Grandfather spent a couple more hours with me before taking me back through the shadows to his car, which we took back to the parking garage before he returned me to the guest house. He would have to spend a few days with his newest baby and her mother before he could meet with me for more training, but he was determined to spend more time with me.
I fell asleep easily that night. I wouldn’t have stayed up that late if it hadn’t been for Grandfather– that is, unless Justin had needed me. The next morning got off to a slow start, and I needed more coffee than usual to get the day started. I got out of the shower to see a missed call from Justin’s aunt’s house and called him back while I was getting dressed.
“Blackthorne?” Justin’s voice asked; he’d picked up the call almost instantly.
“Hi, Little Moon,” I said, filling my voice with affection.
“I’m so glad you called back,” he said. I couldn’t help but notice that he sounded stuffy, and that he’d sniffled a few times.
“What’s wrong, Little Moon?” I asked as I looked for the pants I wanted to wear that day.
Another sniffle. “My mom yelled at me because I wouldn’t wake up when Aunt Julia told me to.”
“Are you not getting enough sleep? You’re going to get sick if you don’t rest.”
“I told them,” he said in a shaky voice. “They don’t get why I’m tired all the time.”
“Do you have somewhere to be? I asked. “If you don’t, they should just let you rest.”
“Aunt Julia says I’m not allowed to be lazy. I have to get up when her kids are getting ready for school even if I don’t feel good.”
I shook my head and sighed. “You’re still healing, Little Moon. Besides, boys your age need extra rest to grow. Can you…” I maneuvered around to get my undershirt on. “Can you get up for breakfast and take a nap when the dishes are done?”
“I dunno… They said if I was asleep when Aunt Julia got back from taking the kids to school, I’d have extra chores. I don’t have any energy as it is!”
“I’m not keeping you from anything right now, am I?” I pulled on a short-sleeved button-down shirt and took a long drink of coffee before sitting down to start on my boots.
It took him a few extra moments to answer. “I’m supposed to finish eating and then start the dishes.”
“Are you not hungry?”
“Kinda… but oatmeal is gross, and the scrambled eggs are all crumbly. She said she was gonna check the trash to make sure I don’t throw it away, and that I’d clog the garbage disposal if I put it in the sink.”
I could easily have called her bluff and told him how he could dispose of the food without getting caught, but I also wanted him to eat; it might make him feel less exhausted. I ended up talking him through adding a little cheese to the eggs to make them more edible, and he found some cream and blueberries to add to his oatmeal. When he mentioned that he’d finished off the remains of a couple slices of ham from the plates his cousins had left, I almost pointed out that it was unfair that others could leave their plates unfinished when he couldn’t– but I wanted him to eat as much as he could, so I didn’t bother.
“Blackthorne…?” he asked as he finished his food.
I grabbed the last few things I needed and headed out to start my drive to work. “What is it, Little Moon?”
“My mom got my new medicaid card the other day. She’s going to take me to see a doctor when she gets off work.”
“I know you don’t like that idea,” I said, “but maybe they can help you.”
“I don’t want to go,” he whimpered.
“What kind of doctor is it, Little Moon?”
“She didn’t say. She just told me I better not argue with her.”
“I see… I’m sorry, Little Moon. I can’t make her not take you, but I can be there for you when it’s over. Will you try to let them help you?”
He whined a little.
“For me? I don’t know enough about medicine to do what they can.”
“Okay,” he sighed. I knew he felt resigned, but it was for the best.
“Are you home alone right now?”
“Yeah… I’m not supposed to be on the phone, but I needed to hear your voice.”
“I’m glad I could be there for you. Are you okay alone until your aunt gets back? Should I come sit with you?”
“I’m okay,” he said, though he hardly sounded like it. “I better go.
“Just call me again if you need me, Little Moon. I’ll come see you after work and your appointment.”
“Yeah… I love you, Blackthorne,” he sniffled.
“I love you, too, Little Moon.”
I was most of the way to work when I got off the phone. Hearing him so defeated, tired, and sad weighed heavily on my own heart. It was tempting to just tell David that Justin needed me and take the day off from work. I could get all of his chores done while he slept, then help him with his homework. But I knew better; they’d know he was on the phone, and they’d be upset that I was interfering.
“Lisa called you here to keep Justin company,” Julia had told me when she’d pulled me aside the other night, “not to take over. He has to be able to stand on his own two feet.”
I’d wanted to remind her that no man is an island, and that if babies and the wounded could get help, so could Justin. It was getting harder and harder to not speak my mind to them.
I ended up calming down and spending the day focused on helping David fix computers and letting him tutor me in fixing small appliances. The skills he shared would come in handy when I started college and got a part-time job, so I really appreciated my time working with him.
At lunchtime, I checked my phone and saw no missed called or messages from Justin, so I hoped that meant he was getting some of his assignments done. After work, there was still nothing. I told myself that this was to be expected, since he didn’t have his own phone, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he could have texted me from his mother’s phone while she was driving him to his appointment. The strange feeling still hadn’t left me when I came out of a convenience store with snacks, so I made myself call his aunt’s house.
“Hello?” one of his younger cousins answered.
“Hi, this is Emory, Justin’s friend. Is he able to come to the phone?” His aunt made a big deal about manners, and she seemed to appreciate me setting a good example for her children.
“No, he went to the hospital.” Short answers, so like a little kid.
“Okay, I heard he had an appointment today. Do you happen to know when he’ll be back?”
“I don’t know. He was sleeping when they left.”
Sleeping? This didn’t sound right.
“O-okay… ummmm… is your mother there? May I speak to her?
“She’s helping with homework.”
“Jacob?” a female voice called from further off. “Jacob, who’s on the phone?”
“It’s Justin’s friend,” the little boy told her. “My mom was asking who was calling, so I told her.” This had to be the youngest one, the way he was talking.
There was some talking in the back ground, then some shuffling, and then Julia’s voice. “Emory is that you?” She sounded rushed and worried. She shooed her little boy out of the room.
“Yes, Mrs. Carlton,” I replied, hoping my manners would get me more information. “I’m sorry to interrupt, b–“
“Emory, Justin was taken to the hospital.” I could hear her walking, and assumed she was trying to find a private place to talk. “He fainted while I was taking the kids to school. I found him on the kitchen floor, sink still running and a broken plate right next to him.”
My heart was racing. It happened just minutes after I got off the phone with him, maybe even while I was still deciding whether to go to work that day. “I…” I could hardly catch my breath to speak. “He… was he hurt?”
“From the glass? Just a scratch. But he was too weak to even get up. I called an ambulance to make sure he’d make it to the hospital. His mother is there with him now.”
“Oh…” I swallowed hard. He said he’d eaten while we were on the phone; how had he fainted? My mind was racing. “I– I… umm… th-thank you for telling me, Mrs. Carlton.”
“You should go there,” she told me. “I don’t know if Lisa will answer her phone for you; she hasn’t for me, but she’s probably busy being there for him. It’s the West Park Hospital, over on Sheridan Avenue. It’s not that big, but you should be able to find it.”
“I’m sure I’ve driven past it a few times,” I replied. “I… Thank you again.”
“You’re his best friend,” she replied. “I don’t know if he’s even awake yet, but he’ll probably be asking for you if– when he does.”
I pushed down the frustration I felt about her saying ‘if;’ I told myself that she was just as upset and worried as I was, and she’d corrected herself. I was already in the car and heading onto the road when I finished up the call with Julia. I immediately called Justin’s mother.
“Emory!” Lisa cried when she finally picked up. She sounded even more sniffly than Justin had earlier. “Oh my god, Emory, I’m so sorry I didn’t call you sooner! I’ve been at the hospital for hours and– Shoot, I’m sorry, you must be freaking out at the mention of hospitals.”
“I just got off the phone with your sister,” I told her, trying to sound calm even though I could hear my voice trembling. “She said Justin passed out…”
“He fainted,” she said, her distress starting to overwhelm her all over again. “Emory, he’s as light as a feather– oh, my sweet little boy…”
“It’s okay, Ms. Anderson, you don’t have to try telling me everything over the phone,” I assured her. “Can I come down there? Are you in the emergency room?”
“No,” she replied, on the verge of bursting into tears. “He was admitted… he just got moved to his own room.”
She managed to tell me the room number, and I promised to be there soon. I was parked in front of the hospital in less than ten minutes. I asked several staff and nurses for directions on the way; I didn’t want to get lost for even a second. Once I got to the door, I took a few steadying breaths before knocking gently. Lisa opened the door after a short delay.
“Emory!” she sobbed, clinging to me immediately, “Oh Emory, thank you for coming.”
She was shaking, and her face was streaked with tears. Her nose was running, and when we walked further into the room, I handed her some tissues and washed my hands.
When I turned around to look at Justin, I nearly fell apart like she had. Stripped down to nothing but a hospital gown and a thin blanket, he looked like a child– not a young man on the verge of turning eighteen. What was it about the hospital bed that made him look so skeletal and tiny? He already had an IV line placed– he really hated those, and I knew he’d be upset when he woke up and saw it– but it looked like he was only being given fluids so far.
Ms. Anderson had me sit in the chair beside Justin’s bed. He was sound asleep, breathing steadily, as peaceful as a baby. I caressed his cheek and pushed his hair out of his face, then took his hand.
“I’m here, Little Moon,” I told him softly. I paused to kiss his fingers– and also because my heart ached to see him like this. “I’m here.”
I caressed the back of is hand and his forearm. His palm, right near his thumb, had a half-dozen stitches in it, covered by a protective bandage; the gash underneath was deep red.
“Has he woken up at all since he was brought here?” I croaked.
She shook her head. “He slept right through the IV and stitches,” she murmured, struggling to keep from sobbing. “Even with all the nurses coming to draw blood, and the move up here, he’s been sound asleep. I had no idea he was this exhausted. I’ve been pushing him so hard, Emory… I feel like I just made things worse.”
I squeezed her hand. “You can’t beat yourself up over this.”
I didn’t know what else to say; she had done what she’d thought she was supposed to do as a parent. I’d never wanted her to make Justin move, and both my family and Killian’s would have taken him in so that he could finish high school among people he knew, but ultimately that was a personal decision. She wasn’t hurting him directly, and she wasn’t bringing people around who were purposely harming him. Even with his aunt being so strict, did they realize how much that hurt him?
We talked for a few minutes more before a doctor came into the room.
“Ms. Anderson? You’re Justin’s mother?”
She nodded. “Y-yes.”
The doctor looked over at me. “And this is who, a brother?”
“A friend,” I corrected, gently.
“Okay, sure,” the doctor said, looking over his paperwork. “Ms. Anderson, I’m Doctor Klein, a pediatrician here at West Park Hospital. We have quite a few things to discuss about Justin…” He looked over at me.
Ms. Anderson realized the doctor was wondering whether he should kick me out. “Oh– it’s fine, Emory can stay. The boys practically grew up together; I’m not going to separate them now. But you said you’re a pediatrician?”
“Yes, ma’am” Dr. Klein said. He pulled a chair from the other side of the room so that Ms. Anderson could sit own. “The patient is under eighteen, so he’s in pediatrics. I saw in his chart that his birthday is coming up, but… well, let me just get started.”
Ms. Anderson nodded, and he launched into his explanations. “So Justin came into the ER after fainting this morning. Has he woken up at all since then?” She shook her head, and he went on. “He was treated for a laceration that occurred when he fell. He might need a tetanus booster shot, but we’ll get to that in a bit.”
He turned the page in his file and went on. “His weight when he came in was eighty-nine pounds, nine ounces; with a height of five foot four inches, he is severely underweight. and It looks like the ER did an initial blood panel… Iron is low, vitamin C is low… vitamin D is low…” He shook his head as he went down the list. “The numbers on his metabolic panel would be too low even for a twelve-year-old, and his blood panel shows severe anemia.”
Justin’s mother watched the doctor nervously.
“Ms. Anderson, has your son had any major loss of blood recently? Any self-harming?”
“I… I…” she gasped, struggling to answer his questions.
“He’s never cut himself,” I answered for her. “He’s had accidents and the usual stuff boys get from rough-housing. If anything, it’s the bullying that’s the real problem.”
“Is he having trouble in school?” the doctor asked, pointedly looking at Ms. Anderson.
“There was a fight…” she murmured.
“Justin was attacked a few weeks ago,” I clarified. “Three against one. He barely managed to get them off of him and escape.”
The doctor added notes about the attack to Justin’s chart, asking questions as he went along, including the name of the urgent care where he was seen. Then he moved on to a few other questions before asking, “What does he typically eat in a day?”
“Not much,” Ms. Anderson admitted. “We… I don’t make very much money, so our meals have always been humble. He likes breakfast cereal, sometimes eggs and toast. When he’s in school, he’ll eat what they have there.” She looked to me for more information.
“He’ll eat, but he doesn’t clear his plate,” I said. “His other friends and I encourage him as much as we can, and that helps. He actually ate really well over the weekend. We had a sleep-over,” I added when the doctor gave me a curious look.
“What does he like? Is he picky?”
“His favorite is spaghetti,” Ms. Anderson said. “He’s had to eat what we can get, so there’s not much he’ll completely refuse to eat. It’s more that he doesn’t eat much of it.”
They talked a little more about his eating habits before the doctor concluded, “It sounds like he eats a variety of foods, but even with the lesser amounts, these test results are extremely low. What about purging? Does he throw up often?”
She gave him a terrified look. “N… He… Justin doesn’t…” She looked to me. “He doesn’t eat much, and sometimes he’ll try refusing to eat, but, he never…”
I shook my head. “Not at all. No suspicious bathroom trips, no weird stomach aches. He never so much as talked about purging.”
The doctor wrote a couple more lines in the file. “Is there always someone with him every minute of the day?”
“What? No…” Ms. Anderson said. “He’s seventeen. He can be home alone if he doesn’t want to go out, or I’m working. Sometimes he’s with his friends, but he likes his quiet time, too.”
“Even at school, he’s not watched like a hawk. Not many students are, really. People come and go from the bathrooms all the time– at the school, at the mall, restaurants, wherever. I’d say there were times when he was one of several in the restroom, and times when he was alone.”
More nodding and writing. “The reason I ask is that several of us have noticed some inflammation in his throat, most likely from repeated vomiting.”
“What? You think… you think Justin…” She shook her head. “No, my baby isn’t anorexic.
“I’m not saying it’s a diagnosis,” the doctor clarified. “We need to talk to him first, get some more information. If that is the case, he’s been hiding it exceptionally well.”
Ms. Anderson nodded and wiped away more tears. I gave her the tissue box.
“What if… Can I ask, is it possible that more damage was done when he was attacked than the clinic found?”
“We’ll get his records from the urgent care and determine whether he needs more scans.” The doctor flipped through a few more pages. “They didn’t run an STD panel yet… is he sexually active?”
“He… He was… before we moved.” Ms. Anderson looked to me, as though I might change that answer.
“The last time he was with anyone was the night before he left Portland,” I told her, avoiding the doctor’s gaze, “when he said good-bye to Killian.”
“That’s who he had sex with?” the doctor asked. “That sounds like a boy’s name.”
“I-it is,” she confirmed. “My son is very self-aware; he’s known that he only wants to date boys ever since… I think before puberty. That’s why he was attacked, too; the other kids at the school are so hateful.”
“Okay,” the doctor replied. “I’ll double check that the STD panel was ordered.”
“But… He was checked when he started going out with Killian,” I protested. “Everything came back negative. And Killian was a virgin– actually, he got checked, too, just so they could go to the clinic together. They’ve been faithful to each–”
“It’s important to be sure, the doctor told me; he did not sound like he was willing to budge on the issue. “I can have tests ordered for both of you, if you want to be checked. There are other ways to get some of the diseases the test covered.”
I did not like this doctor. I did not like how he insisted on the STD panel when he learn Justin was gay. I did not like the look he gave Ms. Anderson, as though she had a bad reputation, and I didn’t like how his eyes had scanned me. Did he think I’d slept with Justin, that I was lying about something? Was he assuming I was gay, too? Well he’d be wrong; I’m bisexual– no, pansexual, but that wasn’t the point. I could have coerced him into canceling the tests and apologizing, but it had been so long since our last ones that he was sort of right.
“The plan so far is to treat his malnourishment,” the doctor said, finally moving on. “We’ll get some infusions added to his IV and I’ll write up a plan for getting his levels up to par.”
Justin’s mother nodded. “Do you know… How long will it be before he wakes up?”
Dr. Klein pursed his lips and looked over at Justin. “Hard to say. He’s basically starving, and probably sleep-deprived. He’ll need intensive monitoring as we give him intravenous nutrients and fluids. Hopefully by the end of the day he’ll have had enough rest and nourishment to wake up.”