"I would never have done that."
"You did do that Jamie. I know you didn't mean to. I know you would never have hurt him deliberately; but you did. When you left it tore the heart out of him and he has never been the same since. He's broken, Jamie. Somewhere deep inside he's lost his sunshine. He doesn't smile any more; doesn't speak, barely sleeps or eats.
"Marc was never going to be independent. He was always going to need someone to look after him all his life but we never meant to make that person you. We never meant to put that responsibility on your shoulders."
"But I don't care about that; I want it. I want to take care of him. I won't leave him again."
They exchanged glances and I didn't know what that meant. By that time I was so scared, so angry, there were a lot of things I wasn't noticing.
"Jamie, no one could expect you..."
"I don't care what anyone expects. I'll get us a place together and I'll take care of him."
"And how would you support yourselves?"
"I'll get a job; work anywhere."
"And who will take care of Marc while you're at work? Or were you planning on leaving him in your home alone? Do you think he would cope with that?"
"No, I... I'd find a way." I felt desperate, as if the conversation, Marc's life, was slipping through my hands.
"What about when you fall in love?"
"What...?" Shit do they know?
"Sooner or later you're going to meet someone and want to make a life with them. You're going to have a wife and children. How are they going to fit in? You couldn't just put Marc aside at that point. It's a lifetime commitment."
How could I tell them? How could I admit? How could I explain how I had tried? I had tried so hard to open my heart to someone else. There had been girlfriends... and boyfriends but none of them lasted because none of them could compare.
I knew that there was never a possibility of Marc and I being together that way. I knew he loved me as much as I loved him but, with Marc, it could never have been anything more than innocent; strictly platonic and I was happy with that. I was sure that I could live with him, love him and never compromise him.
"I'll make it work," I said stubbornly. They smiled sadly at me.
"We know you mean that. You've always been a wonderful friend to him but you're a man now, Jamie, a man with your own life, your own responsibilities. Marc can't be first with you any more, and you can't fight the world for him."
"I'm sorry Jamie. I know this is hard for you but it's happening. Marc's booked in for the surgery on Wednesday."
"What? So soon but..."
"We've been thinking about it for a long time, Jamie. We didn't want to worry you with the details until we were sure. We didn't want you to worry when you were so far away."
"Does he know?" I was stunned, completely stunned but my main concern was with Marc as usual.
"In a way. He knows but he doesn't understand.
"How can you do this? I can't understand why you would hurt him like this... for nothing."
"He's hurting anyway, Jamie. He can't cope with an adult world and you can't stay a child for him. These have been... worrying times. He's growing up Jamie. It's been delayed but in the last two years he's become a man and..." She sighed and shook her head and I'll never forget the look in her eyes. I wasn't aware of it but she knew, even then she knew.
"He'll never find love, Jamie, never have a relationship, never know what it's like to hold someone in his arms; to kiss. He'll never have a job or a family and what will happen to him when we are gone."
"I'll take care of him," I said dully, but I knew the battle was lost. "Is it... is it dangerous? Will it hurt him?"
They exchanged glances again and Mrs Harmon bit her lip. "Yes," she whispers and I couldn't take any more.
I heard them call after me as I strode from the room. Marc was surprised when I burst into his room and hugged him close; surprised but not worried in any way and he hugged me back eagerly. I could feel his heart beating fast and hard, but I didn't really notice.
When he realised I was crying he pulled away and looked into my eyes with that piercing gaze that makes me shiver. I had often wondered what went on behind those eyes. He always knew how I was feeling, sometimes even better than I did myself.
He reached up and touched my tears. "Don't be sad, Jamie."
"I'm not sad." I covered his hand with my own and he looked surprised again. "I'm scared for you Marc. Do you know what they are going to do to you?"
He narrowed his eyes "Do? To me?"
"The doctors in the hospital?"
His eyes widened again and he shivered. "I don't like it, Jamie. I was scared. They hurt me and I felt funny." His brow furrowed with concentration. "Mam held my hand and," he brightened and treated me to his smile for the first time. "next time I get to hold your hand."
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and I started to turn away but he wouldn't let me. "Jamie?" Reluctantly I turned back. "You will hold my hand?"
"Yes, of course I will hold your hand but... Do you know what's going to happen to you Marc, what they are going to do to you?" He shook his head but he didn't look overly concerned. "They're going to cut into your head Marc; put things inside your brain that will change you. You won't be the same. You might die."
For the first time there was a flash of fear in his eyes but he shook his head and said stubbornly. "I'll be with you."
"But I can't stop them hurting you, Marc. I can't..."
He smiled, a different smile, a smile I couldn't read with a look that had more behind it that I had ever seen... or maybe noticed, before.
"No Jamie...after. I'll be with you after."
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head and wouldn't say more but there was a lot going on behind his eyes.
The days that followed were absolutely the worst of my life and the day we took him to the hospital will haunt me for the rest of my days. We were all tense and that rubbed off on Marc so he was jumpy and nervous.
The day before the operation we spent every minute together. I had taught him to play games on the computer and he had taken to it with remarkable alacrity. He couldn't read but when the game required it I was always there to help. Actually he was very good and he usually beat me... not that night though, his mind wasn't on it.
After a while we gave up and watched silly comedies on TV. Mark loves to laugh and he does so easily and infectiously. We cuddled together on the battered old sofa in his room and I struggled not to cry while he laughed aloud, snuggling into my side with his head resting on my shoulder. He had no idea how hard it was for me to have him so close, so affectionate; or how badly I wanted to hold him, to kiss him. But I didn't.
Sometimes he looked at me with the strangest expression, as if he wanted to say something, but he didn't.
That night we slept, as we always did, in the twin beds in his room. However, this time when I woke up in the early hours of the morning it was with his arms around me and his head on my chest. I raised my head and looked down at the blonde curls, my hands clenching at my sides and my stomach clenching under his hand. He was so innocent. He didn't know what he was doing to me; he couldn't have.
At first, when we got to the hospital Marc was nervous, but okay, as long as I was close to him. He was scared when the doctor examined him and highly suspicious of the nurses. The whole environment unsettled him and he was very anxious. He freaked out if I was out of his sight even for a moment and when I went to the toilet he had to go too.
They sedated him early on, when he was getting anxious and agitated but that only made it worse because then he was confused and disoriented as well and it killed me.
We were there for a long time, waiting. I got more and more tense and to be honest the fact that his parents were there added exponentially to the tension because at that time I really wasn't happy with them for putting Marc through this.
As I got more wound up Marc picked up on it more and more as the drugs confused him and the environment scared him. I felt as if the situation was spiralling out of control and there was nothing I could do to stop it. He didn't want his parents near him and he clung to my hand with more and more desperation.
I will never, ever forget the look on his face when they came to take him to theatre. I was lying on the bed, holding him and he was dozing, finally feeling safe. The nurses were dressed in scrubs and were very nice but very firm in insisting I get off and then move away from the bed.
Marc woke in absolute terror and when he couldn't see me he started to struggle and then to scream. In the end they let me go with him and hold his hand but the damage had been done and he cried bitterly the whole time until they finally put him to sleep.
When the doors closed behind me after they bustled me out and I found myself alone in the corridor I started walking. I had no idea where I was going; I just walked.
I finally came to myself to find that two hours had passed and I was almost home, having walked automatically for almost 10 miles. There were numerous missed calls on my mobile phone. Most of them were from Marc's mother and there were some from mine. Panicking, I rang my mother who was almost frantic with worry.
"Nothing. There's been no news; but Jamie where have you been. We've been worried sick?"
"What? You walked all the way home?"
"But why?" She sounded very concerned but I was too tired to even try and give her a full explanation.
"I don't know why. I just had to get away. I had to stop thinking. It was... I just couldn't stand it any more."
"Are you coming back?"
"I don't know. I really don't know. It's not as if Marc will know whether I'm there or not."
"No, but Jill and Gary will. This is really tough on them and it would mean such a lot if you were here."
"I'm sorry, Mam but I right now I really don't give a fuck about them."
"It would be better if I wasn't anywhere near them for a while." I surprised myself with how cold my voice was. I hated them. Every time I thought of Marc's beautiful face twisted with fear and heard his screams in my head I hated them more. This was their fault. It was unnecessary and cruel.
"Jamie, what's going on?"
"I don't know. You have no idea what it was like Mam; what he was like. He was so scared and they... I... There was no need for this. There was never any need fodr it. They didn't have to put him through this; they shouldn't have. I can't... I don't want to be around them right now, not when I hate them so much."
"Oh Jamie, sweetheart..."
"I know... and I'm sorry but I can't help it."
I stayed away for three days. Marc came through the surgery and they put him in a medical coma while his brain healed. I have never wanted to be somewhere so badly while not wanting to be there equally. The fact that his parents were there with him all the time made any question of giving way to my longing academic. I could not face them.
They rang me from time to time and my parents begged me to speak to them, but I couldn't. The thought of looking into their eyes and seeing pain there was too much for me because I knew that I couldn't feel sympathy for them. I wanted to see pain there because no matter how much pain they were feeling it wasn't anything like as much as Marc was... or at least had been.
On the third day I was making a sandwich in the kitchen when there was a knock on the front door. I was alone in the house so I opened it. It was Jill Harmon. I wasn't so far gone that I slammed to door in her face but I turned and walked away from her. She followed me into the kitchen.
"Jamie, I understand how you feel..."
I had promised myself not to say anything but this was too much.
"Understand? How could you possibly understand how I feel? You weren't there. You didn't see him, you didn't hear him scream. He didn't deserve this. He didn't... This didn't have to happen. He didn't have to get hurt like this. Why? Why did you do it to him? You knew what he would be like, how scared he would be, how he wouldn't understand what was going on. Why did you do it? Why did you do this to him?"
"Jamie... You weren't here. You didn't see what he's been like, what's been happening to him. You saw the Marc you used to know, not the one he'd turned into. He's... changed."
I almost spat at her. I have never hated anyone as much as I hated her in that moment. Maybe it wasn't fair, even rational, but I had not been sleeping. I had lain awake for nights worrying about him, remembering him, and mourning him. "He hasn't changed. The only thing that changed was you. You didn't want to be burdened with him any more." I saw her eyes widen with shock but I didn't care. I pushed on. "You didn't need to. I would have taken care of him. I would have mortgaged my soul to look after him.
Once I started I couldn't stop. "I promised to protect him. I promised that I would never let anything or anyone hurt him. I swore that I would always be there for him and you turned me into a liar. I had to hold his hand and let them hurt him. I had to watch him cry and scream and do nothing NOTHING. And it was all because of you. I hate you. I hate both of you."
"I know you think we deserve that, Jamie, and maybe we do. This was never an easy decision for us but in some ways we made it because of what you just said to me."
"I know you love him, Jamie." There was something in the way she said it that sent a shiver through me.
"Of course I love him. I have always loved him. I would have done anything for him, anything; and now... I don't understand why you didn't trust me, why you didn't at least let me try. I would have taken care of him; I wouldn't have let anyone hurt him. I have never let anyone hurt him."
"No, you haven't and I have always been grateful for it, for what you have done for him. But you're also in love with him and that's a different story."
I stared at her, my heart thudding painfully in my chest. What should I say? What could I say?
"I... I've never..."
"I know you haven't. I know that you have never been anything more than a wonderful friend to him. I know that you have been careful and honourable and I know it's been tearing you apart. Can you imagine what it would have done to you if you had been living with him?
"I know you, Jamie. I know that you would never have compromised him and that you would have been happy to sacrifice your love and your life for him... but how long could it have lasted? You couldn't have lived like that for long without destroying one or other of you."
"I... I could have... I could..." The strength went out of my legs and I sat down suddenly on a stool.
"I'm sorry, Jamie. I didn't mean to hurt you but I need you to see."
My head snapped up. "But even so. You could have told me. You could have told me you knew. We could have worked something out. There was no need for this."
"Maybe. If it was just you."
"What do you mean?"
"You have eyes, Jamie, a brain in your head. You saw the way that Marc reacted to you going away. You haven't seen the half of it. It almost destroyed him. Did you really never wonder why; why he had that strong a reaction to you leaving him? And I don't mean that as a criticism."
"I..." An uncomfortable feeling was worming in my gut and I felt sick. I wanted to run away but there was nowhere to run.
"He isn't made of marble, Jamie. He's a man. In every way except for his mind he's a man. These last two years he's changed, grown, grown up. You didn't see it. To you he was the same Marc he always was, the little boy in the body of a man but he wasn't, not any more. The little boy grew up Jamie. He has... feelings, emotions... urges. He... he was in love with you Jamie... he is in love with you and..."
"And you punished him? You punished him for being in love with me?"
"No. No Jamie, it was nothing like that. It was when we realised that he was in love with you that we really started to think seriously about this. You are two beautiful young men and you are in love with each other. What kind of a cruel world would it be if you had to spend every day together and never be able to kiss, to touch, to be in love?
"And what would have happened when he couldn't stop himself any longer, when the feelings overwhelmed him and he showed you how he feels? What would have happened when he tried to kiss you or... or...? How hard would you have fought him?"
"I would never have... NEVER..."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure." But was I? I don't know. I was in shock. Shaking my head I changed the subject. "Are you trying to tell me that you did this so that Marc and I could be together?" The scorn was clear in my voice. I was not about to accept this at face value.
"No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that I did it because my son was desperately unhappy and all I could see was a future where he just got more and more so. And it didn't help that someone I care very much about was about to ruin his life and any chance of happiness he may have had."
"I -- don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything. Just come to the hospital -- please."
There was something in her voice that worried me. Why had she come now? Why was she telling me this now? Why did she want me to go to the hospital now? "Why? Is something wrong?" I was scared and all thoughts of everything flew out of my head; all there was room for was Marc.
"No, there's nothing wrong. He... he's doing really well, surprising everyone. They took him off the breathing machine this morning and they're reducing the drugs. The doctor said that maybe he would wake up soon and... and I..."
"Wake up? Soon? Today?"
She nodded. "Maybe."
I didn't travel in the car with her. I wasn't ready for that and I had a lot to think about. I almost flew to the hospital. A journey that had taken me two hours walking took less than 10 minutes in the car.
I left the car in the car port and almost forgot to pick up the tag. Just as well there was a verbal prompt or it would have been the last I saw of it and I really like that car.
I have never been so nervous in all my life as I was walking in to that hospital. I got lost, found my way; walked away and came back again and eventually, taking a deep breath I opened the door and walked in.
Mr and Mrs Harmon looked up at me with expressions of uncertain relief. I ignored them, not because I was still angry but because I only had eyes for the beautiful boy who lay in the bed. I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't this.
He looked just the same. His face was relaxed and peaceful and his blonde curls bounced around his shoulders. Behind the bed the screen flashed its constant flow of indecipherable numbers and symbols. But apart from the plastic tubes that carried drugs into his arms there was nothing, nothing at all to say that he was anything other than sweetly asleep. He was even wearing his favourite black pyjamas.
For a moment I did my usual mental somersaults, forcing myself to bury my feelings deeply but, after the conversation with Mrs Harmon I thought 'fuck it'. My cover was blown anyway, if I'd ever had it in the first place.
Throwing caution to the wind I let my feet take me over to the side of the bed where I allowed my eyes to consume his beauty and my hand to reach out and touch his soft curls and to caress the curve of his cheek. It was the first truly sensual touch I had ever given him and it made my pulse quicken and my blood pound in my head.
I had never let myself to appreciate how truly beautiful he is and once my eyes were opened I was dazzled. I just couldn't help myself. I had to touch him; to stroke his hair, his eyelids, his cheeks, his lips.