"I'm sorry, Jake. I didn't mean..."
"It's okay, Mikey. That's the least of our worries."
"So what happens now?" That's my mother, practical as ever.
"What do you mean?"
"You're not going back to that squat."
"You can come home with me, Mikey. I would love to have you. Your father..."
"My father?" He turned and practically spat in her face. "My father is the one who started all this. He was the one who drove us away in the first place."
"Mikey, you don't understand Your father... he and Gabriel... They were always so... Gabriel provoked him, all the time. He..."
"Don't you dare! Don't you dare defend him! He abused Gabe; he beat him, he hurt him. If I ever see him I'll..."
"Mikey, that's enough! Your father loved Gabriel. He loves both of you. I've had enough of this nonsense."
"Nonsense? What the fuck...?" My voice is rising and I am beyond caring what anyone else thinks or has to say. Mrs. Freeman has always stood up for her husband, always asserted that Gabriel made up most of the things; had lied and exaggerated. In my mind a good portion of what happened is down to her. What mother would let two of her sons walk away, to be cared for by other families, to entrust them to strangers... just because she believed the lies of the piece of filth who hurt them? Even if she didn't believe Gabe how could she possibly have chosen his father over the two of them in the end? As far as I am concerned the minute she did that she lost the right to call herself their mother. She has no right to be here.
Fortunately, Gabriel must have heard or at least picked up the atmosphere because he moans and stirs and it's the only thing that could have got through to me.
"Hush now, Jake. Leave it be."
My mother's hand on my shoulder is meant to be comforting but it just makes me mad again. She knew. She saw.
In a low voice, practically spitting, I said... "Why do you STILL keep up the pretence? Everyone knows... everyone here knows. Loved them? If he did he had a strange way of showing it... well to Gabriel at least." Without meaning to, my eyes flick to Mikey and he winces.
"Don't pretend you didn't see." I hiss, glaring at her. "You must have. You MUST have."
"See what?" Her voice drips ice. "What are you trying to imply?"
"Imply? Imply?" I almost implode. "Mam... tell her, Mam. Tell her, you were THERE."
"Calm down, Jake. Let's go downstairs and talk about this calmly. This really isn't the place."
"Thank you, Mair, I know you're trying to help but these are my sons and I'll deal with it. As far as I'm concerned there is nothing to talk about. I've had enough of this nonsense; these vile allegations that have been bandied around for way too long. The truth is that Gabriel is out of control; he always was. His father tired to get some sense into him but he wouldn't take it. He's always been wayward and wilful and when his father tried to bring him into like he kicked back.
"He was always in his face. Whatever John asked him to do, he'd refuse. He was arrogant and selfish and challenging. When John punished him he'd climb out of the window or just walk out the door. We were at our wits end."
"And why was he like that? Where did he go when he walked out? He came to me. It was my mother who bathed the strap marks or put arnica on the bruises. She knows."
"I don't know what you think you know, or anyone knows, but I do know that if Gabriel had been prepared to give him some slack, to have listened to him now and again..."
"What? He wouldn't have been beaten quite so badly? He wouldn't have been... hurt?"
"John never hurt him. Yes, he hit him, he had no choice, Gabriel wouldn't listen to anything else. But he didn't beat him. He didn't hurt him. Do you have any idea what those vicious lies have done to him? He's lost his job, his friends have turned on him. He's depressed and..."
"Depressed? Forgive me if I don't weep for him."
"That's enough, Jake. You have always been a bad influence. You backed him up in his stupid ideas and if it hadn't been for you he would never have gone off the rails in the first place."
"So this is my fault now? God you're a piece of work. Do you ever accept responsibility for anything?"
"Jake, that's enough," my mother says softly. "Think of Gabriel."
I am about to open my mouth but I do think of Gabe and so I shut it again.
"Whatever may have happened in the past this is now and I am not going to have my son going back to the terrible place. Mikey is coming home with me."
"Mikey is coming home? What about Gabriel? He's your son too."
"He may be my son but it is not something I am proud to admit. I'm not having him in my house and..."
"I'm not coming home, Mam, not without Gabe; not while 'he's' there."
"God, you're as bad as he is. You were my beautiful little boy; my angel. What changed?"
"Everything changed. You let them take me away."
"I didn't, Mikey; I swear I didn't. I tried everything to keep you but Gabriel was saying those terrible things and the police believed him. Your father was charged with assault, Mikey. He almost went to prison."
"He should have rotted in jail for what he did."
"Oh, God, Mikey, not you... not you too? He's infected you with his sickness. Your father never assaulted him, never. He wouldn't do that. He loved him. He loves you both. He would never have hurt Gabriel. Everything he did was for his own good."
"Really?" The soft voice startles us all and everyone turns to look at Gabriel. His eyes are shining very brightly and the old spark that used to live there is kindled again. "For my own good? Was that what it was? When he came into my room at night and told me that the things he did were 'special' and 'just for the two of us' that was for my own good. I never knew. And when that wasn't enough for him anymore and he started raping me; that was for my own good? Good for what? Teaching me how to keep my mouth shut when some sweaty old man rams his cock up my arse? Well thanks Dad, you taught me that one well."
"Gabriel! How... how dare you? How...?"
"I think it's best if you leave."
"I'm taking Mikey with me."
"I'm not going anywhere with you."
"Then where do you think you are going to go? Back to that squat? Not while I have breath in my body. Social Services are going to hear about this and they'll..."
"They'll what? Drag me away kicking and screaming? Throw me in prison? Hunt me down? Because that is what they are going to have to do if they try and take me away from Gabriel or put me anywhere near you."
"Do you think that ANYONE is going to let you be within a mile of your brother now? There is no way they are going to place a decent boy with that... whore."
"Don't talk about Gabriel like that." I know it's bad timing but there is no way I can keep my mouth shut.
"Keep out of this, Jake."
"It's okay, Jake," Mikey says softly. "I don't care what she or anyone else says. If she really wants to push me then I can give up school and go on the run for the next four years. There will always be a squat waiting for me. If people wanted Gabe then they'll want me too. I can hold my own..."
"No!" three voices echoed. Two of them stopped in surprise. The other continued.
"I did not go through all this to protect you to have you throw it all away. You will NOT do that. You will stay at school, go to college, get a degree and make a life for yourself. I don't care how or where as long as you're okay."
"I'm not leaving you, Gabe."
"If that what it takes. I've done everything I can for you Mikey. I... I'm beat. I can't... I can't... I can't fight anymore."
"You don't have to, Gabe. I'll take care of you now. I can..."
"No. You can't. You're not old enough. You have to finish school."
"I don't want to..."
"I don't care what you want. You will do it."
"As much as I don't want to admit it, Gabriel is completely right. You do need to finish school. Come home with me and..."
"I think you misunderstand, Mother," Gabriel says, his voice dripping scorn. "Mikey will finish school but over my dead body will he do it while living with you and that man. Mrs. Candy, can Mikey stay with you until Social Services can fix him up with somewhere permanent?"
"Mikey can stay with us for as long as he wants; both of you can."
"Don't you dare try to take my children away from me!"
A buzzer sounds and makes us all jump. Gabriel is stone faced. He looks tired but resolute. When a nurse appears he tries to smile. "Can you ask her to leave please? She's making my head hurt."
"Don't you dare! I'm your mother. Don't you dare have me removed!"
The nurse is very firm and despite her complaints she is quickly and efficiently bustled out. "I'll take Mikey down to the canteen," my mother says diplomatically. "I think you need some peace and quiet and this one," she ruffles his hair even though he's a foot taller than her, "needs food."
"I don't want to..."
"I know you don't but you're going to. Don't worry, Gabriel isn't going anywhere. He'll be here when you get back."
The smile that Gabriel gives my mother is beautiful.
When we are alone I sit down on the hard chair and stare at Gabe's hand, while he stares at the ceiling.
"It's all fucked up," he says in a flat voice.
"I thought it was doing the right thing. God was I a fool?"
"You weren't a fool," I say fiercely. "You're the great protector. That's the way you're hardwired. You have to protect everyone. It's what you do. Don't think we're not grateful but could you please now start to protect yourself?"
"I don't know how."
"Tell you what... why don't you let me protect you for a while?"
"You? You couldn't protect a cat."
"I do my best."
He looks up and gives me a piercing look.
"Promise you'll take care of Mikey."
"I don't need to. You can look after him yourself."
"As if. No one is going to let a used up whore take care of a fourteen year old kid."
"Don't you dare. Don't you dare talk about yourself like that."
"Why not? It's true."
"It's not true. Whatever you did, that's not who or what you are."
He sneers. "What am I then? Seeing as you know me so well, you tell me who and what I am. I'm damned if I know."
"Who are you? You're who you always were; my best friend. What are you? You're... you're..." I turn my eyes away. I came so close. I can't. Not now. I can't.
Gabriel sighs. "You see? You can't say it; can't even look me in the eyes. I'm a whore, pure and simple. I used to be a normal person, full of hopes and dreams. Even when he was... even when I was at home I still had my dreams; I still had you. The crazy thing is that even when I was at the squat; even when all that was going on I still had hope. Crazy."
"Now? Now I'm too tired to hope anymore. I can't see anything in my future except a black hole." He sighs deeply. "I'm too tired, Jake. I'm too tired to go on any more. I just want to stop. I want to..."
"No, you don't." I'm scared; terrified of what he's saying and what he's not saying. "You don't want to stop. You can't. It's been hell; I know it's been hell. I wish I'd been there. Oh god I wish I'd been there. I feel so guilty for letting you go through all that alone."
"Guilty? You? What the hell do you have to be guilty about? You've given me more than anyone else in the world has ever given me. You've been a far better friend to me than I ever was to you."
"Do you think? You were the golden boy, the angel and I was your shadow. I basked in your glory." I was only half teasing and he only half laughed.
"Golden angel? Hardly. Maybe I was once; I was told that, but... the angel died a long time ago."
"Died? Are you crazy? How can you possibly say that the angel's dead when he's sitting right in front of me?"
"Don't Jake, please." He drops his head and started picking at the bed sheet.
"Don't lie to make me feel better. Nothing is going to make me feel better, trust me. I know the score. I used to be beautiful, once; I'm anything but now. I'm hollow, used up, just a shell."
"No. You're not." I have no idea what I'm doing and it might be the worst thing I have ever done; or it might be the best thing I have ever done. I know he isn't going to spit in my face for it so what do I have to lose?
I reach out and take his hand. He looks up at me, surprised. "You're beautiful, Gabe: you always were and you always will be. You've been through hell and I should have been there with you but I wasn't. I was there last night though. I found you and I thought I was saving you but I almost got us both killed. You saved me. You saved me, again. You've spent half our lives saving me. Okay, you were usually the one who got us into trouble in the first place but I was ready enough to follow and I was always saved.
"You make me laugh; you make me cry; you scare me; you comfort me. I trust you more than I have ever trusted anyone. I rely on you more than I have ever relied on anyone. I need you more than I have ever needed anyone. I love you... I..."
I stutter to a stop and Gabriel stares at me, his eyes wide, his lips forming and O of surprise.
"I um... I... have to go."
I try to get up but Gabriel holds on to my hand and won't let me go. He doesn't say a word. He just stares at me.
"Gabe, please, I..."
"Don't." His voice is... strange. Everything about him is strange. I stop trying to pull away.
"I'm sorry." He ignores me.
"Do you really think I'm beautiful? Even now?"
"To me you are."
"Really. Even more than before."
"Now you're being stupid." He lets go of my hand and turns away. "Don't mock me."
"I'm not mocking you, Gabriel. You were always more to me than the golden angel everyone saw on the outside. That didn't really matter. The thing that really blew me away was the beautiful person you were on the inside... and you still are."
Gabriel looks at me and frowns. "Are you serious?"
"Do you have any idea how scared I am? Why the hell would I do this if I wasn't being serious."
"You're beautiful, Gabriel, but sometimes you can be really stupid."
He smiles, a strange smile. "No, not really. I know what you're saying; I just really need to hear you say it."
"Say what?" I gulp and feel the colour draining from my face. He grabs my hand again and I know he can feel me shaking. "That I love you? That I've always loved you; always? That even when you weren't around; especially when you weren't around, you were always on my mind? That last night when that fucker was hurting you; when I thought he'd killed you I felt that my world ended and I was angry, so fucking angry... because it hadn't been me. What more can I say?"
He is staring at me as if he doesn't really believe I'm here, let alone the things I'm saying. He shakes his head. "Nothing. Nothing more."
"What now? Do you... Do you hate me?"
Gabriel starts to laugh. He laughs so hard that he has to let go of my hand to hold himself. The nurse comes in but when she sees that he is laughing she pats my shoulder, smiles and leaves. After a while I get concerned, confused, and then a little offended. Is it really that funny that I should love him?
"Is it really that funny?"
"What?" he sputters.
"Is it that funny... that I love you? I'm glad that you're laughing, that you find it funny but forgive me if I don't."
"I've lived with this for ten years. I've watched you every day, saw you grow, turn into a golden angel and have everyone fall at your feet. I've been there, in your footsteps, worshipping you, torturing myself every night. Promising myself that the next day for better or worse I would end the agony by telling you. Every time you came to me when you were in trouble I imagined myself as your knight in shining armour and convinced myself that one day you'd see me like that too and then I could tell you.
"When you weren't here I thought about you all the time, kicked myself because I wasn't there with you, that I hadn't told you and might never get the chance."
"Why didn't you? When I came back and you knew... why didn't you tell me?"
"I thought that you needed a friend and not more complications."
He nods. "You're probably right."
"So what can I say? What could I possibly say to that? I remember you there... always. I remember thinking when things were bad that everything would be alright because you were there. I remember lying in bed after... after... and wanting to end it, to die right there and then... but I didn't because I knew that in the morning I'd get up and go to school and you'd be there. All my life... you were there. I didn't love you."
Oh how four words can hurt so much? I try to pull away but he won't let me.
"I didn't love you because... 'He' said he loved me when he... and I didn't think of you like that. I loved Mikie and I certainly didn't think of you like that. I didn't think of you at all; you were just... there. You were... are; part of me; the same. How can you love part of yourself? But..."
He takes his hand away from mine and raises both of them to his head. I want to reach out to him but I'm frozen because I don't know what he's saying.
"When... when I was... being... used... I got through it... The only way I got through it was by pretending it was you. When I was alone in the night I talked to you and when I cried I imagined your arms around me. You are the only person in my life I have ever completely trusted, felt completely safe with.
"You were always there... always. Do I love you? I don't know. I don't know what love is anymore. Love. Sex. Love. Sex. I don't know the difference anymore."
"There's a difference. Trust me, there's a HUGE difference. Give it a try and you'll see for yourself. Money back guarantee."
Gabriel looks scared to death. "What if I hurt you? What if I let you in and then I hurt you?"
"What if I hurt you? What if we both drop dead tomorrow? What if...? Who gives a fuck about what if? The fact is that we won't know unless we try." My heart is pounding so hard it hurts. This is more than I could ever have dreamed of and it's scaring the hell out of me. "Look, things are not going to be easy. There's a whole load of shit around the corner and you're going to need to fight... if only for Mikey. I don't want you to do it alone. I want to be there with you, holding your hand. I want to take you in my arms and protect you and make everything alright for you.
"I want to take care of you, Gabriel. I want to take care of you until you're strong again. I want to shield you from the spite and pettiness and when things are sorted I want to take you away from it all and start again somewhere new where no one knows us. I want to spend the rest of my life with you." I lean forward taking his hand again and squeezing it.
"I'm not asking for any declarations of true love, or commitment, or even sex. I'm happy to be with you and I don't want anything more."
"I couldn't ask you to do that."
"You didn't ask."
"Shut the fuck up about what if's. I couldn't give a shit about them. Just tell me... Do you want to be with me? Do you want to give us a try?"
He looks at me, biting his lip. Then he smiles, his beautiful golden smile.