The closet, as it was, was a lonely place to be. It was dark, and lonely. The walls were all close together, and, when someone inside was at their lowest, it felt suffocating. The air was warm and thick, and anyone could come in at any moment, so one had to curl up and hide in a corner, and hope not to be seen.
That isn’t some sort of metaphor, either. Henry had been, literally, hiding in a closet. The janitor’s closet, to be specific; curled up into a ball, with his knees under his chin, hidden snug between a mop bucket and the corner. His clothes had begun to stick to him uncomfortably, from the hot air, but he didn’t plan to move. From his years of working as Randall’s servant he had, somehow, begun to find comfort in the scent of cleaning products. He also found comfort in hiding in tiny places, trying to make himself as small as possible, and trying to not only ignore the knot in his gut and the lump in his throat, but imagining he was someone else. Anyone else, anywhere else, but Henry Ledore, trying pathetically to not cry in the school’s closet.
It was rare that Henry managed to get a failing grade, because, on top of being the Ascot’s servant, he also made time to study things he didn’t understand. He never wanted the Ascots to worry over him; they have enough to worry about with the mischievous but well-meaning Randall. However, he had fallen asleep at the table, studying, last night, and had thusly failed the maths test given today. That would have been acceptable from him maybe back when he was a young child, but not now that he was in his teen years, and generally considered intelligent by his teachers, that was no longer so much the case. Because of his sudden failing grade, in the midst of getting all As and Bs, the teacher had pulled him into the hall.
Henry received the usual ‘you should know better than this’ lecture that he had heard other students get outside so many times; but this time, with what almost felt like a personal jab at his self-esteem (though he knew, logically, that wasn’t the case).
“This is honestly very basic,” the teacher had told him, a lilt of disappointment in his voice. “We’ll be building upon this throughout the year. You’ll be using this in everyday life, Henry! How will you ever provide for you and your wife if you don’t even understand the bare minimum?”
It was that word; wife; that had sent a sickeningly cold shiver through Henry’s body, almost as if someone was trailing an wet ice cube down his spine, and made his eyes widen with disdain. It filled him with a sort of fear for his future that he had never quite experienced to that degree. A familiar feeling, sure, but not exactly the same. A different brand; a different flavor, if you will; of the uncertainty he experienced so often.
He practically blanked out for the rest of the lecture, focusing in on that one phrase, then immediately asked to go to the bathroom. Before the teacher had even opened his mouth to talk, Henry was already walking to the janitor’s closet (he knew his real destination from the beginning), running his hands up and down his own arms, trying to get the feeling of that word off of him.
That was, somehow, a million times worse than girlfriend.
‘Girlfriend’, he was used to. ‘Girlfriend’, he had learned to handle. Even accept. Henry had long ago come to terms with the fact that, if people began to be suspicious of him… If rumors spread… He would get a girlfriend, if only to get a grip on those rumors before they could come to bite him. And, yes, it would be unpleasant. He hoped he would at least have the courage, by then, to tell the girl he would be “dating” his true motivations, so she may not have her heart broken in the process of Henry selfishly trying to hide his own dirty little secret. Because of this compromise with himself, he was no longer affected so heavily by people saying things about him, one day, having a girlfriend.
That implied that he would be keeping up this helpless charade of his until he was old enough to marry. That he would be so desperate to hide it, that he would propose to a girl he felt nothing for. He would own a house with this girl, kiss her daily, live with her, and dedicate himself to this lie of a life. Unless, of course, he wanted a divorce, but he knew that he, in his pacifistic nature, could never hurt someone like that… Even if it came at the price of his own happiness.
A wife… Henry was never going to let it come to that.
But what if it did come to that?
Just the very idea made him want to cry. The idea of living his truth when he was older is the only thing that kept him going, in his hardest of times. The thought of being like this his whole life… Being trapped in his self-made prison until the day he finally met his end…
Henry buried his face in his knees, and tried to push that idea of a future far into the back of his mind. Focus on the familiar scent of the chemicals…
His focus was immediately broken when he heard the doorknob to the closet begin to turn. His head shot up, and he looked around desperately in the few seconds he had to think, trying to find a better hiding place than where he was now… Behind the mop bucket maybe?
But, before he could move, the light of the door opening temporarily blinded Henry, who had been sitting in the dark for at least twenty minutes. He brought his hand above his eyes, and squinted at the doorway, trying to discern the figure that stood in the doorway.
It only took him a short moment for Henry to register the girl in the doorway as Angela. When he recognized her, he brought his hand down, and tried to smile, playing off the tears in his eyes. “Ah, Miss Angela! What brings you to-… Erm, the janitor’s closet?”
Angela lowered her eyelids, this being exaggerated by her long eyelashes. “Henry…” she sighed, putting her hands on her hips with exasperation in her voice. “The teacher told me to get you, and nobody was in any of the boy’s bathrooms! I’ve been looking for you for ages! What’s the meaning of hiding like this?”
Henry didn’t respond immediately, instead furrowing his eyebrows and resting his chin back onto his knees. He didn’t want to explain, nor did he want to go back to class. It was better here, in the closet. Lonely… But safer.
He supposed his expression must have been a bit melancholic, for Angela’s demeanor softened. She let her hands fall to her sides, dropping her stance of annoyance, and her expression turned more sympathetic, as well. “Are you alright, Henry?” She took a step inside the closet, and pulled the string that Henry was too short to reach himself, making the lightbulb turn on and light the small space dimly. She then closed the door behind her, as if expecting Henry to want to talk privately, and then sat down on her knees, in front of him. “Did something happen?”
“N-no, it’s… It’s nothing,” Henry replied quickly, shaking his head, and tried to smile again. “I was just being silly, is all…”
“Somehow…” Angela reached out to Henry, and wiped a tear from his eyes. “I doubt that it’s nothing. Henry, you’re clearly upset… Maybe, if you tell me, I can help you?”
He shook his head. “You can’t help, but I appreciate the offer.”
“You can trust me…” Angela smiled sadly, and tilted her head just a tad. “We’re friends, aren’t we? At least on positive terms, if nothing else?”
“You consider us friends?”
Henry was taken aback, a bit, by the hurt in Angela’s voice. He had never expected for anyone in Randall’s group of friends except for Randall himself to consider him a friend. He had assumed they had seen him as the person they put up with because Randall liked him.
“I suppose I do,” Henry said simply, nodding to himself.
“Well, then, won’t you tell me what’s the matter?”
Henry looked away from Angela, his eyes resting awkwardly on the mop bucket as he thought. He wanted to avoid that future that the phrase ‘your wife’ had painted in his mind with dull, frightening colors. He wanted to avoid a future where he would still be secretive and afraid as an adult. And if he wanted to avoid down that path that he was already going down… Then he had to take action. But how? He wouldn’t be able to tell Randall; the idea of him knowing, and the possibility of him being disgusted by it broke his heart. And, as trustworthy as Hershel seemed, Henry didn’t know him too terribly well, and didn’t believe he wouldn’t let his secret slip to Randall. But Angela…
Angela was a young lady who cared deeply for her friends, and their feelings. She was trustworthy, and sweet. And, as he had just learned, she considered him a friend…
But, when Henry looked back at Angela, he was filled with terror again.
“Um… Well… If I tell you, then-…” He pointed up to the string that turned on and off the light. “May you turn off the light please?” Maybe it would be easier if he couldn’t see her face.
Angela’s nose immediately scrunched up in disgust. “Henry, if you try and kiss me-“
“No! No, I would never, Miss Angela!” Henry quickly interrupted, with his tone showing just a bit of offense taken.
“Sorry,” Angela apologized, standing back up, and reaching for the string. “I just get paranoid, on occasion…” She flicked the light off, and, once again, Henry found himself swimming in darkness, just like before.
“So, what’s the matter, Henry?”
He sighed, and closed his eyes, and tried to imagine himself in his bed, in the darkness of his room. That saying this would just be another time he had practiced saying it, in the comfort of his lonesomeness. Another time he had reassured himself that his feelings were real, that this future others had imagined for him would never come to fruition.
“The teacher talked about me having a wife one day,” Henry whispered into the darkness of his imagined room. “But I don’t want a wife. I’m never going to have a wife. That’s not something I want for myself, ever.” He heard Angela take a breath to speak, but he interrupted her; a rather rude thing to do, but he wanted to keep the illusion of being by himself alive in his mind. “I don’t want a girlfriend, either. I… I want… I want a husband. I… I like boys and… I always have and… I always will.”
While imagining being alone had helped him get the words out, it didn’t stop the rush of anxiety and fear when he didn’t hear Angela’s immediate response. He desperately wished he could see her face, so he could at least try and figure out her thoughts…! Turning of the lights had been a terrible idea, a terrible-!
Suddenly, a pair of hands landed on his shoulder, and Angela’s voice whispered, “There you are.” Henry naturally closed his eyes, expecting some sort of hurt… Instead, Angela’s hands shifted to behind his back, and she rested her chin on his shoulder, in a friendly, reassuring embrace.
Henry froze, unsure of what, exactly, to do in this scenario, but his eyes immediately welled up with tears, then buried his face in Angela’s shoulder to hide them. Because, somehow, he felt like… Like this reaction meant that things were going to be okay. He didn’t want to run away, or hide himself. He didn’t immediately regret his words. He didn’t feel any of the things he thought he might. He was instead met with a nice feeling of safety, and acceptance, settling nicely onto his shoulders, replacing the heavy stress of keeping the secret from everyone.
“I’m very happy you told me,” Angela muttered, her voice genuine and, though quiet, quite peppy. Henry made a shaky whimpering noise in response, trying not to cry. Though he liked to tell himself that he had left his crybaby days behind him as a young child, when he was alone, or experiencing extreme emotions, he felt it come back more often than not. However, Angela did not seem to be bothered in the slightest by this lack of a response, moving away from Henry to give him space to breathe, but keeping her hands on his shoulders, once again. “Does Randall know? Hershel?”
“No, and-… And I must request you not tell them, either!” Henry quickly responded, keeping his voice quiet, too, for fear of passerbys outside, but panic evident.
“Oh, no need to fret, Henry! I’ll keep it a secret.” Angela’s voice suddenly became a bit distant. “I’ve kept Randall’s secret, after all… Speaking of which, if you ever decide to tell anyone else, tell him. He’d be very happy to know that he isn’t the only… Ah, nevermind!” Her voice returned to normal, soft and cheerful. “Well… Don’t worry about what that teacher said, alright? He just doesn’t know the full truth, that’s it!”
Henry’s eyes looked down naturally, even if it was all darkness to him. “But… What if it is true? What if I have to marry someone someday, and… And I’m too scared to look for a husband, so I just settle for a girl and-“
“How about this!” Angela interrupted, and quickly trailed her hands down Henry’s shoulders, to his arms, then to his hands, squeezing them. “If that turns out to be true, and you need to marry someone, and, for whatever reason, Randall and I aren’t married yet… Then we can get married!” You could almost hear the smile in her voice. “That way, you can be technically married to a woman, and I’ll keep you safe from bigots while you look for a husband in secret! How does that sound?”
A… Fake wife? He hadn’t even considered that… Henry felt his shy and anxious expression shift into one of soft gratitude. “Yes… That sounds… Ideal.”
Angela giggled. “I’m glad! And…” She ran her thumb along Henry’s wrist, as a silent reassurance. “If you ever need any help, then I’m here, okay? You’re not the only person who has told me this kind of thing, so I’ve had practice! And I’d like to see you happy, okay, Henry?”
Henry nodded, not quite realizing Angela still couldn’t see him, and then slipped his hands out of hers to feel for her arms, then leaned into her, hugging her shoulders. “Thank you, Angela.”
Angela hugged him back softly. “It’s nothing.” She then softly pushed Henry back, and stood up, opening the door, and letting the brightness flood into the small closet. “But I’m sure the teacher is worried about us! Let’s go, Henry.”
Henry, though he stood up as well, hesitated. It seemed scary to leave the closet, into a world filled with people who wouldn’t understand. Wouldn’t understand why he was gone, why he had gotten upset. People who would stare at him. The closet was devoid of people, but was safe and sound. Dark but familiar.
Angela extended her hand for Henry to take. “Go on, then!”
Henry paused for just a moment more… Glancing back into his safe space… Before gratefully accepting Angela’s hand, and stepping out of the closet.