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Reminder to the Weary
Evenings were more beautiful in the windows of a hospital, it seemed. The sun set, filling the room with creaky reds and shiny pinks that almost begged Henrik to stay.
He mentally apologized. Staying was not an option - besides, he was sure he’d be sent home soon enough.
Biting back a grimace, the boy wriggled his fingers under the bandages on his arms, trying not to scream in the process. A twisted sense of admiration arose as he stared at the bloody mess before him, queasy yet captivated by the gruesome display. Lovely, he thought. The raw flesh on his arms now matched the pretty light filtering through the curtains.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you.” Interrupting his thoughts was a tall figure that stood in the doorway, slouched and haggard as he gazed at the patient. Henrik flinched at the words, finally opting to leave the bandages alone. His father had arrived.
“I have good news,” began Nolan after an uncomfortable moment's hesitation, “the nurse said you’ll be ready to leave in a week or two.” Years of experience had taught Henrik that his father never liked to waste time. He was a man of efficiency and tirelessly pursued success, expecting the same from his children. “So there’s no doubt you’ll be healthy enough to attend orientation. Isn’t that great?” His feeble attempt at conversation was once more met with silence, prompting Nolan to sigh and take a different route, one he had no doubt would work.
“Annika wants to see you.” Now Henrik sat up. He gingerly placed his arms in front of him, and cracked a smile as she bounded through the door.
Annika was Henrik’s younger sister, a pretty young thing with intelligent eyes and the stubbornness of a mule. For an eleven year-old, she was alright, Henrik decided. Both burdened and blessed with intellect far superior than their peers, they got along splendidly. Between the Arissen siblings, no secret was withheld, and no promise ever broken.
Until the cutting began, that is.
“Henrik! Look what—oops, almost dropped it—I’ve got for you!” Annika wriggled her eyebrows and held out the dented container in her hands. “Daddy and I got you some spaghetti from the canteen before coming up, see?” She swung herself over the side rail and sat on the edge of his bed, beaming.
To please his sister (and to save himself from rebuke for his unappreciation), Henrik reached for the styrofoam box. But as his fingers lifted the flimsy tab, a searing sensation shot through his arm, sending the spaghetti airborne in reaction.
When Annika looked up to tease her older brother, she did not find a cheerful face.
Frustration erupted within Henrik at the sound of cheap tomato sauce splattering across linoleum, staining the once-white surface. He glowered at his empty palms, his breathing heavy as realization struck. Yes, he recognized this feeling.
And he hated it. Very, very much.
“N-no, there's no need to be upset! The spaghetti was probably all icky anyway so it doesn't really ma—”
“Annika—honey—I don’t think that's the problem.”
What was this pain? It wasn't the wounds that hurt so terribly, he knew. No - it was something else, a blade of disappointment that had been cutting him from the inside but manifested on the skin of his arms. Looking at this sister and father watching at him with concern, Henrik’s heart only screamed louder. Only pity, he thought bitterly, remained in this room. Only shame at what their pride and joy had become.
“Are you lonely? Is that it? Henrik, I’ll come visit you more often, I promise!”
“Annika, here. Go wait with your aunt down the hall, sweetie, okay?”
Could things be any more pitiful? Here he was, an honor student bound for Yale, now reduced to a piece of trash too addicted to escaping the pressure of the future to do anything else with his life. It was deplorable. Thinking about it made Henrik’s head hurt and his heart ache so terribly he was afraid it might stop. But it was the tears gathered in his eyes and threatening to spill that caused Henrik to slump backwards in defeat. His father used to call them diamonds, he remembered.
Don't ever drop a diamond, he was told. Don't let ever them show.
When the first gem fell from his firstborn’s tormented green eyes, Nolan could not hold back any longer.
“Henrik!” He crossed the room in a few strides, enveloping his son’s hand in his own as he spoke. “This is enough,” Nolan said helplessly. “Talk to me! You haven't spoken to anyone since when . . . I found you . . . with the knife—and then the blood on your arms . . .” He could not finish the sentence, afraid to relive the moment once more.
“It doesn't matter, kiddo, the cutting or the past or anything! We’ll help you, and you’ll get better. You can go back home and everything will be how it used to,” he pleaded. “You have such a bright future, Henrik. Don't give it up for what you feel now!”
“‘What I feel now?’” Henrik broke in, sputtering. “I can’t handle this, Dad! I’m through. Done. I’m not strong enough. Look. At. Me!” He lifted his arms to his father. “I . . . ruined myself because I was afraid of failing and then ended up a failure anyway. I’ve made myself one, Dad. I can’t change that,” he whispered.
Nolan cradled his eldest’s face in his calloused hands, and forced him to meet his eyes. “You are not a failure. Do you hear me? You made a bad decision, but you realize your mistake.”
“So? It’ll always be a part of me. I’ll never be able to escape from it!”
“It will be a part of you. But it is not you as a whole person! You are you because of your past, but it is who you choose to be that is most important.
“Your ambition to become stronger and work hard to better yourself is what you should care about, not your mistakes. Your story - you as a person - is based on who you are today. Who you want to be. Okay, so you went down a bad path. Now grow from it, learn from it! Your story is not one of the past. It is written by who you are today, son! Who you are right now!” he choked. “A person’s life surprises them because each one is a different story. Different people, different chances, different beginnings, all rolled into someone.” Nolan smiled weakly. “Like me. I choose to be a better father to you.”
“Dad—” Henrik’s heart was starting to hurt again, but in the way healing things often do.
“I put too much pressure on you to be perfect. But you are more than that. You’re a man who is capable of great things, and I wanted to be the father who made you into that.
“So now,” said Nolan, squeezing Henrik’s shoulder, “I want to use my past to help make better who I am today. My story will be better than ever before.”
Henrik genuinely smiled, something he had missed doing in a long while. “Thanks, Dad.”
Nolan’s features shifted into a coy grin. “Now, you have to promise to stop being all gloomy. We’ll work together to change ourselves for the better.”
“I promise. And I mean that.”
“Good. Now that you’ve made me into a mess, we should probably let Annika know everything’s alright. Maybe she’s boring Mel to death about black holes and the cosmos again . . .”
In spite of himself, Henrik laughed out loud, spilling the last of his tears into his lap. “She’s remarkable, you know.”
He grinned back. “You both are. But she’s still a child, and no level of book smarts is going to prepare her for what we know now. One day you might have this same conversation with her. You ready for that?”
Henrik had never been one to back down from a challenge. “Of course,” he bravely asserted, staring back into his father’s gaze. “It’s a part of my story.”
This is my son, Nolan thought. This is the kid I’ve missed so much.
“Daddy, I’ve brought Aunt Mel ‘cause I couldn’t wait any long—hey! Henrik! Are you smiling? You are! Wait, how—why—is that still spaghetti on the floor?”
Henrik lifted a hand in greeting. “Hey Annika, do you mind grabbing some food again? Get some for yourself, too. We have a lot to talk about.”