Ben wasn’t answering his phone, and while this wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary… it worried me now.
He’d been out of sort for weeks and I’d tried calling him three times. Three times where the phone rang until it switched to voicemail.
When Maria didn’t answer hers either, I was really starting to freak out.
‘Maybe they’re still sleeping,’ Leo said. ‘It’s Easter. If they were out partying last night, they might sleep the day away.’
‘Maria doesn’t ever party,’ I pointed out, though obviously that wasn’t quite true. She did, but never to the extreme Ben could take it. ‘I have to speak to him. He’s been depressed lately.’
Perhaps I never should’ve left.
‘Maybe he’s with that guy,’ Leo suggested. ‘He could’ve forgotten his phone. There are a lot of options to why he’s not answering.’
I knew that rationally, but when he didn’t answer a fourth time, I didn’t feel very rational anymore.
‘Or maybe he’s finally had enough.’ Ever since I first saw his arms when he was sixteen, ever since I promptly got him into therapy… it felt like I’d just been waiting for the day he gave up. Like my sister did, like my brother did years later… it was a thing in our family, suicide, and I didn’t want any of the kids to take that way out. I didn’t want any of them to experience more death than they already had. We only had each other now.
I scrolled through my contacts to ring the one person I could always trust to be there for us.
‘Hello,’ Kristina’s cheerful voice greeted me. ‘How’s your romantic getaways weekend going?’
‘Oh, it’s—fine,’ I said lamely, then hurried to add before she could ask anymore, ‘Look, Kristina. I’m worried about Ben. He’s not answering his phone. Would you mind going over to check on him?’
She was silent for a few seconds on the other end.
My heart beat worriedly as I waited for her answers. Maybe she couldn’t, maybe she had other plans, plans she couldn’t get out of—
‘Jo planned on going over in a little while to talk to Ben,’ she revealed then, voice low. ‘He wasn’t doing so well at work last night.’
‘Jo said he came to work tipsy.’
He’d been drinking before work? Fuck.
Someone said something on Kristina’s end I didn’t catch. She must’ve covered the receiver because I didn’t hear what she answered either.
‘We’re heading over to the house now.’
‘Maybe I should come home.’ I never should’ve left him when I knew he was in one of his depressive episodes.
‘No, Uncle. Don’t you dare. Ben’s a grown-up. You can’t be around all the time.’
‘I’m worried about him.’
‘I know.’ She stressed the last word. ‘But we’re here. You stay right where you are and enjoy your holiday. You deserve it. You’ve always been there for us whenever we needed something. Take some much-needed time off. I’ll deal with Ben. What are you so worried about? He always comes out of these episodes in the end.’
‘What if one day he doesn’t?’ I asked, because that’s what I was afraid of. ‘What if he takes the easy way out? Hanna did, your dad did… I don’t want to add Ben to that too.’
‘Do you really think he would?’ she asked quietly.
I hated bringing up her dad, because I knew he was a sore subject. She’d found him after all, so of course he was. I didn’t want her to find anyone else.
‘Sometimes, yeah,’ I admitted quietly.
A door slammed on her end.
‘We’re on our way.’ She swallowed audibly. It obviously got to her that I thought Ben might become suicidal. ‘I’ll ring you up again when I’m there.’
‘Okay. Good.’ It wouldn’t take them long. Five minutes max by car. ‘We’ll talk more then.’
We hung up and I sunk back down on the sofa I’d abandoned to pace around the living room.
Leo grabbed my hand, squeezing tightly.
‘If you want to go back home, I won’t mind. If you want, I can come with. But if you want alone time with Ben, that’s okay too.’
I tipped sideways to rest my head on his shoulder. ‘You’re great, you know that?’
My phone rang—and I grabbed for it, afraid what Kristina had to say.
It wasn’t her though, but Maria.
‘Can you go downstairs and check if Ben is home?’ I got straight to it without so much as a hello. I was fucking worried and deathly afraid I had good reason to be.
‘Okay,’ she said, sounding a little taken aback.
‘Kristina and Jo are on their way too.’
‘Is something wrong?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. He’s not answering his phone.’
I would have words with him when I came home about that. When I was gone, he better start answering when I called.
‘That’s not exactly news,’ she commented. ‘He never answers his phone.’
‘Just check on him, please.’
‘On my way. I’ll call you back.’
I put my phone down, screen up so I could see who rang next.
Leo still held my hand and he squeezed tight again.
‘He’s never gone to work drunk before,’ I said. ‘Not as far as I know anyway. He’s spiralling.’
‘Both Kristina and Maria are there. They’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.’
I thudded my head against the back of the sofa and closed my eyes. ‘I shouldn’t put that on them.’
Leo didn’t say anything else, and neither did I. There wasn’t much to say until I knew what the situation was like. He kept hold of my hand though, and for that I was grateful.
They kept me waiting a bloody long time and I was debating whether to call them again, when my phone finally bleared to life.
‘Yes?’ I snapped into the receiver, not even sure which of them had rung me up.
‘We’ve got it under control,’ Maria said. ‘Or Kristina has anyway.’
‘Under control?’ I drew in a shaky breath and clung to my phone in one hand and Leo’s hand in the other. ‘Is he okay?’
‘No, he’s not.’
Well, at least she was honest.
‘He’s… depressed. But—’ She hesitated.
‘What?’ Oh no. Had he cut himself? Had he gone back to that bad habit? It was better than some of the alternatives I could come up with, but not by much.
‘He’s been beat up. Pretty badly. By Marcus.’
My blood ran cold and the memory of Andreas’s hysterical voice as he rang me came back, as he brokenly tried to explain what had happened to Alex, and how he was in the A&E, unable to see him because the doctor’s had taken him away.
‘I have to come home.’ I had to be there for him.
‘No,’ she said then, just as firmly as Kristina had earlier. ‘He doesn’t want that. We’ve got it under control. You enjoy your Easter holiday.’
‘How can I enjoy myself when he’s just been assaulted?’
‘We’ve got him, Uncle. He doesn’t want you to come home. Just stay there with Leo.’
I couldn’t. Not now, not with this.
‘He’s been to A&E. He’s fine. He just… looks really bad.’
‘What happened though?’ If Marcus had jumped him like he’d done Andreas and Alex, I would sue his arse so bad…
‘We don’t know yet. He hasn’t said much. We’re calming him down and then we’re spending a quiet night in.’ She cleared her voice. ‘Kristina will phone you later when we know more, okay? You stay put there. That’s an order from all three of us.’
I sighed. I didn’t want to stay put, I wanted to rush home and check on him myself, but… ‘Yes, okay.’
We said our goodbyes and I fell back on the sofa again, closing my eyes.
‘Did you hear everything she said?’ I asked Leo after several minutes of silence. He’d been sitting right next to me and the sound on my phone was on as high as it could be.
‘Yeah, I did.’ He glanced at me. ‘You can go—’
‘They ordered me not to.’ I’d always been there for them. But now they were grown up and able to deal with everything on their own. ‘Is it wrong of me to hate that they’ve all grown up?’
Leo chuckled weakly. ‘They have grown up to be very fine people. All thanks to you, I reckon.’
I snorted. ‘They were fine kids before I took them in.’
‘Well, you helped.’ He bumped me with his shoulder.
Worry still swirled in my gut and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.
‘A walk?’ Leo suggested, apparently having gained the powers to read my mind.
‘Yeah.’ I grabbed my phone and stuffed it in my jacket pocket, ready for whenever Kristina rang. I had no idea when she would. I wasn’t going to risk leaving the phone behind and missing her call though.
Volda was beautiful in winter. Everything was white, from the pavement to the streets to the mountains and the lake. It was freezing cold—but it was good. Fresh. I liked winter, as long as I was properly dressed for it.
‘It’ll be okay.’ Leo gripped my shoulder.
‘I hope so.’ I took a step closer to him.
‘You can’t always be there for them. They’re moving out, spreading their wings.’ He squeezed, but didn’t move his hand away. It was a comforting weight.
‘I know.’ I sighed. ‘I hate it though.’
He didn’t say anything to that, only gave me a small smile. I gave one in return, then focus back on the lake we were walking around.
Yeah, the kids were grown-up, all four of them. And they didn’t need me around to fix every little thing for them anymore. It was kind of… lonely, knowing that. The kids were all I’d known for so many years. For most of my life, actually.
Ben was like my own son, and the other three… They’d always been around too.
It was hard not being the one they leant on anymore. They had their significant others, people who were closer to them now than I were.
And, well, I had my own person to lean on now. I didn’t have to be strong for all of them anymore. I didn’t have to be the grown-up they all looked to.
To hell with it, I thought and wrapped an arm around Leo’s waist. It wasn’t our thing, PDAs, but right now I needed this. I needed him.
And him—being the wonderful man he was—only smiled and wrapped his arm properly around my shoulder.
Kristina rang me hours later.
‘What is going on?’ I asked, both worried and resigned, since none of them wanted me there. Since I was five hours away and couldn’t do anything.
‘He’s gone down to take a kip now,’ she said, taking her time getting to the point. ‘I think he’s feeling a little better though, after he let it all out earlier.’
I waited for her to continue. No use nagging at her, she’d get there eventually.
‘But he’s not doing well.’ She sighed. ‘He needs to get in to see his GP on Tuesday morning. They have to do something. He’s a mess.’
‘Maria said he was beat up?’
‘Ah, yeah. Marcus. Ben goaded him, apparently, so he doesn’t want to press charges.’
‘Goaded him?’ I echoed faintly.
‘He wanted to be hit. Different form of self-harm maybe? He’s stopped that, but this way he didn’t have to do anything himself. Marcus did all the work, Ben got all the pain. I don’t know.’
That didn’t sound like Ben. Since when did he goad anyone into hitting him? Sure, he could be a major pain in the arse, but this was taking it too far.
‘You sure he’s just depressed?’ I asked. ‘He’s not high and low?’
‘You think he might be bipolar?’ she asked sharply, catching on faster than I would’ve thought.
‘It’s just a worry, I haven’t seen any evidence of it so far,’ I hurried to explain since she sounded alarmed. ‘But it is a hereditary mental illness and… none of you younger people have it. I’m afraid it might be him, you know? My grandmother was bipolar, my father, my sister… It’s like clockwork, you know? Always one person.’ It had worried me for years.
She was silent for a long minute.
‘It’s not Ben who’s bipolar,’ she said then. ‘Like you said, it’s always one person… and it’s Jo.’
‘Jo?’ Since when was he bipolar? ‘How bad?’
‘The whole shebang, basically. Mania with psychosis, major depression… He’s got it more or less under control now, but it was really bad a few years ago.’
Jo… Out of everyone I never would’ve expected him. He was quiet, serious… I’d just never seen any signs that could’ve pointed to him being mentally ill.
‘Why have I never heard about this?’
‘He doesn’t want anyone to know. Or… It’s not exactly a secret. Not anymore anyway. Ben knows now, and Maria and Roar knows, and now you. But he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it.’
‘But he’s fine?’ I had to make sure. Two of three people with bipolar in our family had committed suicide, after all.
‘Yeah. Meds keep him stable for the most part.’
I could just picture Kristina nodding to her own words.
‘That’s good to hear. And Ben? Is really going to be okay, Kristina? I can come home.’
‘Sure, you can… but there’s nothing you can do here that we can’t do.’ She kept her voice low, soothing almost. ‘I’ve got it. I’m staying here the rest of the weekend.’
‘Thank you. I really appreciate what you’re doing.’
‘It’s nothing to thank me for. We’re all family here.’
It warmed to hear—even if it was the truth. We were family, even those who weren’t related to us by blood.
I looked towards the kitchen, where Leo had volunteered to make dinner—not something that happened often as he hated to cook—but as it was only tacos, it wasn’t all that hard even for him.
I’d been to restless to cook. I’d just paced around the flat waiting for anyone to call.
‘Oh, Thomas? Don’t mention anything about Jo to Jørgen… He doesn’t know. Jo wants to tell him himself when the time’s right.’
‘Of course I’m not going to tell. It’s not like I talk to Jørgen all that often anyway.’ He was the most secluded out of all of us. I wished for him to be around more, but it was hard for him. After everything he’d experienced, I couldn’t blame him.
‘He’s actually off on holiday himself.’ Kristina’s voice turned more chipper now. ‘With his boyfriend. Did you know he had one?’
‘I’ve heard mentions of it, yeah. Good for him.’ If anyone deserved to be happy, it was Jørgen. His life had been shit for most of his life. That he even could lead a next-to normal life was a miracle. It was amazing and I wished him all the best.
‘Yeah,’ she agreed. ‘But anyway, Ben’s in good hands. We’re all here for him. So you don’t have to worry, okay? Enjoy yourself with Leo. You deserve some time off.’
‘Time off?’ I scoffed. ‘You’re not work, any of you.’
She snorted. ‘You’ve been there for us through all these years. You deserve some time on your own doing things you like to do, without a second thought to any of us. We’re fine. And Ben will be fine, once he gets in to see his doctor and we get the ball rolling.’
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to be the kind of person who could put my worries aside.
‘At least try, okay?’ She seemed to be reading my mind. Or she just knew me that well. Likely the latter. ‘For us? We want you to have a nice holiday.’
I sighed, giving up. ‘Okay. I promise. I’ll try.’
‘Good. We can’t ask for more than that.’ She sounded like she was smiling. She probably was. Kristina was an easy-going person. ‘And try to relax a little, okay? I don’t want to see your face before Monday—and you better look refreshed when you come home.’
I had no idea what to say to that tirade.
‘Say hi to Leo for me, okay?’ she continued almost without pause. ‘See you over the weekend!’
She hung up on me and I lowered my arm slowly, thinking about everything I’d just learned.
I could hear Leo in the kitchen—and I got up to join him.
He was cutting the salad at the counter, while the meat sizzled on the pan.
I walked up behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist, making sure to make some sound as I did so I wouldn’t startle him. It wouldn’t do to scare him when he wielded a knife, after all.
‘Everything okay back home?’ Leo asked worriedly.
‘Yeah. I think so.’ I rested the side of my head against the back of his head. ‘Kristina’s got it under control.’ She’d be a fantastic mother if she ever decided to have children.
‘Food’s almost ready.’ Leo reached over to stir the meat. He’d already poured in the spice mix and salsa, so it puttered nicely. ‘Would you mind putting the tortillas in the oven? And shells, if you want those.’
I squeezed him tight for a few seconds more, then let go and got to work.
I couldn’t relax completely this weekend, not knowing things weren’t quite as they should at home. But I felt a little safer knowing Kristina had the situation under control. She could deal with it. If she’d dealt with Jo in a major depressive episode, she could also handle Ben.
For once I wasn’t needed.
Or maybe I am.
I cast a wry look Leo’s way. He was smiling slightly as he cut up bell peppers. It was a happy smile. Put there because of me.
He needed me.
And I needed him.
I’m not alone anymore.
I’d never really been alone, but… I’d been the adult. Now I had someone equal to me, someone I could lean on if I needed it.
And that… that was comforting.