The horror I feel is indescribable. The words ooze from him like pestilent slugs; dripping from lips that are cracked and broken. Each one is more deadly than the last, telling a story of pain and depravation so deep and so painful that I can hardly bear to hear it. But I must. If it is so hard to hear how much more difficult must it have been to live?
I grip more tightly, the hand that trembles in my own and, much as I want to run, I stay; much as I want to cover my ears, I listen; as much as I want to close my eyes I keep them steady, fixed on the ravaged beauty before me.
As the words slowly degrade to incoherency I let go of the hand and take the heaving body into my arms. Tears soak into my shirt and sobs shake the frame that was once to strong and now feels frail, strangely empty. I want to cry too, because my heart is breaking. But now I must be the strong one. I must be the one who bears in silence, in respect, in honour.
Suddenly he pulls away and stares into my eyes, gripping my arms with strength I didn't know he still had.
"You do believe me Jake? You do, don't you? You do believe?"
He is desperate and I don't blame him. He has lived with scorn and disbelief for so long. So many people have dismissed him, choosing to believe easy lies. We live in a small community and there is always someone ready to point the finger. In recent times all the fingers have been pointing in one direction.
"Of course I believe you. I was there wasn't I? I was there. I saw."
"You... were? You... did?" His eyes are wide, surprised, shocked even.
"Don't you remember?" He shakes his head and winces. It hurt. I'm sure that everything must hurt; it looks as if it does. "I was there. I've always been there."
And I have, almost. I was there when his dad beat him. It was my home he came to and my mother who rubbed salve on his wounds and eventually called Social Services. I was there when his foster father abused and then raped him. I was there when he and his brother ran away from foster care and it was me he came to; me who helped them find shelter at a local squat, me who babysat his brother while he went to work, wondering what kind of job paid so well for only a few hours work.
But I hadn't been there when the other members of the squat thought it was funny to get him high and then take turns at him while his brother watched. I hadn't been there when he held his brother while he sobbed and shook with fear because they had told him he would be next. I wasn't there when he turned his first tricks in desperation to buy them off. I hadn't been there when his tricks abused him, drugged him, and hurt him. I hadn't been there when the police picked him up for hustling then forced him to 'please them' in return for not arresting him and leaving his brother alone and vulnerable.
He'd looked like an angel then; with hair as golden as sunshine and beautiful cornflower blue eyes. He was the golden boy, the bright flame always burning, always blazing, blessing everything he touched. The angel Gabriel. He's not an angel now, except perhaps a fallen one.
Now it is my turn to wince. Yes, I was there, at the last. Last night I was there, but it was too little, too late. At the time I thought I was a knight in shining armour rushing in to save my friend but all I did was almost get us both killed and it was Gabriel, again, who saved us – but at what cost?
I barely recognise him. In the last few weeks he's gone downhill fast. Thinking back it has been coming for months. He has been losing weight and condition, his eyes getting bigger as his face got more and more sallow and sunken. I had no way of knowing it was because he was starving and desperate, because the corrupt police officers had been forcing him to work for them and, after giving them their cut and paying off the would be tormentors of his brother, he didn't have enough to feed them both and so he starved; barely managing to stay alive from what he could find in bins and scrounge from friends. Not that he had many friends left.
The whole community knew what he was; what he did, but none of them cared why. He was dirty and unkempt because his clothes were hanging off him and he was too depressed and exhausted to take care of himself. He didn't go to school anymore.
He'd been to my house for dinner fairly regularly. I think my mother saw what was happening even if I didn't. She always had a soft spot for him and always made sure that when he came to us he was well fed and had a long bath which always transformed him. Perhaps that's why I never saw it, because he was more his old self when he was with me. He never stayed over though because he had to be back at the squat to make sure Michael was safe. Very occasionally he brought Michael with him and he added to the image because when he was with his brother, Gabriel still lit up. He was very protective. He lived for Mikey.
There is very little of his old self left now. His eyes are dull and his face is ravaged by starvation, exhaustion and abuse. He's lost so much weight he feels insubstantial in my arms. I can see every rib and hollow far too easily. He used to be so big and strong, always the protector. That was his one great fault... he had to protect everyone; everyone but himself.
How Social Services have not got involved I really don't know. I will never understand. Okay, Gabe was seventeen when he ran away, and an adult now, but Mikey is still only fourteen. God knows how he did it but his experiences in foster care made him prepared to fight tooth and claw to keep Social Services away from Mikey. He would have died for Mikey, he almost did; maybe he will.
I look into his eyes and he blinks slowly and heavily. I can't look away. They may be dull eyes but they are still beautiful; he is still beautiful. There is nothing in his dazed expression that suggests he's aware of it or that it would have mattered if he was. I feel strange. It's been a long time since I have been this close to him. He stopped coming to see me weeks ago.
Gabriel frowns as if he is trying to remember something; his eyes darkening. "I don't remember... What happened? I don't..."
"It's alright, Gabe. They said it was normal for you not to remember. You remember before that so it's okay. Probably just as well."
The frown deepens and he blinks again, then sighs and closes his eye, slipping from my arms to sink back onto the pillows.
For a moment he doesn't answer than he opens his eyes and manages a weak smile. "I feel like I got hit by a train."
"Huh. Not quite." He is giving me a very direct look and I feel very uncomfortable.
"I remember... you. Did you save me?"
For a moment the urge is almost irresistible but I have never been able to lie to him.
"Nah. I tried to; I really did, but I messed up and you ended up saving me... again."
"I did?" He looks startled, surprised and confused.
"Fuck man, you were amazing. I was crapping myself and you were so cool, so controlled. I was scared of you myself." His eyes brightened, infected by my excitement.
"What did I do?"
"You only fucking shot him. He never thought you would. Fuck, we both thought you were dead. You wiped the smug look off his face right enough."
"I did WHAT?" He is staring at me open mouthed and I can't help but grin. This time he grins back.
"Don't you remember anything?"
He shrugs. "Not much; kind of vague bits and pieces. I don't remember shooting Blackwell though; not at all. You'd think I'd remember that."
"You were pretty banged up by then." Memories surface unbidden. Blackwell slamming Gabriel's head into the concrete floor again and again until he was lying in a pool of blood. Gabe, his hand shaking but strong, holding the guy, his face a terrifying mask of blood, dirt and pain. Gabe lying in my arms, bleeding and cold. At that moment I had truly believed he was dead and it was hours before I allowed myself to believe that he wasn't, in fact, either dead or dying. It was a long, lonely, scary night and even now I'm not wholly convinced.
"But I really shot him? I shot the bastard? Is he dead?"
"Unlikely. You shot him in the leg."
"Oh. Shame." He sounds disappointed and, apart from everything, I have to laugh.
"Who gives a fuck about him anyway? He's going down. It's over, Gabriel; it's over; you're safe."
He gives me a long hard stare – very long; very hard. "Safe?" He sighs deeply and seems to relax. He eyelids flutter than snap open.
"Mikey. Who's protecting Mikey?"
"Easy dude, he's fine. He's with my mother. He's here, downstairs."
Gabe relaxes again. "You won't... won't let him... let anything happen...?"
"Not a chance."
The exhaustion is overcoming him. I can see it rolling over him. His body is trembling and he is struggling to keep his eyes open. After what has happened I am frankly surprised he managed consciousness at all so soon... and all that emotion he spewed exhausted me, let alone him.
"Maybe you should get some rest now. You're a complete wreck. You look awful."
He smiles and there is a hint of the old sparkle in his eyes. He glances around then looks up, surprised. "Where am I?"
"You took your time asking."
"I had other things on my mind."
"I guess so. You're at the Royal."
"Only last night. Not even one day."
He looks even more surprised. "I feel like I've been here for a week." He raises his hand to his head and feels the stiff white bandage. "What happened to my head?"
"Blackwell whacked it on the floor before he..." I can't say it. I just can't get the words out. I can't say it. Gabe can. I was so shocked by how calm he was when he said them.
Not being believed, he gets upset about, Mikey he freaks out over; but being raped... that just doesn't seem to affect him anymore. Maybe it's happened too many times and he's numb to it. Maybe every time he was forced to sell his body for food and safety it had felt like being raped so that now it had taken on a twisted normality in his battered mind.
"He hurt you, Gabe. He hurt you and made me watch. I thought... I was afraid... I think he thought you were dead. I did too. You were so still and there was so much blood."
He looks a little queasy but manages a smile. "Nah, wasn't it you who was telling me just the other day how hard headed I am?"
"I didn't realise at the time how glad I would be about that."
"You will take care of Mikey, won't you? Just for a couple of days, until I'm out of here."
"Of course we will. He's safe, Gabe. You're both safe."
He looks unconvinced but nods and then... then he just seems to fade, his smile freezing and then slipping away as his eyes roll shut.
For a moment I am thrown into a complete panic and I make a total fool of myself calling a nurse to be told firmly that he is just sleeping and I had better not wake him or I'd be thrown out.
It's at this point my mother arrives with a surprise.
"What are you doing here?" Despite trying, I can't keep the bitterness out of my voice. Her face clouds and then her eyes snap.
"He is my son, Jake."
"Shame you didn't remember that when he really needed you; when his dad beat him, and worse; when he came to you for help and you wouldn't believe him. You never believed him. No one believed him. He..."
I am cut off by 'Jake', coming from three throats; two which contain censure and one only pain. I focus on Mikey and mumble apologies.
Mikey is almost as pale as Gabriel and has had a permanently shocked expression on his face since my mother picked him up on the way to the hospital.
He is very like Gabriel in many ways. He is younger by four years but just as tall, and even broader than Gabe. He does sports. He plays football and rugby, an unheard of combination, and he's good at both. Gabe is more into things like kick boxing and ninjitsu. He is never going to be a master but it saved us both last night and I prefer his leaner, more athletic physique.
Mikey likes to work out, to spend time at the gym and spends a lot of time at the sports centre. He still has no idea why he has been able to continue to do that; what it has taken to keep him safe and stable; what it has cost.
Mikey's eyes are the exact same shade as Gabe's and they are filled with the same wondering innocence that used to shine from his brother's. It has taken a lot to kill that, a hell of a lot.
I smile at Mikey but he doesn't smile back. Instead, he walks past me and stands at the side of the bed and looks down. His mother, looking nervous, goes to his side and puts her hand on his arm. He shakes it off, without taking his eyes from Gabe's face even for a moment. There is an unreadable expression on his face.
Turning my eyes from him, I let them run over Gabriel's face. It's been a long time since I've seen him this relaxed. I want to touch him and maybe if there had been no one else there I would have. One side of his face is disfigured by an ugly bruise and his lip is split and sore looking. I want to kiss it better, but it's going to take a lot more than a kiss to do that.
"It was for me wasn't it?" Mikey's words are soft but they practically make me jump out of my skin."
"What he did... what everyone is saying about him; he did it for me didn't he? To keep me safe."
"Mikey he... he... he did what he had to do... what he thought he had to do."
"He thinks I don't know." His words are still soft and, as he speaks he reaches for his brother's hand, touching it only with the tips of his fingers. "God knows why but he thinks I don't remember what they did to him at the squat; what they said they were going to do to me. I haven't forgotten, they haven't let me forget." He swallows hard.
"He doesn't know but... but they mocked us... both of us; not when Gabe was there but..." Even though his voice is perfectly level, tears run down his check and his fingers unconsciously stray to the place where the plastic tube goes into Gabe's arm, secured by a plaster that he picks with one nail. He's staring at it as if he's fascinated but I know he's not really seeing it. He's seeing something a long way away.
"They come to our room when Gabe isn't there; only three of them. The others are okay, some of them quite nice; but those three." He shivers. "They are the top dogs, the ones who run the house. They call me princess and him worse. They told me what he was doing and why. They called him a whore, and said that it was no more than a dirty faggot like him deserves." His eyes flick up to me and are like daggers even though his expression is still mild. What does he know?
"I'm sorry, Mikey. I didn't know. If I had known I would have..."
"Would have what? Saved me? Saved us? But you did known, didn't you? You knew that Gabe was... was having sex with... with men for money."
Hell, what can I say to that? There's nothing I can say to that. "Yes, I knew. Not at first, not for a long time, but in the end, yes, I knew."
"You're his best friend. Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you stop him?"
Good question. Why didn't I? I wanted to. I hated it, knowing what he was doing, what he was dealing with but the truth is... the truth is...
"I was scared. I... I didn't know; not really know although, looking back I suppose that was only because I didn't want to. Whatever... I didn't actually 'know' until Blackwell got involved and then I was really scared; we both were. He would have killed him. Look what happened in the end... he almost did."
"Gabriel's crazy, you know? He thinks he hid it from me, shielded me. For fuck sake... did he think I wouldn't hear it in school? Everyone knew. Everyone had something to say, and it was never anything good. They... they tried pushing me around but I got into a couple of fights and came off better so they left me alone after that... just comments and jokes and talking about... about him in loud voices.
"If only they'd known. If only anyone had known. Did you know? Did you know that they didn't just... that they hurt him? They hurt him all the time. I took care of him. It was bad the last couple of months; every time; worse and worse.
"Once... once I thought he was going to die but he wouldn't let me get help. He's so strong. He was bleeding and it wouldn't stop. I thought he was going to die. Then the fever came and I was sure he was going to die. But he didn't. And they wouldn't let him rest... they kept... they kept coming round and he made me leave. I don't... I don't think they did anything to him those times, but they were threatening him. I think they were... I think they were threatening that if he told anyone what was happening they would hurt me. I told him I could take care of myself but that's what Gabe's like. He has to be the protector, the one who takes care of me... and he did." Mikey looks up and glares at everyone. Tears spill down his cheek but the expression on his face is an angry one.
"Gods, MIkey. I didn't know. He hasn't been around for weeks."
"He couldn't; he's been too sick. I think that's why... that's why..." Finally his voice cracks and he crumbles. "That's why they took him."
"They were going to kill him weren't they? Because he's not pretty anymore; because he's used up."
"They were going to kill him, yes, but I don't think it was because of any of those things. I think Gabe was getting ready to quit. He called me on Friday afternoon. I was in school and then I went straight to the game. I didn't realise my phone was out of juice until I got home. When I put it on charge there were loads of missed calls from him and when I rang back it just went straight to answerphone. I think by the time I rang it was already too late; they had him. I think he was ringing for help because he wanted out and they knew it. If it wasn't for me he wouldn't have been in it in the first place. This is all my fault."
"It wasn't your fault, Mikey. None of it was ever your fault."
"Jake... was he...? I mean, I know why he did what he did. It was to survive, so that we could both survive but... but did he... I mean, did he...?"
"No. He didn't. There was no part of him that enjoyed it, that wanted it. He hated every moment. When he... when he told me what Blackwell was doing he... he said that he hated himself, that every time was like being raped. He just... he did what he had to do... what he thought he had to do."
Mrs. Freeman is sobbing quietly, hovering at Mikey's shoulder, her eyes flicking between her sons. My own mother puts her hand on my shoulder and when I look up I see that she has tears in her eyes too.
"I wish you'd told me, Jake."
I shrug. There's nothing more to say.
"Does it mean...? Does it mean that he wasn't... that he isn't... gay?"
Now there's the question. I haven't worked that one out for myself yet and it hasn't been for want of trying.
"I don't know, Mikey. It isn't something that I've been able to ask him."
"Why not? I mean, you've been best friends forever. You're closer than... as close as if... as if you were... you know... lovers. Why didn't you? I mean... I mean..." He looks at me, his eyes so much like Gabe's that my stomach turns over. My face is flaming and I turn away. "You're not are you? You and Gabe are not..."
"Lovers?" I can't help but laugh and the bitterness in my voice will surely be misconstrued but I don't care. "No. It was never anything like that. Never. It was... it is... I am... nothing. I'm nothing but his friend."
If only they knew how hard it was for me to say that. I have loved Gabriel for years, as long as I have known I'm gay. It's all been somewhat theoretical for me because there has never been anyone else. I have never kissed or... There was never room for anyone else; my heart was always too full of him.
If he hadn't run away who knows what might have happened? But he did. Once the shit hit the fan so to speak, he needed a friend and that what I had to be. And then... when he came back he was too... damaged.