither, would we?”
Alex doesn’t respond to this. Matt has probably gotten used to him not responding to much for the past couple of days. Then, Matt waves again, gesturing for the lads to come closer. Reluctantly, Miles takes a few steps forward along with Nick and Jamie, until they’re all stood directly around Alex’s bed, surrounding him like vultures and scavengers.
“How are you feeling, mate?” Jamie questions uncertainly when no one else seems to know what to say. “I mean – you’re not in pain. Are you?”
Alex merely shrugs at this, looking down at his hands, avoiding their stares.
“Nah,” he speaks slowly, “I’m alright.”
They wait for him to elaborate, but Alex falls completely silent.
“He’s got a bad concussion, so he’s on some painkillers,” Matt then explains, looking over at Alex as to acknowledge him; he doesn’t like speaking about him in third-person. “The doctors have told him to get as much sleep as he can.”
“Oh,” Nick reacts awkwardly, “sorry to hear that, mate. I hear concussions are a pain in the arse. No TV, no reading, not much you can do. But, you know… Thank God you’re going to be okay otherwise.”
Once again, Alex says nothing.
“Yeah,” Matt supplements, “the doctors told us Alex has been lucky. I mean… the crash was so violent. The car was flung about several times. And, uhm – had he not been in the backseat, he definitely wouldn’t have been able to escape with, you know, minor injuries.”
Something changes in Alex’s expression. After Matt’s explanation, he grows evidently distant as he leans further back against his pillows and fixes his eyes at something not visible to the others. It becomes obvious to Miles that Alex has withdrawn from their conversation both mentally and emotionally. And as the minutes pass, dragging on painfully slowly, Alex continues to stare out the window without paying much attention. Even when, finally, Miles and the others manage to express to him how sorry they are about everything, Alex looks like someone who can hardly bring himself to care.
David’s funeral takes place six days after the crash. Everyone, absolutely everyone attends the ceremony in order to offer their support and pay their respects, including Miles and his parents. Alex is assisted to the church by some hospital staff who have all volunteered to go with him. It seems that some of the nurses have taken quite a shine to the young lad and his gentle nature. Miles hadn’t been aware of it before, but when Alex arrives at the church in a wheelchair being pushed by one of the nurses, he learns that Alex has suffered some pains down his spine, making it difficult for him to walk properly. As the funeral is about to begin and Alex has been seated at the very front, accompanied by Matt and the entire Helders family, Miles watches him from the middle section, where he’s been seated alongside Jamie and Nick’s families. He can’t help but to notice how calm Alex is the whole time; calm and devastatingly quiet. Even when he wipes at his eyes to get rid of the tears, he does this without making any sound at all.
After the ceremony, when everyone is queueing up in order to make their condolences to the Turners’ abandoned son, one by one, and when everybody bows down to give Alex a hug as he remains in his wheelchair, some of them speaking a few comforting words to him, some of them even ruffling his hair and calling him a ‘good lad’, Miles watches from the back of the queue, feeling lost for words. He still can’t think of anything to say, he can’t think of any gesture at all that would suffice. And finally, as the queue shortens and Miles is up next, Miles finds that Alex simply looks up at him, perhaps with a subtle glimpse of expectancy, and for the first time, he makes a genuine effort to smile – though it turns into the most heart-breaking, sorrowful smile that Miles has ever seen. Alex’s eyes are once again vacant and emotionless – Miles would rather that they were stained with tears. At least that would have been easier to handle.
“Hey, Miles,” Alex speaks quietly, like he’s been speaking to every single person at the church today. Miles is aware that Alex is merely fulfilling his duty and that if he could, he would rather have turned away from all the stares and whispers, so full of pity and feeling sorry for him. But at the same time, Miles can’t help but to feel like Alex is making an exception for him – the sad smile, for one. Alex hasn’t offered a hint of a smile to anyone else, not to Miles’s knowledge.
“Hey, Alex,” Miles whispers croakily, feeling as though he’s swallowed a bug. “Uhm – how are you feeling?”
It is probably the wrong thing for him to ask, but nevertheless, Alex shrugs and makes a small effort to answer the question.
“I’m alright,” he murmurs, looking deadly pale. He’s averting his eyes when their brief exchange of words becomes too intense for him. “Thanks for coming.”
It’s what he’s been telling every single attendee. But Miles is eager to show him that, unlike some people here, he hasn’t come out of pure obligation. He’s here because Alex means more to him than words could ever express, and because of that, Miles leans in and wraps his arms around his friend, careful not to touch his broken arm. Alex flinches slightly at first, perhaps because he hasn’t expected this from any of his mates. But when it becomes clear that Miles isn’t going to let go of him any time soon, Alex relaxes into the embrace and, eventually, he even rests his head exhaustedly against Miles’s shoulder.
It’s the first time that the two of them have ever been this close to one another. And though he’s glad that it has happened, Miles never expected their first embrace to be under these circumstances.
Alex is released from the hospital about two weeks after the funeral of his father.
Though they’ve been told to no longer skip classes in order to see Alex, Miles, Nick and Jamie, and Matt, too, have all been making sure to go see him every day after school. Sometimes they have taken turns, especially because they fear it’s overwhelming for Alex to have all four of them showing up at once. Even during weekends, the four friends have devoted all of their time taking trips to the hospital, bringing Alex more presents from people at school, letters, cards, flowers, books, fresh clothes, refreshments, biscuits, sweets. Everything he could possibly want or need.
Some afternoons, however, they’ve been told that Alex won’t take any visitors for another hour or two. That he’s busy sitting by his mother’s bedside, at the Intensive Care Unit at the other end of the hospital, sitting next to the machine she’s been attached to – the only thing that’s been keeping her alive so far. Whenever Alex returns from watching his comatose mother, he doesn’t speak a single word about it, and the others aren’t supposed to ask him about it, either. It’s become obvious to everyone, including Alex, that the machines will only be able to keep Penny breathing for so long, and that in a matter of months, or maybe just weeks, there is going to have to be a second funeral for her, too.
Alex tries his best to smile and to thank everyone every time they pay him visits and bring him presents. Though he’s slowly gotten used to walking again without the pain and is no longer bound to a wheelchair, there is still something so incredibly fragile about him, people are almost scared of laying a finger on him. It’s like he’s suddenly made of glass, like he can be shattered into a million pieces if you’re not careful in the way you handle him.
Though Matt’s family are with him most of the time, it still breaks Miles’s heart to look out through his window at night and into Alex’s room, which is now dark and empty. Alex is no longer there; he’s all alone, in a bed that isn’t his own, surrounded by doctors and nurses that he barely even knows. It was only a few weeks ago that a beautiful, happy boy lived in the house next door with both his parents, and Alex and Miles would smile brightly at each other every time they met. Now that boy seems to have vanished completely; Alex has become something else, someone else. And Miles is scared that they will never be able to go back to being what they were.
As Alex is released from the hospital, Matt’s parents insist on bringing Alex home with them. And though he doesn’t appear back in school for another week’s time, due to strict orders that he must continue to nurse his concussion and his injured spine, Miles can tell that everyone is relieved that he’s made such a speedy recovery. Most of Alex’s cuts and bruises have faded and though he’s been left with a few scars here and there, a particularly nasty one across his jawline, he’s no longer in physical pain and does no longer require the painkillers.
“Have Matt’s parents told you how long they want you to stay for?” Miles asks him one day when he’s visiting after school. The other lads have come along, too, but they’re in the kitchen with Matt, mixing smoothies for everyone.
“Not really,” Alex replies slowly. He’s been ordered to stay seated in the sofa, where the lumbar support will do him good. He’s been wrapped in a large blanket, in case he gets cold. “Mrs Helders has been mentioning a few things, but I can’t tell if she’s being serious or not.”
“What has she been saying?” Miles asks.
Alex swallows and stalls for a moment. “She’s been telling me that they’re looking into adopting me. I mean, at least until I turn eighteen. But she isn’t sure how these things work. She believes they would have a good case, though, because I’ve known them since I was little.”
Miles’s eyes widen with surprise.
“Wow,” he breathes. “That’s great! How would you feel about that? I mean – would you like to live with Matt’s family permanently?”
Alex’s mouth tightens into a small smile. “Yeah,” he nods, “I think I would really like that.”
Before they know it, they are rejoined by Matt and the others. Jamie is carrying a tea tray full of cold drinks – one smoothie per person. They’ve been mixed with various fruits from the kitchen and with a little bit of vanilla ice cream that Matt has found in the freezer.
“Alright, lads, dig in,” Matt says as they settle down and occupy the living room, “I have no idea how to make smoothies, it’s a drink for girls, anyway. There are a few ones with banana in them, and a little bit of kiwi and one with yellow melon.”
“Do you mean honeydew melon?” Nick butts in, making Jamie laugh at Matt.
“Yeah, whatever,” Matt retorts, “I’m not exactly a melon connoisseur, am I? But save the one with strawberries for Alex. I know it’s his favourite,” Matt says as he winks and smiles at his friend.
On Alex’s first day back in school, the gang is acting more protective of him than ever. Alex’s broken arm is still in a sling, making it so much easier for people to stare at him and to turn their heads and look after him in the hallway.
“Isn’t that the guy who’s just lost his…” Some of them will whisper, believing that Alex and his friends can’t hear it.
“Yeah, it’s him. I read about it in the paper. There was a picture of the family…”
Miles and the others quickly learn how to walk whilst surrounding Alex, covering his back like a protective shell, like a group of amateur bodyguards. Alex sees what they are trying to do straight away, but he doesn’t comment on any of it. Perhaps he even appreciates the shielding as he isn’t exactly keen to have people approaching him.
It happens eventually, however. During lunch, several mates of his make their way over to his table. Some of them have already offered their condolences at the funeral, including Andy Nicholson, and are merely checking to see if Alex is doing alright. Some of them tell Alex to let them know if there’s anything they can do for him. A few girls ask him if he wants his cast signed, but when they sign it by giving him their phone numbers, Alex grows tense and wishes to fleet the cafeteria right away. Miles and the others pick up on his change of mood immediately, and so, they escort him away from the busy tables and out on the hallway.
Alex is happy to get a break and to get away from everyone’s questions and well-wishes. Matt has suggested that they all head outside for a quick smoke before their next classes. On their way out, however, Alex runs into a familiar face who he hasn’t heard from at all since the accident.
“Alex!” Taylor exclaims suddenly when she sees him. She’s standing in the doorway with a guy named Dennis, whom they all know from PE. He isn’t particularly nice or likeable as a person, though, so they don’t know him all too well. “Oh my God,” she says, “I didn’t know you were back.”
As soon as she knows that she’s got Alex’s attention, she draws Dennis slightly closer, holding on to him as though she wants Alex to know that she is over him now. Alex, however, remains perfectly calm. He seems almost unaffected by her presence.
“Yeah,” he tells her in a fairly normal voice, “I have a lot of catching up to do, so… Here I am.”
Miles can’t help but to remind himself that, despite everything, Taylor didn’t even want to sign the card they’d all written for him collectively. And now, Taylor appears rather confused. Miles isn’t sure what she has expected from Alex – anger, jealousy, a long apology – but it certainly isn’t this. Alex seems more eager than anything to get away from her.
“Right,” she tells him, sounding as though she barely knows what to do, “I mean, you’ve been gone for a while, haven’t you?” Then she pauses to press herself up against the bloke, Dennis, who looks like he would also like to avoid this conversation altogether. She practically grinds against him, forcing his arm around her waist. “Have you met Dennis?” She asks suddenly, managing to make absolutely everyone around her uncomfortable all at once. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few weeks now,” she explains, “but I guess you haven’t been around to notice.”
Miles looks over at Alex and admires the other’s ability to completely mask the anger and disgust that must be running through his mind by this point.
“Right,” Alex tells her, calm and crushingly polite as ever, “I’m afraid I’ve been too busy planning my Dad’s funeral to know what’s been happening in the meantime.”
Leaving Taylor flabbergasted and stunned, he turns away from her and heads outside without even looking back, knowing that lighting a cigarette will be the only thing that might actually keep him sane at this point. The lads follow after him, though not without expressing some of the outrage they’re feeling.
“Fucking hell, she must be joking,” Matt curses when he turns around to see Taylor kissing Dennis hastily and overly passionately behind their backs, “how desperate is she?”
“Bloody lunatic,” Nick joins in, “you did the right thing avoiding her, Alex.”
“Could she be any more obvious?” Jamie huffs. “I can’t believe she’s trying to make you jealous after all of this.”
But the hardest blow for Taylor to suffer, Miles realises, will always be the fact that, despite the friendship they’ve had, Alex’s eyes are dull with indifference.
The days drag on painfully slowly. Alex doesn’t adapt too easily as he’s reintroduced to a normal every-day life in school. Most of the time he spends his days following the other lads around blindly, so utterly absorbed in his own thoughts that he pays little or no attention to the world around him. He can no longer concentrate during class. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t participate, he doesn’t talk. He just sits there, staring into empty air, jumping slightly every time someone speaks to him.
Miles tries his best to give him as much space as he needs, though he doesn’t exactly like the idea of leaving Alex to his own devices, either. He and the others have asked him several times, though slightly awkwardly, if Alex feels like talking about it. They keep offering him their help and support in multiple ways, but Alex never seems to want to ask them for anything. He seems slightly embarrassed every time someone makes a fuss over him.
The worst classes for him now appears to be the English classes with Ms. Hayward. Their female teacher is so used to Alex being confident and clever, she can’t help but to prod him and encourage him every now and again, hoping that somehow he’ll grow inspired enough to participate again.
“Let’s talk about Paul Auster’s “City of Glass” for a moment,” Ms. Hayward announces one day, looking her pupils over in hope that someone will offer her a look of interest, “it’s a work that contains a number of postmodern elements, such as the notion of nothingness, anonymity and fragmentation between people and reality. But what else can be said about the work?” When absolutely no one seems to have anything to add to her list, Ms. Hayward chews her lip hesitantly, her eyes darting towards Alex and Miles’s table carefully. “Turner,” she speaks as gently and reassuringly as she possibly can, “can you think of other postmodern elements that we’ve come across in the text?”
Alex blinks suddenly, as though he’s just woken up from a dream. He tenses instantly and recoils at the sensation of being watched by a number of people in the classroom. Miles wants to help, to bring him out of this situation somehow, but there is little he can do except watch.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hayward,” Alex finally admits, “I kinda forgot to read the text.”
Alex doesn’t look mortified, or ashamed. He looks ashen and utterly sick, like this very classroom has forced the soul out of his body. Miles looks ahead and spots Taylor in the front row, sitting next to her boy toy, Dennis. There’s a disgusting grin on her lips as she turns around to watch Alex squirm under everyone’s eyes, and when she whispers something to Dennis in order to make him laugh, Miles wishes he could throw his textbook across the classroom and hit her straight on the nose with it.
After a week’s time, Matt begins to tell Miles and the others that his parents want Alex to see a therapist. He’s not dealing with his trauma very well as he’s refusing to talk about what’s happened. Alex makes his trips to the hospital every other day in order to see his mother, even if there isn’t much to see except from a sleeping woman, who’s a little bit closer to death every day. There is nothing that anyone can do for her, but as long as Alex is still able to see her, he refuses to deal with reality.
“My parents are worried that he’s going to suffer some sort of emotional breakdown if he doesn’t find a way to talk about his feelings soon,” Matt tells them glumly one afternoon when they are stood outside smoking. Alex has been scheduled for a conversation with some of his teachers who are all starting to worry about him, so he isn’t with them this time. “My Mum keeps saying that he isn’t supposed to be this quiet. She would rather that he cried or threw tantrums instead.”
“Fucking hell,” says Nick as he exhales loudly, “it’s getting worse every day. I almost can’t stand to see him like that anymore.”
“I know, but what can we do?” Jamie shrugs. “I don’t want to force him to talk about things if he doesn’t want to. I mean, he’s lost everything, hasn’t he? His Dad, soon his Mum too. He’s even lost his home. No offense to your family, Matt, but he’s just living like a guest in your house at the moment, isn’t he?”
“My Mum insists he isn’t just a guest,” Matt tells him, “she wants to keep him. Make him part of the family, I mean. But that’s not enough to make up for everything he’s lost, I suppose.”
“Does he really not cry?” Miles questions with concern, frowning at everything Matt’s told them. He hates the idea of talking about Alex behind his back, but since Alex isn’t asking anyone for help, it seems that they have to take matters into own hands. “Like, not even at all?”
“Not really,” Matt ponders tentatively, “I mean – I dunno if I’m supposed to tell you this. But every now and again, he has these nightmares. It sounds to me like he’s having dreams about the car crash itself. When he wakes up after that, he’ll cry and panic for a bit. But he always refuses to talk about it.”