On Sunday I texted Hannah to see if she was ok, but received no answer. Olivia, Henry and Jean could not reach her either, so on Monday we decided to meet at the school gates half an hour earlier to make sure that, if Hannah did come to school, we would be able to spot her and ask about her birthday before classes started.
We saw her fifteen minutes later. She was walking alone, observing the conglomerate of nearly-identical two-floored houses that made up the scenery of the main road to school. She seemed distracted, her usual scowl replaced by a contemplative expression that did not fit her in the slightest. We exchanged worried glances and decided Jean was to talk to her first, in case she did not react well to our meddling in her life.
“Hey, Hannah, how’re you doing?” he asked, cheerfully jumping on her and clinging to her arm.
“Not bad, actually.” She answered, turning to look at him, though her eyes still seemed distant. Jean’s eyes narrowed strangely.
“You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“Of course not!” She laughed, patting Jean on the shoulder. Judging by Olivia and Henry’s reaction, they were just as freaked out as I was about her sudden change in mannerisms.
“Cocaine then? Heroine?” Jean insisted, studying her carefully.
“Nope. No drugs. None at all.” Her smile was bright and shiny. Ironically, a happy Hannah was proving to be just as (or maybe even more) scary as a serious Hannah.
“Then what?” He asked, raising his eyebrows and lifting the corners of his lips just a little.
“I’ve got the best foster parents ever. That’s what.” And her smiled seemed to take up her whole face. Upon hearing the good news, we ran up to them, and Henry and Olivia hugged Hannah at the same time. I did not join them, unsure if I was intimate enough for such displays of affection. There were lots of shouting and squealing until they calmed down enough to speak properly.
“Why didn’t you tell us sooner? We were desperate to find you yesterday!” Olivia exclaimed, taking Hannah’s other arm in hers to resume the walk to school.
“I was too busy, and then I was too tired” she explained. “My foster parents woke me up early to wish me a happy birthday, then we went for a walk in the park, and we had lunch in a posh restaurant, and I couldn’t really enjoy any of it because I kept expecting them to tell me to pack my things as soon as we got home… and then we got home and they told me to pack, like I thought they would…” her eyes became unfocused again as her story unfolded. “and I was going up the stairs and my foster brother came up to me and told me I should pack absolutely everything, because I was going to move… I was going to move to the new bedroom they had just built on the back garden!” There were more squeals from the four of them, and more group hugs. We reached a bench inside the school grounds and sat there to hear the end of her tale.
“I can’t believe it! They gave you a new bedroom!” Olivia beamed.
“Yeah, I still can’t believe it either. They had been building it for years; it’s a small shack in the back garden, with two bedrooms and a toilet and a window on the roof. My foster sister and I live there now. It was supposed to be my foster parent’s new offices, but they told me they gave up on that when they realised they liked me too much to let me go before I was ready.” I was too far from Hannah to be sure, but when she briefly turned towards me her eyes looked a bit watery. “The new bedroom was my birthday present. They said I can stay for as long as I need to.”
“Wow, that’s amazing!” Henry beamed too. Our group was all smiles and laughs now.
“They will keep you even though they won’t receive money from the government anymore?” Jean asked, sounding impressed. Since we were all distracted being happy for Hannah, he used the opportunity to sit very close to me. “Yeah, that’s not for everyone.”
“They are planning to get another foster child now; that’s who they will give my old room to. They told me money is not a problem and that I can look for a job if I want to, though they would rather make sure I get good grades at school now to get a better job later.”
“Heh, I’m truly impressed now.” Jean’s hand brushed against my ass. Knowing him, it was unlikely to have been by accident. “They lose money and don’t ask you to pay it back? It doesn’t happen very often.” He whistled in appreciation.
“No, it doesn’t. Though of course I will pay them back some day.” Hannah’s eyes shone in almost fanatical determination. Alarm bells rang in my mind, but my friends inched closer to her. “I’ll be rich some day, mark my words. I’ll be rich and powerful and people will fear me!”
For a moment she seemed to be about to let out an evil laughter like those in children’s cartoons, but Olivia spoke before she could, looking at me with the corner of her eye. “People already fear you, Hannah. Just look at Oscar.”
All four of them turned to me then. I was not sure what my face looked like at that moment, but I probably looked as scared as Olivia had suggested, because Hannah raised an eyebrow and looked rather offended as she spoke. “He’s a gullible idiot; there isn’t much merit in making him scared of me.”
I felt I should say something in my defence, but any attempt at producing coherent words was lost when they all burst into laughter. I joined them after a while, thinking it was probably the right thing to do. Jean used this opportunity to get slightly closer to me, letting his arm linger behind my back.
“I think Mr Smith will want to keep you too when you turn sixteen.” Henry said to Jean, noticing the blonde’s new advances and looking worried for a second. Jean stopped laughing, but kept a shadow of a smile in place.
“Edgar will probably chain me to the house when I turn sixteen.” He smirked dangerously. “I don’t think he wants me to get away from him for the rest of my life.” He made a dramatic gesture with his hand, making the girls and I laugh.
“He’s just worried about you.” Henry retorted with a slight scowl, discreetly sliding closer to Jean’s other side.
“Yeah, yeah…” the blonde turned to Hannah again, putting one hand on my back and one on Henry’s. “And since your foster parents are good friends with Edgar, I fear you are heading for the same trap.” He winked at her, making Hannah smile again.
“Well, I surely won’t mind being in that trap.”
The warning bell finally rang, and we made our way to assembly and then to class. When I met Hannah again during morning break, she was back to being the scary, though girl I knew. As much as I felt intimidated by her, I was glad to see her normal self back.
Olivia and I were sitting together at morning break on Tuesday. It was probably the first time since I met the self-proclaimed gay club that we were left on our own outside classes. Jean had dragged Henry and Hannah away for something or other mentioning a camera and the need for a photographer, but I was not really paying attention. I had the feeling I did not want to know the details.
“So, how has life been treating you?” She asked, sitting as she usually did: with her knees bent and serving as support for her head.
“Not bad, I guess. You?”
“I could probably do with a bit more sleep.” she confessed. Olivia did look tired; there were faint purple circles around her eyes. “I haven’t been sleeping much.”
“I don’t know; I just can’t. I keep waking up. I have weird dreams and I can’t sleep afterwards.” Olivia hugged her knees and rocked her body back and fort. She was trying to make it sound like it was no big deal, but it did not come across that way.
“What sort of dreams?” I asked, worried. She was not looking at me anymore and took a long time to answer, thinking carefully about her words.
“There are all those girls, and they are covered in make-up and wearing pretty dresses and they make fun of me because I’m not girly enough.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Sometimes they tell me to get away from them because they don’t want to be near a ‘dyke’. They say they don’t want to catch it.” When her eyes opened again they were filled with water, and when she spoke her voice was slightly higher and shaky. “And when I tell them I’m not gay they tell me I better become one, because the way I am no self-respecting guy will want me.”
“That’s… that’s awful…” I wanted to say something more helpful, but my mind went blank. When we first met she had made it clear she was not into girls even though no one believed her, but she made it sound like it was not too much of a problem. Since then I had heard a few girls making fun of her at school, but she always ignored them. For her to have constant dreams about it, though, it had to be affecting her more than she let on.
“Well, I guess I’m asking for it” she said. Her tone was harsh, spiteful, like she suddenly hated everything about herself. “I haven’t worn a dress since my aunt got married six years ago, and I have absolutely no desire to paint my face and cover it with powder.” She was avoiding looking at me. Her voice became weaker, as if it had to make a great effort to come out. “I sometimes wonder if I should do it anyway, just to shut everyone up.”
“Don’t. Don’t even think about it!” I almost shouted, horrified at the idea. I could not imagine Olivia looking girly, and I could not imagine her being happy while doing so. My outburst made her finally look at me; she seemed surprised. “You look cool already. I like you like this, it’s a nice change from so much girliness everywhere.” I smiled. I wanted her to smile too. She looked better that way.
“Your girlfriend was very girly. I thought you liked girly girls.” Her surprise became mild confusion. She tipped her head a little to take a better look at my face. Being reminded of Wendy was not something I was looking forward to, particularly now that I was finally getting over her and her friends.
“I do, but I guess I like non-girly girls too.” I said simply.
“Are you hitting on me?” Olivia asked suddenly, sitting up straight and looking at me like I had grown an extra head. My face heat up immediately and her face turned all red when she realised what she said. “I’m sorry, I…”
“No, no, it’s ok.” We were both blushing and avoiding each other’s gaze. We probably looked ridiculous to any passer-by who happened to turn to us at this exact moment. “I wasn’t really hitting on you, but…”
An idea suddenly sparked in my mind. Now that I had thought about it, I felt stupid for not thinking of it before.
“Maybe we should get together, you know, like a real couple? If everyone thinks you’re a lesbian and I’m gay, that’s the perfect way of proving them wrong!” I did not think it was possible, but Olivia blushed even more, making her face as red as her hair.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I am.” I grinned from ear to ear, elated by my grand plan. It was perfect. The more I spoke, the more my voice rose in sheer enthusiasm. “It will be great! We can do all sorts of things couples do, and we can be romantic, and sappy, and anything you want us to be! And my parents will be happy I have a girlfriend again and you will finally get to sleep well at night because no one will bother you anymore! We could even have fun!” I grabbed Olivia’s hand, lost for a moment in my own excitement. It probably rubbed off on her, because she was soon smiling too. She jumped on me like Jean had a habit of doing and hugged me tightly.
“Yes, let’s have fun! Let’s laugh on the face of those girly girls who can’t find boyfriends! I can’t wait to see their faces when we tell them!” she got off me and for a while we did not move, looking into each other’s eyes and smiling until our cheeks hurt. She was so happy I couldn’t stop looking at her, and I had a feeling she was thinking the same thing. “Should we kiss now, then?” She asked suddenly, surprising me again.
“Kiss, you know? The sort of thing couples do. It’s just an idea, we don’t need to do it.” She blushed once more and looked away.
“No, of course we can kiss! I was just… not expecting you to ask that, I guess.” I approached her slowly, pulling her into another hug. Olivia froze when our heads came with an inch from each other, though. “What’s the matter? You ok?”
“I don’t really know what to do. I’ve never kissed someone before” she was as red as her hair again. Now that I was so close to her, I realised she looked quite cute that way.
“Then let me teach you how it’s done. Not that I have a lot of experience, mind you.” The five times I had kisses Wendy were bound to count for something, though.
“If you suck, there is no way I’m going to know.”
“True that.” I laughed and managed to make her smile too. “Here goes nothing.” Our lips finally met, and then our tongues did too. Olivia tasted like hot chocolate. Our first kiss was as awkward as I remembered kisses being, so all in all, I did not think it was too bad. Olivia did not seem too disappointed either.
Until the bell rang Olivia sat comfortably in my lap and we held hands and smiled at each other and I played with her hair a little. Before that I had not realised how much I missed cuddling (Jean’s attempts at making out with me could not count as “cuddling”, as they consisted solely of kisses and inappropriate touches until one or both parties could no longer breathe), and how good it felt to be this close to someone again.
The good feeling did not last that long, though. Olivia and I walked hand in hand to Geography after the break and sat together. We told Henry the news, and everyone in the classroom inevitably heard it too. So obviously by the time lunch break came the whole school had already been informed. Everywhere we went people whispered behind our backs about how the “fag” and the “dyke” were trying to fool everyone. And as if this was not enough, when we sat at our usual lunch table Hannah looked ready to murder someone (or rather, ready to murder a certain newly-formed couple).
“What have you done?” she asked as soon as we tried to sit down. Jean and Henry were already there, the blond looking like he was having far too much fun, while the brunet wore a mournful look and avoided facing us. “You can’t do that to us!”
“Well, I always said I wasn’t a lesbian. It’s not my fault if you hadn’t believed it before.” Olivia answered, crossing her arms in front of her chest and looking as threatening as she could. I did not expect her to stand up to Hannah that way, so I did not say anything.
“I never said I didn’t.” Hannah copied Olivia’s posture. Since she was considerably taller and intimidating scows seemed to be the default option in her face, she was much more successful at intimidating innocent bystanders. Olivia did not back down, though. “What I’m saying is that what you did is unacceptable.”
“Because I’m sure the only reason you and Oscar got together was because he’s afraid to admit he’s gay.”
“He’s not gay.” Olivia jumped in my defence before I could even think of a reply. “We are together because he likes girls and I like guys.”
“My point exactly.” Hannah frowned. Jean, sitting beside her, popped his elbows on the table and put his head on his hands, smiling widely. He was so entertained by the girls’ argument that he did not even bother to do something sneakily inappropriate to Henry, who was sitting very close to him on his other side. “You two are desperate to fit into the straight life-style again! You are turning your back to us! This is treason!”
“That’s not true!” Olivia exclaimed, losing her cool pose. She almost screamed her next sentence. “We’re not betraying you, we’re just trying to show people who we really are!”
“And you’re doing that by denying you belong here!” Hannah replied in the same tone.
“What if we don’t belong?” Olivia’s face turned completely red. Even she realised she had gone too far when Jean stopped smiling and Henry covered his mouth with one hand in shock. Olivia’s head dropped and she spoke almost in a whisper. “No, I didn’t mean…”
“Too late. If you don’t want to hang out with us, then don’t. No one is forcing you to.”
“I didn’t say that! You guys are my friends!” Olivia looked from Hannah to Jean and Henry, but even the blond did not meet her eyes.
“Maybe you want to reconsider that. I certainly don’t want to be friends with a homophobe.”
“Wow, wait a minute!” Henry unexpectedly interrupted, looking as shocked as we were for having done so. “That’s a serious accusation.” He looked down, not willing to face anyone as his face reddened considerably, probably because he was ashamed of having interfered in the argument.
“Well, it’s a true one. It’s internalised homophobia, but it’s still homophobia.” Hannah replied, looking at him now. “The only reason someone would make so much effort to be straight is if they think being gay is wrong.” She turned to us again. “If you didn’t think it was wrong, you wouldn’t care about people’s guesses at who you really like.”
“It’s not the only reason!” I protested. Beside me Olivia was looking at the ground, trying to turn her body away from Hannah. Her hands squeezed my arm tightly.
“What’s your reason, then?” Hannah asked, crossing her arms over her chest again. Even though she was shorter, at that moment she seemed to tower over me.
“Well…” I forced my brain to think fast. If I told them about my father, I risked letting them know about what happened after I was suspended from school. If I lied, I risked losing the friendship of the only people who had supported me over this whole mess. I also risked making Olivia losing the only friends she ever had, as far as I knew. I looked at her, still averting her eyes from everybody and trying to hide behind me, and I figured there was not really much of a choice in that matter. “My father doesn’t like gay people much. It’s hard to live with him if he thinks I’m gay. It’s worse than being at school.”
“Oh.” Henry’s mouth dropped slightly as his eyebrows rose. Hannah and Jean did not say anything, but her expression softened slightly.
“And Olivia has been having nightmares about girly girls who say she can’t get a boyfriend because of the way she is.” Olivia looked at me, then. She was not happy that I had shared her story, but did not say anything. I put my arm around her waist in what I hoped was a gesture of reassurance and felt her body relax against it.
“Is that true?” Hannah asked; her expression definitely softer. Her tone was obviously more concerned than angry. Olivia timidly nodded. “I had no idea you were taking it so badly. I thought you didn’t care.”
“I thought so too.” Olivia whispered so quietly I was sure the others could not hear her. “I don’t want to care, but… but it hurts.” She was starting to choke on her words. Soon Hannah, Henry and Jean had crossed the table to be on our side. She hugged Olivia and caressed her hair just as the first tear slid down my girlfriend’s cheek. “I want guys to like me… like I really am… I want… I don’t want to be like the girls!”
“Hush, hush… it’s ok, it’s ok.” It was unsettling to see Hannah putting on such a carrying persona. She sounded very different trying to help her friend.
“I like Olivia the way she is.” I said, hoping now Hannah would see my point. “I’m not sure I’m in love with her, but I definitely think she’s a lot nicer than many of girly girls I know.” Hannah took on my words and stared at me, trying to see whether I was telling the truth.
“You’re trying to help her see she really can find a boyfriend even if she doesn’t like make up?” Jean asked, still keeping a surprising distance from me or Henry. “Like building her self-confidence and all that?”
“Maybe. Maybe I’m just curious to see what it will be like.” I smiled at Olivia. She was not crying anymore, but was still far from cheerful.
“Good luck with that, then.” Hannah said, looking sympathetically at Olivia. Surprised, the red-head looked up to stare at her friend with her eyes wide-opened.
“Are you saying you don’t think they’re betraying us anymore?” Jean asked, approaching Henry from behind. His hand disappeared from my field of vision, and I was almost certain I knew where it was heading.
“I’m not so sure, I’ll have to think about it.” Hannah answered, raising an eyebrow. Her eyes were focusing somewhere to her other side I could not see. “But as long as it makes Olivia feel better about her identity crisis, I guess I can let that pass for the time being.”
“Thanks, Hannah…” Olivia said, following Hannah’s gaze and also raising an eyebrow. I wanted to twist my body and take a look at what Jean was doing that was so interesting, but Olivia had firmly latched onto me and I was stuck.
“Don’t sweat it. As soon as I notice you’re slipping into homophobic territory again, I’m ripping Oscar’s head off.”
“Yeah, why him?” Jean jumped to my side. Henry sighed, somewhat disappointed.
“Because I like Olivia.” Hannah answered. Jean looked at her wide-eyed. “Not that way, you idiot.” The blonde feigned relief.
“Great. I suggest we leave Oscar and Olivia be and get back to our photo project, then!” The blond exclaimed, grabbing Henry and Hannah by hand and leaving no room for argument. “See you guys soon! Or not!”
We could hear his laugh long after he had left the canteen.
The next chapter shouldn't take that long.