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A Catholic Upbringing

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He is gripped in the throes of fever. The cotton bed sheets bunch at his waist and tangle around his ankles, and his face is pressed into a pillow, damp with his sickly sweat. The room is dark; Tim has closed the blinds and turned off all the lights. It is hot in that room, stifling even, and Paul’s breathing fogs the covered windows and the bathroom mirrors, from the bottom up. The door is closed, and Paul is blinded in the darkness. His closed eyes give the same view as his open ones, and he is tired, too tired to make sense of it. His senses are dimmed; he cannot breathe through his nose, but he can hear water rushing in the pipes around the house. It halts and jars as the taps turn on and off. Paul coughs once, and then falls effortlessly into sleep, a rest his body aches and screams for.

___


‘It’s all this cold weather,’ Richard muses quietly at the kitchen table. His hands are wrapped around a steaming mug of tea, and he is happy to sit there without drinking it, just for the warmth it brings to his hands.

Tim hums in agreement from behind a cabinet door. ‘He’s always sick, though,’ he adds, shutting the door quietly and emerging with a glass. ‘I mean, he was sick when we first met him. Remember?’ Richard laughs and turns his body towards Tim, his hands sliding away from the mug so that he can use them to speak. ‘He was carrying around that hanky, the one with his initials sewn onto it!’ Tim laughs as well, a move which takes over his whole face and crinkles his eyes. ‘He never washed it, either. Didn’t we end up burning it in a bin somewhere?’ The men laugh as the memory comes flooding back. They had all been at the pub after a gig, and Tim had snatched it away while Richard distracted Paul. They had left him alone at the bar and came wandering out of a smoking bathroom minutes later, covering their mouths behind their hands and half-running to avoid trouble. When he realized what had happened, Paul had kicked up a fuss and refused to talk to either of them for the rest of the night.

Tim is still chuckling as he fills the glass at the sink. The water is cold and frosts the glass, making it slippery in his hands. ‘I’m just gonna see how he is,’ he says over his shoulder to Richard, as he walks down the hall to Paul’s bedroom door. A sliver of light creeps in from the hallway when he opens the door; it falls across Paul’s troubled face. Tim closes the door softly behind him and feels his way to Paul’s side, placing the glass on the bedside table next to his glasses. It leaves a ring of condensation on the wood, something he knows will upset Richard. He sits down gently on the edge of the bed and turns to look at Paul. At first, he cannot see anything, but as his eyes adjust to the darkness, Paul’s features come into view. He looks terrible. His face gleams with sweat and his lips are dry and chapped, parted slightly so his rattling breath can escape. His brow is furrowed, creased with worry and effort, and Tim thinks silently that Paul is no different when he is asleep than when he is awake.

His hair is slick with sweat; it clings to his forehead and Tim reaches out a hand to push it back. He pulls it back with a gasp of fright as Paul suddenly jerks, his shoulder lurching up and falling back onto the bed with a thump. It startles Tim, and for a moment he can feel his heart hammering in his chest. Unconsciously, he has pulled away from Paul, now leaning half off the bed, surprised at the sudden movement. But Paul is still asleep, his fists now curled and his eyes now flickering rapidly behind the paper-thin skin of his eyelids. Tim watches him in silence, wondering what Paul is dreaming about. He is once again startled as Paul’s face twitches violently, his brow pulled down as his mouth parts open in a whimper. A ghost of a word comes from that mouth, and Tim frowns as he leans closer to Paul, waiting for it again. ‘…no,’ Paul murmurs, his fingers twitching on the damp sheets near his hips. Paul is still asleep, dreaming, and Tim lets his cold hand fall onto Paul’s wrist, feeling the burning, clammy skin there. Paul shudders.

‘No,’ he says quietly, avoiding his piercing, strong gaze. It is dark in this room, and so hot. Paul feels enclosed in the small space and feels his cheeks redden with both the heat and embarrassment. The Father’s hand is strong on his thigh, gripping the flesh through his polyester pants. They are face to face, the priest’s eyes trying to catch the gaze of Paul. He keeps his head down and does not look up. A rough hand places itself on his thin wrist. Paul shudders.

Tim can feel Paul’s skin, feel the heat radiating from his sick body as he dreams. He is listening for more words, entranced by Paul’s mind and the things he is dreaming about.

‘Please,’ Paul says, his voice shaking as he draws himself back against the wooden wall of the tiny box.

Paul’s voice breaks and his Adam’s apple bobs up and down in his throat, his head heavy against the pillow. ‘Please.’ Tim frowns and cannot help but watch.

He still looks down, cannot meet the gaze of a man he is supposed to trust. The deep, caring voice is justifying it, but Paul feels sick in his stomach and cannot help but think this is wrong. ‘It is the Lord’s wish,’ the voice is saying, and his hand creeps slowly up Paul’s thigh. ‘Stop, please.’ His voice is quiet, unsure.

Tim watches as Paul murmurs these words, and the clenched hands reach upwards feebly to grab at nothing and fall back onto the bed. He swallows weakly and whispers in a voice which pains Tim. ‘Help me.’ Tim notices his own hands are clenched, and unfurls one to place on Paul’s forehead. He has time to feel the sweat on his brow before Paul wrenches his face away and cries out.

The priest’s clammy fingers brush along his cheeks in a feather-light touch. Paul’s glasses slip as he shudders. He opens his mouth and cries out, ‘Help me.’  The words are weak and stick in his throat, but the hands on his cheek are suddenly gripping over his mouth, pressing painfully into the pliable flesh, as his head is pushed back against the wood. The priest’s face is all he can see, and his warm breath clouds his face and he is terrified. Tears begin to slip down his face and inside, he chides himself for crying.

Tim has drawn his hands away after Paul’s reaction before. He watches with concern as tears fall from Paul’s eyes and mingle with the sweat on his face. He feels he must step in, he cannot watch his friend like this. He stands up and puts a hand on Paul’s bare chest, feeling the clammy skin near his shoulder. Paul shudders in a breath and begins to jerk his body away, his arms trying to push Tim away. He has no strength, asleep and sickly, and Tim is unsure of what to do.

He is pleading behind that hand. It tastes of metal and sin, and Paul’s body is tense as he presses himself back, trying to get away. His face crumples as he begins to cry, and his pleas are muffled and quiet. The priest’s hands are warm on his flesh but Paul knows this is wrong, and he feels dirty, so dirty. Those eyes bore into his, those horrible blue eyes, and Paul’s vision is blurred. His glasses have slipped off and the tears are heavy on his cheeks.

Paul is thrashing on the bed now, and Tim watches with terror. He does not know what to do, but Paul’s skin is sweltering beneath his hand. He calls for Richard, his voice cracking, but cannot tear his eyes away from Paul’s frantic face. He hears footsteps, hurried with worry, and the door bursts open and shines light onto Paul’s face as he begins to sob.

The door is thrust open and the priest jerks away from Paul, his hands retracting back to himself as dull light shines in on them both. As the hand is drawn away from his mouth, Paul doubles over and lets out a wail, his body shaking as hands pull the man roughly from the confessional and reach in to touch Paul’s arm gently.

Paul awakens with a choked gasp and a scream on his lips as he jerks away from whoever is touching his flesh. He begins to cough and choke, his body still grasped by sickness. Paul’s mind is not yet back, and all he can see are those blue eyes as he cries and coughs. His head hurts and throbs and somewhere, he senses Tim and Richard, but all he can do is lean over the edge of the bed, his knuckles white and gripping the mattress. His body lurches as he gasps and vomits onto the carpet, and there are cold hands on his flesh and the worried voices of his friends. He retches again and again, tears falling from his face as he struggles desperately for breath. Tim is rubbing his back, his hands like ice on Paul’s fire flesh, and Richard has gone to get some towels.

After what seems like hours but is in fact only minutes, Paul is still as he leans over the side of the bed. His face is wet with tears and sweat, his mouth open and glistening and his eyes squeeze shut as he shakes violently. His body is tired and weak from the sickness and the vomiting, but he falls back limply into Tim’s embrace and feels gentle hands brush the hair away from his eyes. He shakes in these arms, struggling for breath, and apologizes for the mess in a hoarse voice as Tim quiets him and calms him. ‘It’s okay, it’s fine, shhh.’ Paul cannot see those blue eyes anymore. He can only see Tim’s caring face, hear his calming voice and feel his cold skin upon his.

He is okay, and he is safe.