I saw it happen out of the corner of my eye.
A car came screeching around the corner, and then a bloke in a big, hooded jumper stepped right out into its path.
I reacted instinctually.
‘Hey!’ I ran for the dark-clothed figure and managed to snag a tight grip around his forearm. I yanked him back right as the car screeched past, not even slowing down in its reckless driving, not caring that if it hadn’t been for me, they would’ve hit a living, breathing human being.
The bloke, who was shorter than me, tripped on the kerb and fell against me, and I was pretty unbalanced from my instinctive rescue myself. We crashed to the ground in a tangled mess, me underneath and him on top. At least I thought it was a he—it was hard to tell with the baggy clothes.
I gripped his other forearm too, rolled us around so that he was on his back with me leaning over him. The fabric of his jumper was slippery and wet, like he’d been out in the rain. It felt all gooey.
‘Are you all right?’ I stared down into a pale face I couldn’t quite see clearly because of the darkness and the hood.
‘What did you do that for?’ He lifted his head off the ground, which caused the hood to slip off. Now I could see him clearly from the streetlights illuminating us from above. Hair as pale as his face, storming blue eyes, lips pressed into an unhappy expression.
I sat back.
‘Mal?’ My eyes widened in shock.
So did his, for that matter, as he fought my hold on him.
I was bigger and stronger though. I always had been.
When he realised I wasn’t about to let go, he switched tactics and lay deathly still, like he didn’t even dare breathe.
I stared down into his wide, shuttered eyes. He might be holding his breath, but his body was slowly beginning to tremble. I frowned, and his eyes filled with tears.
‘Please don’t hurt me.’ His bottom lip quivered dangerously.
I released him as if I’d been burned, holding my hands up in the universal gesture for surrender or peace. I drew a deep breath as I slowly turned them around to look at my palms. Mal wasn’t wet from non-existent rain… My hands were dripping blood.
I sat up properly, not wanting to trap him there on the ground anymore. He scrambled away. He didn’t go far, only far enough I couldn’t reach out to him, and he curled in on himself right there on the pavement. His eyes, so wide and fearful, were locked on me, like he didn’t dare look away.
I stared back. I couldn’t help myself. Those blue eyes had always got to me, far more than I had ever dared admit to anyone. I’d used to see them every day in college, either across the hall or classroom or in the men’s toilet when my mates, and more often than not me, had cornered Mal and tormented him. We’d made his life a living hell. And every time I had gazed into those blue eyes and felt nothing but shame, but I hadn’t known how to stop it without giving away my secrets. So I hadn’t done anything.
The guilt stuck to me like the blood to my hands. I looked down at them. Maybe I’d expected it not to be there anymore, for it to have been some hallucination, or weird light effect or something, but no such luck. My skin was covered in blood, in his blood. Blood that hadn’t come from his fall or from the car, as it hadn’t even touched him. So where did it come from?
‘Who did this to you?’
‘What do you care?’ His voice was low, shaking. ‘Why did you stop me?’
‘Stop you?’ I glanced towards the street. ‘You mean—you did—’ He’d walked right out in front of the car on purpose?
‘Of course.’ His eyes were cold, lifeless. ‘It’s the middle of the night. If I hadn’t wanted it, I wouldn’t have stepped out into the street at the exact moment the car came down it.’ His voice was still trembling, but I couldn’t pinpoint any particular emotion in his words.
He did it on purpose. He wanted to be hit.
‘Why not?’ His voice turned stringer, surer, harder. ‘Why not? Give me a good reason, Tyler. I dare you. There are none.’
Shame overwhelmed me. How many times hadn’t my mates told Mal that the world would be better off without him?
‘Killing yourself is not the answer.’
‘How else am I going to die?’ He stared at me without blinking. ‘You want me dead. Your mates do too. So why save me?’ He shouted at me now. ‘Why not let me die?’ He bent over sobbing.
‘I don’t want that. Oh my God.’ I crawled over to him on my hands and knees, but he scrambled away like a scared animal. Blood still clung to my skin.
Who did this? Has he been in another accident? Did someone beat him up?
‘Mal, please. You’re bleeding a lot. Let me help you.’
His head shook violently back and forth before I even finished speaking.
‘Mal, you’re hurt.’ The blood was sticky against my skin and I ribbed my palms against my thighs. ‘Please. I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.’
‘Can’t trust you.’ He was still shaking his head.
‘You can.’ Why should he believe me though? I’d been a part of the group of lads that had made his days a living hell. Just because I’d finished college didn’t mean I’d changed. Except I had. My secrets weren’t so secret anymore.
He couldn’t know that though.
‘Mal. Please. Come home with me. Let me help you.’ He had to be bleeding a lot for it to soak into his jumper like that. He could be bleeding out. ‘Please, Mal.’
‘No!’ He shot to his feet. It wasn’t such a wise move on his part, because the loss of blood was obviously making him lightheaded.
I stood up to, ready to catch him before he could drop back to the ground.
‘I’ve got you.’
He tried to fight it, tried to hit me and push himself away at the same time, but I refused to let him go. Maybe it would do worse than it did any good, but I couldn’t simply let him go. Not in the condition he was in, both physically and the mentally.
‘Come on. Please, Mal. Just come with me. I’ll help you.’
‘No. You have no right!’ His fist hit weakly against my chest. His strength was leaving him. Was he losing too much blood? If it was so much he was getting all weak…
What am I suppose dot do?
‘I can’t let you go.’ I really couldn’t. ‘I can’t live with myself if I let you go and something bad happens to you. I just can’t. I’m so sorry.’ I wasn’t sure what I was apologising for. Maybe the fact that I was essentially forcing him to come with me, or for what I’d put him through in college. Both, perhaps.
We’d been so cruel to him. He’d never done anything wrong towards any of us, yet he’d been the one they’d singled out. Through the entire Sixth Form. My stomach rolled at the shame of what I’d been a part of. Maybe… maybe now I could atone for some of what’d been done. I could make something right.
I never expected to be forgiven. I could never be forgiven. I didn’t want it either. I just wanted to help him. Right now that was everything that mattered.
‘Mum?’ I entered my parents’ bedroom, shaking my mum’s shoulder gently. ‘Mum, wake up.’
‘Ty, it’s the middle of the night,’ she grumbled, but she did roll over to turn on the lamp. She blinked against the sudden bright light, peering at me for a long moment before she was able to focus completely. ‘Oh my God, Tyler!’ She pushed up on her elbow. ‘Is that blood?’
I looked down on myself. There were more blood on me than I’d expected.My trousers from where I’d rubbed my hands over them and my shirt from when I’d had Mal pressed up against me.
Where the hell does all of it come from?
It couldn’t all be from Mal, could it? Was it someone else’s? But in that case, why would someone leave so much blood on him?
‘Yes, but it’s not mine.’
‘Oh Tyler, what have you done?’ I could tell she was thinking the worst.
‘Mum, it’s not—I haven’t done anything. Will you come downstairs? I need your help. Just come.’
She hesitated, her eyes narrowing.
It made me squirm, but she must’ve seen the emergency on my face, because she threw her feet over the side of the bed.
‘All right, let me just get my nightgown.’
I dashed back downstairs to where I’d left Mal. I’d told him to sit on the sofa, but he was still standing in the middle of the living room floor.
Maybe he doesn’t want to ruin the furniture.
He had some consideration then, so maybe he wasn’t as far gone as I’d believed. His arms hung limply at his sides and both were dripping blood onto the floor.
I dreaded what I’d find underneath that big, oversized jumper. It was why I’d woken my mum up, because I had no idea what to do and he needed help.
‘Tyler, what is it—’ Mum came up behind me. Her eyes settled on Mal, startled.
Mal himself didn’t react. He stood with his head bowed, not moving a muscle.
I watched mum frown as she took him in from head to toe. Her eyes dwelled on the hem of the hoodie and the blood pooling on the floor.
‘I’ll get the water boiling, anti-septic and bandages. You get him out of that jumper.’
I nodded mutely. As she bustled into the kitchen, I stepped up in front of Mal.
‘Mal? Can I?’ I motioned to the zipper. I’d fantasised about this—but in completely different circumstances. Mal had been happy in my fantasy, and certain not dripping blood onto our living room floor.
Mal glanced at me briefly before his gaze darted away. It wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either.
I slowly pulled the zipper down, revealing a thin, pale chest littered with marks and cuts and bruises. Dread crept up on me, bile rising in my throat. Some of those marks and bruises were fresh. I hadn’t seen Mal in months—since we’d quite college. Did Mal have other tormentors? Was someone hurting Mal in his private time as well?
I’d never thought my guilt and shame could double, but it did. And I had yet to do anything but zip open the hoodie. My hands just hovered there, over Mal’s body. A body I’d fantasised about, but which was always hidden under clothes way too large for him. Something more, something worse, was still hidden by the jumper. I knew it and I didn’t want to find out what it was. I didn’t want to find out what had happened to him, because it was only going to make it worse.
Mum came out of the kitchen, and I took a deep breath before I started to inch the jumper down Mal’s shoulders. The entire sleeves were soggy with blood.
A loud gasp came from my mum as Mal’s arms were bared. She clapped a hand over her mouth to still it. She was just as horrified as I felt. There was not a single piece of pale, bare skin left on Mal’s arms or shoulders. Scars and cuts and open wounds criss-crossed from his shoulders all the way down to his fingertips.
The hoodie slipped from my fingers, falling heavy to the floor with a wet thud. My stomach churned, the bile rose higher in my throat, but I swallowed it down. Mal needed my help, not for me to be sick all over him. But it was a horrible sight. Who’d done this to him? Or… had he done it to himself? If so, how could he have done this? It was horrible.
He looked up at me from under his pale fringe. I couldn’t read the expression in his eyes, but he suddenly moved his bleeding arms to unzip his jeans.
‘What are you—’ I reached out to stop him, but he shook his head.
His face was set in a defiant grimace. ‘You wanted to help. You have to get it all.’ His voice was hard, gaze meeting mine. Still hard, but not quite lifeless. Now they were just as defiant as the grimace.
He swiftly unzipped and bent to pull his jeans off. When he straightened, I had a direct view of his lower body as well.
‘Oh my God, Mal.’ I wasn’t a crier, but my eyes filled with tears at the sight in front of me. The same criss-cross of scars and new cuts going down his thighs and calves, exactly like on his arms. Even his… even his cock was scarred and cut up.
I threw a horrified look over my shoulder, at my mum, who was also having serious trouble keeping her tears back.
‘Ty, go get some of your clothes. Something loose and soft. I’ll get the anti-septic and the bandages.’
I ran up the stairs and bounded into my room. I had to lean against my closet for a bit as I fought bile and tears, but once I had myself somewhat under control, I started pulling out jeans and trousers and T-shirts until I came upon my leisurewear. With that in hand, I bounded back down the stairs to find Mal still standing exactly where I’d left him. Mum had put anti-septic and bandages on the table, and I could hear her pouring water in the kitchen.
A sound came from the stairs and I whipped around to find my dad descending them, dressed in his nightgown just like mum.
‘Ty, what’s going on? Why are you running up and down the stairs? It’s the middle of the night—’ His gaze had fallen upon Mal, effectively stunning him into silence.
‘Harold, go get dressed.’ Mum came back out of the kitchen with a big bowl. ‘He has to go to A&E.’
‘No!’ Mal shook his head violently. ‘No hospital!’
‘Mal.’ Mum’s voice was all patience. His reaction, his blatant terror at going to the A&E… ‘You have to. Some of those cuts have to be stitched up. You’re losing a lot of blood.’
He didn’t stop shaking his head. ‘No hospital. I’m not eighteen yet. They can’t know. I can’t go back!’
‘Who can’t know? Can’t go back where?’ I asked it weakly. I didn’t want to know the answer, but at the same time I had to.
‘Home.’ He lifted his head to meet my gaze straight on. His eyes were hard. ‘I told you you should’ve let me die. It would’ve been so much easier for both of us if you had.’
I was going to be sick. The way he talked, the way he acted… Why did he want to die so badly? His home life was so bad he’d rather die than go back. And my mates and I had made his life at college hell as well. It felt like the shame was going to drown me.
Mum cleared her throat, bringing my attention to her. She nodded. ‘Okay, then. I’m not going to force you, love. But then we have to get on those cuts immediately. If there’s any sign of something wrong—any dizziness or cuts that won’t stop bleeding—the A&E it is.’
Mal bowed his head, but he nodded weakly.
I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding.
‘Take Mal with you into the bathroom.’
I did as instructed, guiding him with me. Mal didn’t fight it as I put my hand on the small of his back, gently pushing him. Nothing could ever make up for what my mates and I had done to him, but at least I could now do something nice for him, like I’d really wanted to do all along.
It was time to do a hell of a lot of retribution.
I walked into the kitchen in a daze.
I’d put Mal to sleep in my own bed, because there was nowhere else in the house and I wasn’t going to let him sleep on the sofa.
What I was going to do, remained to be seen. I suppose I could take the sofa, but it wasn’t exactly good for sleeping on. On the other hand, my bed was big, so it wasn’t like Mal and I couldn’t share…
Except maybe not. I’d been in on the abuse. I’d let them do what they wanted to him—and I’d been in on it. All to hide my own secret. I’d never spoken up for him once. Whatever chance I wished I had was long ruined. A chance that I might still want, no matter the horror that had just been revealed.
Dad was sitting at the table with his chin resting in his palm, while Mum was at the sink. She was emptying out the bowl of water and wringing up the cloth she’d used to wash off the blood from Mal’s body. The water didn’t look like water anymore. It was coloured the exact same colour as the blood it was mixed with. The cloth had been white, now it was red too.
She turned to me when I came over the threshold and her carefully neutral expression from before changed into concern.
‘Tyler? What’s the matter?’
I’d managed to restrain myself earlier, but now the tears were really pressing. My lower lip quivered, my cheeks twitched.
‘This is my fault.’
She frowned. ‘How so?’
‘We went to college together. I never once noticed.’ I ran my hand over my face and found they were trembling. ‘I never noticed this.’
Mal had always been wearing those two-sizes-too-big clothes. He’d never even fought back, whenever we started in on him. It was like he’d been resigned… What if I’d known though? Would I have done things differently? I liked to think so, but I’d been terrified of my own secret being shed light on. They beat on him because they suspected he was gay, so what would they do to me if I’d told them? They had beat me up when I finally came clean, but that was after college was over.
‘People who cut are very good at keeping it a secret.’ Her voice was stern, almost berating me. ‘Don’t blame yourself for this. It’s not your fault. If he didn’t want to be found out, nobody would find out.’ I suppose she’d seen her fair share. She was a nurse, after all.
I all but fell down on the chair opposite dad. ‘But that’s the thing…’ I wrung my hands. ‘We, my mates and I—well…’ How could I confess this to my parents? What I’d done, what I’d been a part of? They’d judge me, they’d judge me so bad. ‘We made his life in college a living hell.’ I confessed in a low voice, laced with the regret, the guilt and the shame I felt.
Dad leant forward to look at me, but I buried my face in my hands to avoid it. ‘What do you mean, son?’
I shook my head. ‘We picked on him every day. We did more than pick on him. We shoved him, we called him names, we threatened him, some times we beat him up. I didn’t stop it. Not once.’
A heavy silence settled after my confession. I didn’t dare look up. I didn’t want to see the disapproval on my parents’ faces. It was not the way they’d raised me. They’d raised me to be tolerant of other people, and yet I’d been so afraid to tell my friends my little secret, I’d let it come to this.
‘Tyler.’ Mum came over to the table. She hesitated, hovering next to me, but then she sat down next to me. ‘Why in the world would you do that?’ She sounded horrified, which made me feel even worse. That wasn’t how they’d raised me. ‘Why would you gang up on him with your mates, to pick on a small, defenceless bloke like him?’ Now she was disbelieving. Maybe even digested.
I shook my head again. ‘I don’t know. I—I thought he was cute.’ A stunned silence met those words. They were true though. They hung there in the air for all of us to digest.
‘Is that why they singled him out?’ Dad eyed me wryly.
I shook my head. ‘No. They just… out of everyone at college, they picked him. The one bloke I thought was cute.’
‘Why didn’t you help him then?’ Mum was accusatory now.
‘I—’ I was a horrible person. ‘I didn’t want to be left out, which is what would’ve happened, Mum.’ I couldn’t have taken that, not back then. Not in college, when I had to be around those guys ever single day.
‘So you—’ She swallowed heavily, still trying to wrap her head around just how awful her son was. ‘So you just let them torture him—you joined in on it—just to keep a little secret? Just so you could be part of the gang?’
‘Tyler…’ Dad shook his head, disappointment clear in the motion itself as well as in his body-language.
‘Not a single one of them has contacted me since I came out after finishing A-levels. Not a single bloody one! I didn’t want that to happen while I was in college, so I just… I just went with it.’
Mum sighed. Her head turned away from me. Horrified, disgusted, disappointed… I didn’t even know.
‘They beat me up when they found out. Just like we used to do to him.’
‘Oh, Tyler.’ She turned back to me now, wrapped her arm around my shoulder and squeezed. ‘That’s what happened?’
I’d never told them why I’d come home with sprained ribs, a split lip, and bruises all over my face. They’d been so accepting, I hadn’t wanted to admit that my mates hadn’t been at all.
‘Tonight… I was just walking home from work, you know, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this person step right into the path of an oncoming car. The only oncoming car. I didn’t even think, I just pulled him back. I was shocked when his hood dropped and I saw it was Mal. He was so afraid of me at first and I can totally understand it, even though it breaks my heart. I never wanted to hurt him, but that’s all I’ve ever done.’ The words tumbled out of me without so much as a stop to breathe.
‘He obviously has a difficult life.’ Mum rubbed my shoulder. ‘He needs professional help, Tyler. If his home situation is so bad he refuses to go home… I don’t think his parents is going to do much for him.’
‘What do you suggest we do?’ My voice was all choked up. ‘I want to help him so badly, but I don’t know how.’
‘He needs professional help,’ she repeated. ‘Likely even hospitalisation. The way he’s cutting himself and stepped out in front of that car… He’s suicidal. It has to be dealt with now, Ty, before he succeeds.’
She was right. But I knew nothing about Mal. I only knew he was suicidal and that he was afraid to go home.
‘He can stay here for now, but we have to talk to him. He has to understand that we can’t let this go. That he shouldn’t let this go.’
I nodded my understanding. I hoped Mal wouldn’t put up a fight when he woke. Hopefully he would feel better, but not antagonistic. Maybe he wouldn’t feel better when he woke though. He’d lost a lot of blood and he’d surely be in a lot of pain after all those self-inflicted cuts.
‘Go to bed, Ty. We’ll talk more tomorrow. It’s late and you’ve had a long day. Let’s just all go to bed.’
I dragged myself upstairs, exhausted. Mal was curled up on the farthest side of the bed, pressed up against the wall. There was a lot of space left, so I didn’t see why I should have to sleep on the uncomfortable sofa.
I’d deserve it though.
I definitely did. But at the same time I wanted to be there for him… what if he woke and tried something? He was suicidal. He could try anything. Surely it would be fine if I only kept to my side of the bed?
I tiptoed over to my closet to get the pyjamas I rarely wore, then headed into the bathroom to change. My dirty, blood-soaked clothes lay there like a reminder of the horrific events of the night.
I drew the bath, just enough to soak the clothes. The blood coloured the water a light pink and I squeezed the clothes to try and get more of it out of them. These were my work clothes—I’d need them tomorrow night. Besides, being rid of the blood might even make some of the guilt fade away. Or maybe not. How could it ever?
I crept slowly into bed, trying my best not to jolt it. But as was always the case when I tried to be stealthy, I managed the exact opposite. Mal didn’t move though, so I lay down on my side, with my back to him so I was facing the room and the door. A bit of light seeped in from under it, from the hall. I stared at it as my mind kept replaying the events of the night.
Eventually I must’ve fallen asleep.
A scream split the silence of the room.
I shot up, blinked myself into alertness as everything came crashing back to me. I turned over quickly to find Mal at my side, body rigid. I couldn’t see anything, it was too dark.
‘Mal?’ I inched over towards him. ‘What’s wrong?’ He jerked away when I put a hand on his shoulder, but didn’t say anything. ‘Mal, come on, it’s me, Tyler. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.’ Ha. Yeah. Like I’d never hurt him before. I wouldn’t again though, not ever.
As I talked, his whole body started to tremble. His gaze flitted briefly over to me, taking me in before fastening in on my eyes, then he turned back to face the wall.
‘Hey.’ I didn’t remove my hand from his shoulder, so I could clearly feel just how much he was still trembling. I inched even closer to him, and when he still didn’t react, I wrapped my arm loosely around his waist in a hug. ‘You’re safe with me, Mal. I promise. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you ever again.’ That was quite a big promise, but I planned on seeing it through.
‘N-no.’ He turned rigid again, breath coming hard and fast.
‘Don’t be afraid of me, Mal…’ And then I remembered. His body was full of cuts—and I was hugging him. I let go off him like I’d burned myself, but I didn’t move away. I stayed close to him, hoping to at least be of some comfort.
Please let him have some comfort in something.
He exhaled shakily, but still remained silent. He didn’t seem to mind my close presence either, though he kept on trembling.
I took his hand, the only part of him I could think of that wasn’t covered in bleeding wounds. That’s what they were. Covering all of him. I squeezed his fingers, hoping he’d return it. He didn’t.
He did relax a bit eventually, but not completely.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t know how early it was, but it had started to lighten outside. It was early morning, at least. Still too early to be up.
I must’ve fallen back asleep, because the sun was shining in through the window when I blinked my eyes open next. I was still holding Mal’s hand. His skin was warm and soft and his breathing low, even. He was still fast asleep.
I carefully slid out of bed, then left the room to head downstairs, making as little noise as possible as I did so. My parents’ voices floated on the air from the kitchen.
‘Someone has really damaged that boy, Harold.’ That was Mum, her voice low, but not low enough. I could hear her clearly from the bottom of the stairs. ‘Someone has done horrific psychological damage on him for him to go to such extreme measures on himself. And that scream this morning… I should’ve liked to report the people responsible to the authorities. They should pay for what they’ve done.’
My head thudded against the wall as I leant back. I was partly responsible. My mates and I had made Mal’s college experience hell. I should pay for what I’d done. Sure, I knew Mal must’ve had a hell of a lot more to deal with, but I hadn’t helped make it any better for him.
‘I honestly don’t think he’d fess up to anything.’ Now Dad was speaking. ‘He seemed terrified last night by the simple thought of A&E and of having them, whoever they are, know about it.’
‘I know.’ Mum sounded worried and I could picture her biting her lower lip. She always did that. I should know, considering I did it too sometimes when I was worried. I was doing it now, as a matter of fact. ‘But something has to be done. He can’t stay here with us. He’s suicidal. He needs some serious, professional help. We can’t provide that for him.’
‘I know, Lily, but if he refuses…’
‘He’s a danger to himself. That’s reason enough to get him sectioned.’
It was time to make my presence known. I couldn’t stand there and eavesdrop on them anymore, so I pushed off the wall. They turned to me when I entered, and I smiled weakly back.
‘All right?’ Mum looked me up and down. ‘How’s Mal?’
‘I’m fine. He’s sleeping.’ I took a carton of milk out of the fridge and poured myself a glass before sitting down at the table. ‘Probably not good though.’
‘It was a rather silly question. Of course he’s not all right.’ She patted my arm.
A floorboard creaked overhead and I looked up. Maybe I’d woken Mal up after all, even if I’d tried my very best to be silent.
I emptied my milk in two big swallows, then set about making toast for breakfast. I made some for Mal too, as he must be hungry. Or maybe he wasn’t. Having seen his body yesterday… he was thin, so he obviously wasn’t eating right. That might be a choice of his. Being suicidal… maybe not eating was part of it. He did need all the nutrition he could get, not that toast was the best, but it was all I had in me at the moment. I hoped he’d eat it. Or some of it, at least.
I nibbled on my own toast once it finished as I listened for more sounds upstairs. There weren’t any though. Had Mal gone back to bed again?
My knee kept bouncing. I couldn’t sit still. I certainly couldn’t eat my toast. ‘I should go check on him.’
‘Don’t wake him if he’s sleeping,’ was all mum said, but she was chewing her bottom lip again.
I all but shot off the chair and up the stairs, only stopping to compose myself once I was outside my bedroom. I expected to see Mal’s thin, small form on the bed as I pushed the door open, but the only sight that met me was the empty sheets.
Maybe Mal had gone to the toilet? Or maybe he was cleaning himself up in the bathroom? I couldn’t hear anything from it, and there was usually a sound if the taps were running.
A cold, twisted feeling of dread settled in my stomach.
‘Mal?’ I knocked on the bathroom door. ‘Mal? Are you in there?’
I tried the knob. It didn’t open.
‘Mal?’ I knocked harder. ‘Open up. Mal!’ His name came out in a shout, and I heard chairs scrape against the floor downstairs. ‘Mal, open up!’
Hurried steps came up the stairs.
‘I’ve got the spare key. Let me open it.’ Dad pushed past me, said key in hand.
Once the lock clicked, dad slammed the door open. I pushed past him. Mal was on the floor, head resting against the edge of the bathtub. His eyes were closed and his head was lolling on his shoulders. On the floor next to him was an empty bottle that should’ve contained painkillers.
‘Mal!’ I fell to my knees next to him. ‘Mal?’ Nothing. I turned my head to shout over my shoulder. ‘Mum? Mum!’ I slapped his face gently, but there was only a tiny reaction of his eyes fluttering. He didn’t even manage to open them half-way.
Dad stared down at Mal, eyes slightly wider than normal. Dad could always be relied upon in any situation though. He was calm, rational, clear-headed. He didn’t go into a panic easily.
‘I’ll ring the A&E and get the car ready.’ Dad left the doorway only to be replaced by mum a moment later.
‘Bloody hell. I didn’t think about the pills. Oh no! How could I not remember the pills?’ She crouched next to me and felt him over. ‘Give me some room, Ty. Go get dressed right now, because we have to get to the hospital.’
I hovered, mind blank.
‘Get a move on, Tyler!’
I was reluctant to leave Mal, but Mum knew what she was doing. She knew a lot better than me what needed to be done now.
Please let him make it! I shouldn’t have got up and left the room. I should’ve stayed until Mal woke. Whatever I did, whatever decisions I made, seemed to make everything worse for Mal.
Let him be okay!
I fumbled inside my closet for clothes.
Mal needs someone on his side and I want to be that person.
I drew on a pair of joggers, a tee, and pulled a jumper over my head. My hands kept shaking, making me fumble every movement.
I owe him that much, after the hell I’ve put him through.
If only he didn’t manage to put an end to his life before then.
It was several hours later that I was allowed in to see him, and it was only because my mum worked at the hospital and managed to work it out for me.
Mal was pale and his eyes were dull. He still seemed a bit out of it. There was an IV needle taped to the back of his hand, which I supposed was feeding some kind of drugs or fluid into his body.
His arms were bandaged anew and Mum had said the worst cuts had been stitched up. He’d also had his stomach pumped to get rid of the pills he’d swallowed.
Not one member of his family had shown up at the hospital. According to Mum, the hospital staff had tried to ring the number listed on him, but no one had answered. I couldn’t even imagine how that must feel. I knew that if I was ever admitted to the hospital, my parents would do anything in their power to get to me. Then again, how could I know they didn’t give a damn about their son? If he even lived with his parents… How could I know? Considering Mal’s physical and mental state, I’d conclude that no one really did give a damn.
Mal turned his head slowly to gaze up at me under half-closed eyelids.
‘You just won’t let me die.’ His voice was flat. It scared me.
‘No. I can’t let you die.’ I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to keep him alive and well.
‘You’ve wanted me to. Before. All of you used to tell me to go and die. And when I finally do, you keep stopping me.’
I sunk down on the chair next to his bed.
‘I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done. ‘ I couldn’t even begin to get into words how sorry I was. It deserved so much more, but sorry would have to do. ‘Everything I’ve said. I never did mean it, I was just…’ How could I admit it? Especially when he kept staring at me impassively. ‘I was— I was scared.’ I ran a hand through my hair, ruffling it up. ‘I was scared and I took it out on you.’ Why was he so impassive? It made this ten-times worse, like whatever I had to say it wouldn’t matter to him. ‘I’m not looking for you to forgive me, Mal, because I don’t deserve it. All I want is to help you now. I just want to— to help. Nothing else. Please.’
His eyes didn’t leave my face. ‘What are you scared of?’
I bowed my head so I wouldn’t have to see his expression as I made my confession. ‘Only the most cliché-filled fear ever. I didn’t want them to know I was gay. That I thought you were cute.’ I wrung my hands, chewed on my lip.
‘You did?’ His voice was just a whisper.
‘I still do.’ I dared to lift my head back up. His eyes were wide and wet.
‘Nobody does.’ He turned his head, stared up at the ceiling, face blank again.
‘I do.’ I reached out to brush my fingers over the back of his hand. ‘I do.’ I silently begged him to understand I was telling the truth. ‘I hate what I’ve put you through. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can’t.’ I wish I could do the entirety of college again. I would make better choices. I would make better friends. I would stand up for Mal. But that wasn’t ever a possibility. All I had was here and now. ‘That’s why I want to be here for you now. Please let me help you.’ I sat at the edge of my seat now, anxious for him to say something.
‘I’m being sectioned.’ His gaze fell to our hands. ‘I’m going to be in hospital for a while. They didn’t give me a time schedule, but I know I will be. I’ve been before.’ Resigned. That’s what he was. Completely resigned to his fate.
‘I’ll be here.’ I dared to take my touch a step further, going so far as to squeeze his hand.
Don’t let him reject me. Please.
‘I want to be here for you, when you’re in hospital and when you get out.’ It was the least I could do. It was all I wanted to do. Make it up to him, make him feel better, make his life better.
‘I don’t want to be a burden.’
‘You’re not.’ I didn’t know how to reassure him. Maybe I didn’t have the right to. ‘I swear you’re not. I want this. I don’t expect anything in return either.’ Nothing at all in return. ‘Not forgiveness. I just… I want to help. I want you to finally have something good in your life, after all the shit I’ve put you through and that you’ve been through. I want to be the person who does that for you. Please let me.’
‘You can’t help me.’ He delivered in a cold, harsh tone. I sat back, startled at the sudden force. ‘I’m broken. Shattered. I’m empty inside. I have nothing to live for, all I want is to die. Why can’t you just let me?’
I felt cold. As cold as his words.
‘I can’t let you throw your life away.’ I moved from the chair to the edge of the bed. ‘Life’s precious. It’s been bad for you, I can see that. I didn’t make it any better, I only made it worse. But from now on… it’s going to be better, Mal. I promise.’
He closed his eyes, but it didn’t stop the tears from trickling.
‘You can’t know that.’
‘I can. Because I’ll do everything in my power to make it happen.’ I cradled his hand in-between my own, careful with the IV taped on the back of it. ‘I’m here for you. I want to be.’
He opened his eyes slowly. They were red and sore. ‘I can’t give you anything in return.’
I bowed my head in shame. Mal shouldn’t feel like he should have to give anything in return. He owed me nothing.
‘I don’t want anything in return. I just want to help you. That’s enough for me.’ I meant it. I simply wanted to be of help, be of support, for him to have a better life, and I wanted to be the one to make that happen. I’d spent too long making his life hell. It was time to rectify that.
Our gazed met and held. I wanted him to see he could trust me, that I wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt him again.
‘You promise?’ His bottom lip trembled. He seemed so small and young and vulnerable and my heart bled for him.
‘I promise.’ I squeezed his hand tighter. ‘Cross my heart. I promise I’ll be here for you, that I’ll never hurt you again. Ever.’
He blinked several times, I assumed to be rid of the tears, but it only resulted in them continuing to trickle down his cheeks. His eyes, so startlingly blue, stared up at me. Lifeless again. ‘You won’t succeed.’
My chest squeezed. It was like my blood literally ran cold. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. So I settled on squeezing his hand.
He didn’t squeeze it back.