Brandon woke up the next morning to his legs being pulled rather hard. He groaned, dug his face out of the pillow, and looked down at his feet to find Ben trying to drag him out of bed.
Benedict Malcolm Thomas Barrett. The prankster. One of his oldest friends.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” he said, wrapping his fists around his ankles and using all his force to drag him down. Brandon grabbed the mattress, stopping himself in time from being dragged down from the bed.
“Where did you come from?” He groaned again, tried to kick him but missed. Ben let go of his legs and they landed on the mattress with a thud. Brandon winced, flinging a kick in the air again.
“I came in through that doorway,” Ben pointed at the entrance to the room. Then he jumped onto the mattress, the whole bed bouncing. “Wake up. We’ll go riding.”
“It’s our last weekend home,” Brandon mumbled. “Let me sleep.”
He kicked his leg. “You’ll never stop being lazy, will ya?” Ben laughed, punching him in the arm. Unable to put up with the early morning assault anymore, he finally rolled over, opening his eyes.
“What’s the time?” he grumbled.
“What?” He sprang up, turning to look at the bedside clock. It was indeed ten-thirty in the morning.
“Holy cow! Why did no one wake me up?”
“Everyone’s busy downstairs.” Ben leaned back and put a foot up on a knee. “The restaurant’s teeming.”
“Is Izzi here?” he asked. It was Saturday. She didn’t have school. He half expected her to be around, helping his mother.
“Nope.” Ben had picked up a keyring and was swinging it around on a finger. “She was eating breakfast when I left and seemed in a bad mood, so I didn’t press.” He looked at him, his eyes narrowing. “Is everything alright?”
Brandon sank back against the pillows, still wondering how one word had played in her mind yesterday. He was aware that she blamed everyone for what happened with her. Her family, her friends, her school, the society…everyone. She wasn’t wrong though. They indeed had done too little to keep her safe.
“Brandy?” A hand rested on his shoulder. He looked at Ben and tried to smile. Ben was an image of his father. Standing at six feet and two inches, he was lanky with not an ounce of fat on his lithe body, dimpled chin, long black hair, and eyes so dark, it was hard to tell the pupil and the iris apart. He possibly had the most beautiful face Brandon had ever seen on a man, handsome in a classical kind of way. As though he’d popped out of a fairytale book. He even had a cleft in his chin. And then there was the deep, sensuous voice.
All his life, Ben had kept a fine balance between his Irish and British identities. He could switch accents with surprising ease, knew England as well as he knew Ireland, and laughed at both Irish and British jokes. Like his parents, he also held dual citizenship.
“Did anything happen?” he asked, suddenly concerned. Ben had taken time to recover from Isabel’s suicide attempt. He was better now, although always worried about his sister. Always. He had been protective earlier but now he was fierce. Like a lioness protecting her young ones.
“No. Not really.” Brandon yawned, stretching. “We were talking yesterday, and then it went the wrong way… I think she misunderstood. Became upset, perhaps. I don’t know. I can barely understand her reactions now.”
“You aren’t alone. Don’t blame yourself.” The hand on his shoulder squeezed and then went away. “I don’t think I understand her, either. But we’d have to be in her shoes to really understand her feelings.” He sighed, sitting up. “Which I never want to be, quite honestly.”
Ben bent his knees, drawing his legs close to his body. Then he entwined his fingers on his knees. “Can I tell you something?” he said. “Whenever I knock on her door and don’t get a response, I can’t help but think that maybe she’s again…”
He trailed off, his voice breaking. Brandon sat up and pulled him into a hug. They were acutely aware of that feeling. But Ben’s trauma was far more intense than anybody else’s. He was the one who’d found her in the bathroom, her wrist slit, blood surrounding her. For the rest of their time in hospital, he had only thrown up in the toilet.
His mother had counseled him for weeks, trying to get him to overcome the trauma. Ben was strong, though. He had remained disturbed and shaken for the first few weeks but had slowly come around.
His love for Isabel was so strong, so unconditional. And they weren’t even biological siblings. They were cousins. First cousins. Ben’s mother and Isabel’s mother were sisters, although they had fallen out long ago. Emily had married Dr Thomas Barrett and moved to Ireland, while Isabel grew up in the UK. Thomas and Emily had always loved her, treated her with the same care and affection that they gave Ben. But they hadn’t known what she’d been enduring for ten years of her life…
Until that night when she was found in the cold, dark basement of her London home, tied and starving, deep, bloody marks all over her body. That night changed everything.
“I still cannot believe that any sane person would do something so horrific to anyone,” Ben’s voice trembled as he spoke against his shoulder. “They were her parents, for god’s sake!”
“They were no parent of hers,” Brandon responded, stroking his back. “And they weren’t sane either.”
“Ten years,” Ben continued, his voice turning throaty. “For nearly ten years she went through the horror. Why did she never tell anyone? I mean, we were close, right? I used to think she shared everything with me.” He pulled away, wiped the tears from his cheeks. “I hated myself for not being able to help her. If only I had known the reason behind the covered clothes…”
“You saved her.” Brandon reminded him. She had battled exsanguination for close to two weeks. When they’d brought her in, doctors had said that it would have been too late if Ben had not found her in time.
“Yes. And she didn’t speak to me for…three weeks?” Ben sniffed, running his fingers through his lustrous mane. “She made me feel like I had done something really wrong by saving her.”
“She wasn’t okay. She isn’t okay. But one day, she will appreciate life again. And then she’ll realise what you had done for her.”
“You believe that?” He looked at him, frowning. “You believe she’ll appreciate life again?”
“She will. I know it.” Brandon slid an arm around his shoulders. “Give her time. She needs to heal.”
“I doubt if she’ll ever heal completely. My parents are trying really hard to get her back to normal. We know it’ll take time…” He laughed a dry laugh. “Talk about mum and dad having a patient right at home. We feel so helpless sometimes. Only Izzi knows the scars she bears. We’ll never be able to put ourselves in her place and feel things the way she does.”
“Your parents love her. That’s what she needs. Love. Safety. A home.” He sighed. “Time heals, Ben. We can only hope for the best.”
Ben’s parents had adopted Isabel but let her keep her existing last name because she was too old for an identity crisis. They loved her, cared for her unconditionally. But Isabel’s wounds were her own. No one got through to her.
“Do you…do you think she does okay at school?” Brandon asked quietly, not sure if they should be having that conversation anymore. “I mean, she doesn’t say anything, so…”
Ben shrugged. “She doesn’t tell us anything, either. But it will be a little too much to expect her to be alright in the middle of hundreds of strangers.” He put his head down where his knees were connected and sighed. “We just want her to get through Leaving Cert, that’s all. Her grades are okay, nothing wrong there. After what happened in London, we couldn’t possibly keep her there anymore. I know Irish education is different from what she had in London, but…we had no other choice.”
Brandon nodded. From a prestigious private academy in London to a small town school in an Irish county, the move was definitely extreme. They couldn’t say if Isabel found it difficult at all. She was numb. Life was only a routine to her now.
“You know what?” he smiled. “I never told you, but you’re really strong. Just like Izzi. If I were in your place, I wouldn’t have been able to go through this whole boyband thing while my sister battled for life in a glass cabin.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you did it, but it was very brave of you. Taking her to hospital in time, calling everybody, just taking care of everything without breaking down…”
“I did break down,” he sighed. “When Elsa and I managed to break open the door, I couldn’t move for a whole minute. Elsa called the ambulance, not I. And then your parents and my parents came and took over everything. I…just managed to throw up every meal since last year.”
Despite himself, Brandon laughed. It had been difficult for them to learn to be a boyband during the tough time. It was the hardest for Ben, who didn’t even want to be the second lead when his name came up. He pushed Mark’s name forward, even Kyle’s. But their manager and their producer thought Ben’s voice was the best in the band after that of Brandon’s.
But they’d got through. Come Monday and they’d be on TV again, talking about themselves, their childhoods, their country, and their upcoming album. And then they’d be off to Mexico to shoot a music video. Sometimes he felt a tad guilty about having so much fun when Isabel’s life was so hard. Not that they could do anything about it, though.
“When did you return?” he asked, changing the conversation.
“Last night,” Ben answered. “Nathan wanted to drive me home but I took the train.”
“So you met him?”
Ben lifted his head and smiled.
“Yes. Spent two days with him and his family in Malahide.” He leaned back in bed, putting his hands behind his head. “He’s a million times funnier than what we know. And his dad is such a sport. Nathan looks exactly like him. Only his father is bald.”
Nathan was their fifth bandmate, pale blonde with blue-eyes and terrible teeth. He was from Dublin, had been selected through the audition, and had something in common with Isabel- the unreasonable fear of elevators. The five of them had got along like a house on fire from the first day, like a close-knit family on the road. They ate, slept, and hung out together, talking girls, going out for shopping, playing football, and singing. And drinking vodka and Red Bull.
“Good for you.” Brandon smiled. “He called me the other day to ask why the rest of us weren’t coming down too.”
“It would have been fun. But then, everyone wants to be home the few days off we get.” He looked into his eyes, his smile disappearing. “You love her, don’t you?” he asked, his face serious.
Brandon nodded. He didn’t know when it had happened, but it had. He couldn’t imagine life without Isabel, just like he couldn’t without his family or music.
“You doubt it?” he asked tentatively. Ben shrugged.
“You’re the popular guy,” he said. “You chase girls. Girls chase you. If I’m not very mistaken, you’ve gone out with most of those girls who threw themselves at you after we did Grease.” He looked at him again, his eyes turning a shade darker. “My sister is fragile. She isn’t like the other girls here.”
“I know. And I love her because of that. Because she’s different.”
“Yeah? And what happens when you realise that you’re better off with somebody normal, not someone so different?”
“That will never happen. Ever.” He inhaled, gathering his thoughts. Then he reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You can trust me,” he nodded. “I’ll keep her safe.”
Ben gazed at him for a while, before nodding. “I trust you,” he put his hand over his. Brandon smiled, giving him a quick hug.
“So you want to go riding?” he asked. Ben nodded. “Great. I’ll freshen up and then we can go.”
He jumped out of bed, heading for the bathroom.
They were late for lunch. They’d gone riding through the woods, raced for a while, and then Ben had got a little too adventurous and taken a lesser known track, and they’d eventually got lost. They’d got down from their horses, argued for a minute about who was supposed to know the place better, and then began riding again, until they were back on familiar track.
They’d returned to Ben’s house and crashed on their sofa, and Elsa had barked at them for being late again. Emily was kinder, though. She asked them to wash up and come for lunch, which they obeyed, famished as they were.
It was a few minutes after lunch that Brandon had realised he hadn’t seen Isabel the whole day. Ben had urged him to go to her room and check, and Emily had backed him up. He’d left the front of the TV and quietly made his way towards her room, wondering if she was still annoyed about the other day.
He hadn’t dated anyone else after Isabel came. He still flirted, but never went out with anybody other than Isabel. People called her his girlfriend. Isabel knew that too, since she gave him weird looks if she found him hanging out with any other girl. She was shy, but it was during those moments that he realized she felt the same for him.
“Hey.” Isabel was in front of the computer, noting something down from the screen onto her notebook. Her hair was tied high up in a ponytail, her legs neatly folded on the chair, the glove of her right hand taken off as she wrote. On the bed was the newspaper, a couple of books, and her school bag.
She looked up, stared for a while, then allowed him in with a nod. She looked tired, her eyelids droopy.
“I can leave if you’re busy,” he said, not wanting to annoy her again. She shook her head.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m just seeing something here.”
“Are you alright?” he asked, coming in and shutting the door behind him. “You look…tired.”
“I’m fine. I…I couldn’t sleep last night,” she admitted reluctantly. “So…”
“Nightmares?” He pulled a chair and sat next to her. She had difficulty sleeping sometimes, despite the sleeping pills. Even though she never told anyone, he could always tell when she’d slept well and when she hadn’t. That afternoon she looked like she hadn’t.
“No. Just thoughts.” She copied something in the notebook from the screen, then put the lid back on the pen. “Where’s Ben?”
“In front of the TV. What’s this?” He perused the contents on the screen. It was something about a writing contest for high schoolers. Isabel was a gifted writer, with a love for storytelling. He could see her nailing it. “You’re participating?” he asked. She nodded.
“I want to.” She closed her notebook, turned her attention back to the computer. “The winner gets his piece printed in The Guardian.”
“That’s crazy! I’m sure you can do it.”
“That isn’t even the best part.” She moved the cursor over a certain line on the page. “See that? £500.”
“The prize money?
“Yes. It’s a lot of money.”
“You’re doing it for the money?” he frowned.
“Yes.” She looked at him, teeth biting into her lower lip. “I need the money. I want to move out of here as soon as I can.”
She closed the page, proceeding to shut the device. Then she stretched her legs, leaned back in the chair, and looked at him. “What?”
“You don’t want to be here?” he asked. He didn’t know she was unhappy there. Even though nothing made her happy anymore, at least she was safe and loved here.
“I want to be on my own,” she hung her head low. “I feel like I’m being a burden. Ben’s parents—”
“They’re your parents as well.”
“That’s because it was better than being sent to a shelter or something. I’m not Ben. Not their own.”
“You’re their niece. And their adopted daughter.” Brandon shook his head, sighing. “Izzi, these people love you. They’ve gone all out trying to give you a better life.”
“I feel like they’re taking pity on me. They’re nice….but they’re just doing me a favour.” She looked at him, her eyes sad. “I can’t be here forever.”
“No one lives with their parents forever,” he smiled and touched her cheek. “You will eventually move out. But there’s no hurry, okay? You’ll go to college, get a career, do something big in life.”
“Something big. Right.” She sighed, the sound heavy and tired. Reaching for the glove, she started to slip it on. “When are you leaving?”
“Monday morning. We’ll probably go straight to the BBC studio for an interview.” He leaned closer to her. “Didn’t Ben tell you?”
“I didn’t ask. He only returned last night. We haven’t spoken much since.” He folded her hands on the desk. “When will you be back again?”
“Not sure. Louis had said we’d get a couple of days before the album releases and then it’ll get busy again.”
“Oh.” Outside, Emily was scolding Ben for leaving his shoes in front of the door again and he was saying something in his defense. “You’ll be having fun, then,” she said. “Do you like London?”
“Oh yes. It’s big and glitzy and totally different from what I’d known so far,” he smiled. “We love it there. It’s like a whole world opening in front of us.”
“I know. You’ll be big. You deserve it.” She glanced at the bed. “Can you help me with my Irish homework?” she asked. “I have to complete an assignment.”
“Sure.” Brandon was only too willing, although it surprised him that a girl who already spoke three languages could have trouble with Irish Gaelic. Isabel left the chair, shuffled over to the bed, and took out an exercise book from her bag. She had always done well in school. Despite a new education system, she showed no significant difficulty.
She was an intelligent girl, aware, knowledgeable, well-read, unlike the girls in the town, who were interested in makeup and clothes and parties and cute boys. At the same time, for a city girl she was too sweet and simple, without any airs around her. Had it not been for her accent, no one could tell she wasn’t Irish.
“Do the lads hit on you?” he suddenly asked, the words out before he could help it. She looked at him, her face blank.
“In school. Do they?”
She returned to the chair and opened the book on the desk. “Would you be jealous if they did?”
Yes, he would. “That’s not what I meant,” he lied. “I mean, are they decent with you? Do they misbehave?”
“No. They think I’m mental and might bite or scratch if they push the wrong buttons. They do try to talk to me sometimes, though.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“One of them asked me yesterday why we have different last names if I’m Ben’s sister.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. They should know about me by now.” She opened the exercise book, turning pages. “Don’t worry,” she said. “No one hits on me. You’re the only lad who’s after me.”
“I am. And for good reason.” His hand came up to her face, cupped it lovingly. “I love you. I want to be with you,” he whispered, bringing his face close to hers. “You’re the love of my life.”
Isabel’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?” her eyes widened. “I thought that’s music.”
Brandon laughed softly. “You’re the music of my heart. You’re as important to me as my family or music.”
“You say that to comfort me.”
“Izzi, why do you think that you only deserve pity? You are a lovable person. People love you because they feel love for you, not because of pity or sympathy.” He held her tighter, pulled her closer. “I cannot explain how much you mean to me. I miss you every moment I spend away from home. Your scars don’t bother me. Your past, your present, nothing bothers me, Iz. What bothers me is that I had to see you fighting for life and couldn’t do anything to help…”
“You did.” Isabel reached over and wiped a stray tear that had surreptitiously brimmed over the corner of his eye. “You were there beside me. When I awoke, you’re the one I saw. Not that I wanted anyone around…but you did your bit. Everyone did.”
“You tried to wrench away the IV drip. And almost kicked the doctor.” Brandon barked out a laugh at the memory. She hadn’t been happy at all to realise she was alive. The police had harassed her a lot after her rescue, the court had asked her probing questions, until the child protection committee stepped in and reminded them that they couldn’t ask such questions to a girl above fifteen.
It had all been too much for her to cope with. Ashamed, humiliated, and helplessly depressed, she had found saviour in a kitchen knife.
“I hated everyone,” she said quietly.
“And now?” he asked, tracing the curve of her neck. She shrugged.
“I don’t feel anything,” she stated as a matter of fact. Then she looked him in the eye. “I don’t know why you do what you do for me, but I miss you too when you’re gone. You bring me peace.”
“Oh, Izzi.” And then he was kissing her, opening her up, feeling her respond. She was rarely so passionate, but when she was, it was like fire. He felt her arms around him, the silk smooth against the fabric of his tee. He cupped her face, giving it his all.
“Goodness! Get a room, you guys!”
Ben’s voice startled them apart. Isabel turned her flushed face away, while Brandon tried to find somewhere to hide.
“Yeah. But it wouldn’t make any difference if you kept barging in,” Brandon rolled his eyes.
“I couldn’t have known you’re making out here,” he crossed his arms. “I knocked, by the way. You didn’t hear.”
“What do you want?” Isabel asked.
“Mum’s asking if anyone wants coffee. Anyone?”
They shook their heads. “Okay.” Ben proceeded to close the door. “Be careful. It could’ve been mum. Or Elsa,” he winked, leaving.
“I used to think he’d be mad if he found out…you know…that we’re together.” Isabel said, still staring at the closed door. Brandon shook his head.
“He wouldn’t, because I care about you,” he said. “Part of me thinks he always knew, and only played it cool. He knows I’ll keep you safe.” He looked at the open exercise book. “Shall we get down to your assignment?” he asked.
“Aren’t you needed at home?” She asked, reaching to hold his hand. Smiling, he squeezed her fingers.
“It’s okay. There are people there.”
“Girls come to check out your house, don’t they?” she asked, searching his face.
“They do,” he nodded. “Pity there’s nothing worth seeing there.”
“Except you, of course.” She touched his cheek with her gloved hand. “You’re warm and kind. I’m glad to have you in my life.”
“What do you want me to bring for you?” he moved a loose strand of hair that was falling into her eyes. “We’ll be going to a lot of places over the next few weeks and we’ll shop a lot. London, Mexico, LA…”
Isabel moved closer and put her arms around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder. Brandon felt her breath on his neck, and it made the tiny hair on his skin stand up.
She was bliss. Pure bliss.
“Just bring yourself,” she whispered. “I’ll be waiting.”
He put his arms around her small body, feeling love rush through his veins. His eyes welled up and he blinked until his vision cleared.
“I’ll be waiting to get back too,” he whispered back, kissing the scar on her neck. “I’ll see you soon.”