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CHAPTER 24 ~ FAMILY
I could never work in a hospital. The thought randomly popped into Gunther's head as he followed Dr Hoffman down several long, winding corridors; each one painted white and dotted with impersonal grey doors. I'd get completely lost in the first ten min--
"Here we are." The doctor stopped in front of him, near a set of double doors. Through the glass, Gunther could see a break in the uniform whiteness in the room beyond, but it wasn't much better. That room was painted in the nauseating shade of green beloved of waiting rooms everywhere, and he felt his stomach lurch.
"I'll call the nurse out and leave you and your son alone," the doctor was saying, "but I must ask one thing of you. Your son is not allowed to see his mother. This may seem cruel, but in her mental state she cannot have children around her, especially her own. Your son will ask, of course, but I'm afraid you'll have to deny his request."
He fixed Gunther with a kind, but sad smile, and added softly, "You'll have to be both father and mother to him now, Mr Goth. If you need the nurse to come back in, there is a small bell-push by the door."
"Thank you," Gunther murmured, nodding briefly and squaring his shoulders. One deep breath, then he turned and pushed the doors open.
Inside, the young nurse who was sitting cross-legged on the floor looked up. Dr Hoffman was obviously gesturing behind Gunther for her to leave, because she gave him a smile and unfolded herself, leaving the room with a soft, brief touch to Gunther's wrist.
And then he was left alone with his son and a sinking feeling of absolute guilt.
"Mort?" he said, and even his throat betrayed him, as hoarse as that sounded.
Oh god, when did my little boy grow up? Have I missed that much of his life?
"It... it's Dad."
"Oh, is it?" Mortimer wouldn't even look at him, hunched over as he was, picking at the edge of the rug under him. "Didn't know I still had one."
The knife twisted deeper. Yeah, you deserved that, Gunther.
"Son, I'm sorry--" he began to say as he crouched down, but suddenly Mortimer looked up.
"For what? Packing me off to school? Not saying goodbye? Leaving me there on my own? Never letting me come home between terms? Never even sending me a birthday card?"
Gunther bit his lip. "Yes," he murmured. "For all those, and for not being there when you needed me. It was your mother who packed you off to school, son. I was... away on business. I should have been home. I would have stopped her from sending you there."
"So why didn't you bring me home when you got back from business?" Mortimer's hurt stare was almost more than he could stand.
"Because..." Because your mother was so controlling that I put myself before you, put my own happiness and pleasure before that of my own son. How in hell can I tell him that?!
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "We need to talk... about me and Mum. I... There... It..." He sighed. FUCK.
At his helplessness, Mortimer seemed to relent a bit. Gunther knew Mort had never seen his dad this lost for words. Dad was always the strong one. It didn't matter if his own life was falling apart, he was there for his son; the safe harbour when the storm arrived. Only, the storm had arrived, and the harbour had been closed.
"They won't let me see her." Mortimer still looked angry, but his voice was small and lost.
"She's very ill right now." Gunther swallowed. "I'm sorry. I've not been there for you like I should have been, and I want to make that right. I'll pull you out of that school, if you want me to, and we'll find someplace to live, and--"
"Why can't we just go home?"
Oh god. He doesn't even know about the fire?
Gunther steeled himself. "Right now we don't have a home. Well, we do, but it's not safe. There was a fire. We'll have to find another home, for now, until it can be made safe and the damaged parts rebuilt."
Mortimer got to his feet, and only now could Gunther see just how much he'd grown. The last time Gunther had seen him, Mort was just a wee strip of a lad; now he was shooting up like a beanpole, all angles and unruly black hair.
"What about my room?" Mortimer whispered. "And my teddy bear?" And then, he paled even more and his voice rose in panic. "Mum? Was Mum burned in the fire? Is that why they won't let me see her?!"
"No, she wasn't hurt in the fire," Gunther reassured him. "I think she breathed in a bit of smoke, but she wasn't burned. Your room's still there, and I'm sure that Teddy is fine, if maybe smelling of smoke a bit. I'll get someone to go in and find him for you." He could barely speak past the knot in his throat, so he stopped trying and held out his arms instead.
"Don't send me away again!" Mortimer was in them in a moment, clinging like the child that he still was under his newfound height and hormones. "I don't want to go back to that horrible school!"
"I won't. I promise." Tears rolled down Gunther's cheeks as he held his son tightly, and he just let them fall. Nothing would force him to let go of his boy at that moment. "I love you. We'll find a nice place to live, and you can stay home for a bit, okay? Just while we get settled. And then we'll get you enrolled into the school right here, where all your old friends are."
"Do I have to go back to school at all?" It was muffled and rather pathetic against his shoulder, but it made Gunther smile through his tears.
"I'm afraid so. But the holidays are coming up, so there'll probably be some snow days and then we'll have the best Snowflake Day ever, together."
"It won't be the best ever if Mum's not there."
"I know, but we'll do our best not to be sad, for her sake. Deal?"
Mortimer nodded, sniffing and rubbing a hand across his nose. "Deal." He pulled away - only slightly - and looked up at Gunther. "What's wrong with Mum? Why won't they let me see her? Have you seen her?"
"Let's sit down." Guiding his son to the chairs, Gunther sat down and waited while Mortimer curled up beside him.
"I've seen her, but only very briefly. She's very sick, but she's not in any danger." He took a breath, wondering just how much he could tell Mortimer, and how he should word it.
In the end, Mort took it upon himself to remind his father: "I'm not a kid, Dad. Just tell me."
Oh, you're my son all right...
"Mum's... got some psychiatric problems. You know what those are?"
"I'm not stupid, either." Mortimer rolled his eyes. "Mental stuff, yeah?"
Gunther cringed a little inside. "Yes, but we don't call it that. The doctors here don't know what caused it. Maybe it was the trauma of the fire, but they think she's had those problems for years, maybe even since before you were born, and they've just got a lot worse now."
There was silence while Mortimer digested that. Then, in one of those amazingly prescient and adult moments that young teens are so capable of, he asked quietly, "You think that's why she sent me away? Because she was going mad?"
"Maybe. We kept it from you, but there had been a few... other problems before then, too. Mum and I haven't been happy together for some time, but I still love you, and I know that - under all of the problems she has right now - Mum still loves you, too."
Another silence. Gunther knew what was coming next, and he was grateful for that foresight. It allowed him time to brace himself to give the answer.
"Are you and Mum gonna get a divorce?" Mortimer whispered.
Gunther held out his hand, and a smaller one slipped into it. He closed his palm around it, holding it tightly. "I think so, yes," he said gently. "But it's not your fault, okay? We both still love you. We just... don't love each other as much as we once did."
"Is it because of that woman I saw you kissing that night? The one before Mum sent me off to school?"
"Oh god, son. No, not because of her. You don't know who that was?"
Mortimer shook his head.
"That was Lolita, and she's one of the ghosts we have in the family. Can you remember Grandma Gretle sometimes reading you bedtime stories when you were small? She was a ghost, too."
"I remember Grandma, but I don't remember Lolita," Mortimer said. "I've seen all our ghosts, but I never saw her. Her grave's the only one with flowers on it, though; I do know that. Why is that? Who put them there and looks after them? I always wondered..."
"I did," Gunther said softly. "I was married once, before I met your mum. Lolita was my first wife."
"What happened to her?"
Gunther swallowed. He'd relived, over and over, the moment when he'd come home and found her fragile, doll-like body slumped by the sparking television set. Now he owed it to Mortimer to relive it one more time.
"She was electrocuted. The TV had shorted out, and she'd tried to fix it. I came home from work... and found her dead on the living room floor. We'd only been married for a few months."
Now it was Mortimer's turn to squeeze his father's hand. "I always wondered why you never let me have a stereo, or a TV in my bedroom," he whispered.
"I couldn't bear it to happen again to someone that I loved. I'm sorry. I know the kids at school laughed at you and teased you for it. But I did it out of love."
"I didn't mind. They might have had TVs, but I could beat 'em at chess like nobody's business, so it's okay."
Gunther choked down a mirthless laugh, wiping away another tear with his free hand. And then:
"So, do you have a girlfriend?" Mortimer asked. "I guess she'd be a mistress or something?"
"No. No girlfriend." Gunther smiled. "Or mistress." His eyes narrowed. "Why? Have people been gossiping?"
Mortimer shrugged. "No. Just some of the other kids at school telling me my dad's probably too busy with some fancy-woman to come and see me."
I'd like to tan the arse of every goddamn kid who ever said that to him. Even though it's almost true.
"What about a boyfriend?"
His silence was clearly long enough to confirm it. "You've got a boyfriend, haven't you?" Mortimer asked. "How can you be gay, if you're married?"
Oh god, we don't have to have this talk here and now, do we? I guess we do.
"I'm not gay, but yes, I'm seeing a man. I've always been attracted to both men and women. It's called 'bisexual'. I just happened to fall in love with, and marry, two women."
"Were you seeing him before you and Mum had problems?"
Ahh, now we get to the heart of the matter. "No, long afterwards, when I knew our marriage couldn't be saved. He was there for me when things got really bad."
"Did things get really bad? What's his name? Is he going to live with us?"
Gunther smiled. "One at a time! Yes, things did get really bad. His name is Valois. And, as to whether he'll live with us, I honestly don't know. He has a house of his own in Sunset Valley, but he'll call 'round and he might stay over. Are you okay with that?"
"It's either that or you go over to his place, and I'd rather have you at home. Do you... y'know... do it? Which one of you, um...?"
Gunther's jaw dropped. "I am not having this talk with my own son right now!"
"Yeah. You do it. I just don't wanna hear it, y'know? I mean - ugh! - you're my Dad!"
Gunther shook his head, laughing. "Sad facts of life, part eleventy-billion: Parents sometimes 'do it', son. That's how kids who ask questions that they won't like the answers to are made."
"Ew." Mortimer sighed. "I'm really tired. They woke me up early to tell me Mum was ill. Can we go home now?"
"No home to go to," Gunther reminded him. "We won't be disturbed here, though. The doctor promised. Get your head down. I'll find us someplace to live later today."
Mortimer wriggled around on the couch until his head was in Gunther's lap. "Love you," he mumbled, his eyes already drowsing.
"I love you too, son. Things will get better from now on. I promise."