I walked past rows and rows of gravestones, briefly taking note of the names on them, trying to find one in particular.
Trying to find the only grave that mattered.
It was two months since Mal had been buried—for the first I’d been hospitalised, unable to take part in the funeral. The month after I came out of hospital, I’d had too much to catch up on in college to find time.
But now I had.
Now I was here.
Most of the graves I passed were well tended, with flowers and lights and whatnot.
I hadn’t brought anything with me except a letter.
A letter Mal would never read, because he was dead, but a letter addressed to him anyway. Because writing was the only way I knew how to deal, the only way I knew how to express myself properly.
A new row of graves stretched out before me.
A person was in front of one, which didn’t have a proper stone, only a white cross. He held a red rose in one hand, twirling it between his fingers.
I went in a wide circle around him, glancing briefly at the cross without expecting much, except—
It was Mal’s grave.
I backtracked. Stared at his name on the plain white cross.
Then I looked at the bloke kneeling on the grass. He still twirled the rose, and he gazed at Mal’s name too. He seemed deep in thought, as he hadn’t even noticed that I stood next to him.
Who was he? I wanted to ask, but didn’t know how. I didn’t want to be rude, after all.
He jerked in surprise, head whipping around and up to look at me. His eyes were wide and brimming with tears.
I frowned. “Who are you?” He couldn’t be Mal’s family, because from everything Mal had shared in group, none of his family cared about him. They’d used and abused him—and if they grieved his death it would only be because they couldn’t continue to abuse him, not because they missed him.
He swallowed several times. “I’m Tyler.” He cleared his throat. “A friend of Mal’s. Who’re you?”
“A friend.” I gazed down at him. He seemed sad. But since when had Mal had a friend? That wasn’t something he’d ever shared in group. As far as I knew, Mal hadn’t had anyone.
He drew in a shaky breath.
“Where do you know Mal from?” Even if he seemed genuinely upset, I knew I couldn’t trust my first impression. He might be another one of Mal’s tormentors—and if he was, I wasn’t going to be nice to him.
“From college.” He bowed his head, glanced at the cross again. “We weren’t friends then. But he lived with me for the past couple of months. With my parents and me.”
My frown deepened. “He never said.” Why wouldn’t Mal have shared that in group? If he’d got away from his mother and brother, why had he kept that a secret from us? We in group knew everything about each other.
“Where do you know him from?” He looked up at me again, eyes still shining with unshed tears.
“We were in group therapy together. And in the same college.”
He blinked. “Are you… Josh?”
I took a step back, surprised he knew my name. “Y-yeah.” Had Mal told him about me? Yet why hadn’t he told anyone about him?
He brushed off his jeans and straightened up. He was both taller and wider than me, and I tilted my head back a little to look into his face.
“He talked about you sometimes.” His eyes were still wet, but he seemed to have more of a handle on himself now.
“He never mentioned you.” I wrapped my arms around myself, crumbling my letter a little, but I needed the support. “Nor that he’d moved out from home.”
His bottom lip started to tremble and he pressed his lips together into a flat line. “He seemed to get better. After his hospitalisation, when he came back to live with us. I thought—” His voice broke, and my heart started to bleed for him. “I thought maybe there was hope after all.”
My first impression had been right. This was someone who did care for Mal, and who was broken over his death.
It was a suicide.
But I hated that word. Even thinking it made the events of that day, two months ago, flash before my eyes.
“Do you want to—” He shuffled uncomfortably, toeing the grass with his trainers. “To maybe go somewhere? Somewhere we can talk? For a coffee or tea or something?”
For a minute panic settled in my gut—because going somewhere with a stranger wasn’t such a good idea. But going for tea or coffee usually meant a public place, and that couldn’t be so bad, could it?
“Please?” He begged me now. “I need to talk to someone. Someone who knew him.”
That settled it. “Okay.”
I unfolded my arms and smoothed out the folded paper, trying my best to do damage control. It didn’t work, it was still crumbled. Not that it mattered, it wasn’t like Mal could actually read what I’d written on it, after all.
He still held the single red rose in one hand.
Doesn’t red roses mean love or something?
Had Mal had someone who loved him? Someone who cried over his grave, who brought a rose to put on it, who he’d lived with…
And yet he’d still killed himself.
“I know a nice place down in Soho. We could take the tube there?” If I was going to talk to him, I needed to do it somewhere familiar. Some place I knew people, and where people knew me. Not that I thought he’d do anything to me, but talking about Mal was something I only did in therapy sessions… and it was hard.
He nodded quickly. “Yeah, okay.”
I watched as he bent back down to put the rose close to the white cross. He put it down tenderly, as if afraid it might hurt the grass or the cross—or even Mal himself.
When he straightened, he wiped quickly under his eyes, then gave me a shaky smile. “Did you want to leave something?” He glanced briefly at the crumbled paper I held.
I bit my lip.
I felt stupid now, with a handwritten letter. He’d had a rose, which made more sense. People put flowers on graves, after all, not letters.
“No.” I stuffed the letter in my pocket quickly. “I just wanted to come here and see where he was buried.”
He blinked. “You haven’t been here before?” I wasn’t sure if I imagined the slight accusatory tone to his voice or not.
I shrunk back. “No. I’ve been… sectioned.” Best to be truthful. Being in hospital meant I couldn’t have come here, after all. “And then I had so much to catch up to in college.”
He nodded slowly, eyes darting away from me. “Should head to the tube then?”
Silence descended between us as we walked back through the graveyard. There were other people around us and I didn’t want to talk where strangers could listen in. Not here, anyway.
Best to wait until we reached the Café.
At least we’d have a table to ourselves there.
We settled on the most secluded table, facing each other.
He’d got a cup of tea, whereas I clutched a big mug of hot chocolate. Without whipped cream, because I didn’t like that on anything but cake, and even then I wasn’t too fond of it.
“Were you and Mal close?” he asked, staring deeply into his tea-cup.
“Not really.” I wet my lips nervously. “I mean, I wanted to be his friend and I tried, but I don’t think he wanted to be my friend.”
“He did.” He lifted his head suddenly to stare at me. “He liked you. He did want to be your friend. He just… I just don’t think he could.”
He might be right there.
“I thought I knew everything about him, from group. We’re not supposed to lie or keep anything back there.” The hot chocolate was too hot to drink yet, so I only gripped the mug tighter. “But he never shared anything about you.”
“He never shared anything about his past with me.” He looked away from me again, glancing around the Café. “I’ve seen his—I mean, I saw—his body, saw what he’d done to himself. And it was horrible. I can’t even imagine what he’s had to go through to do that to himself.”
My arms tingled. “His whole life’s been horrible.”
Group rules were that we weren’t allowed to talk about anything we said there to anyone outside group. But Mal was dead… surely the rules didn’t apply any longer?
Tyler wanted to talk about Mal. Maybe he needed to know more about him, needed to understand what had driven Mal to suicide. I could share that now without hurting him, because Mal was dead.
“So I reckoned.” He took a sip of his tea. “I got glimpses. He had nightmares. But he never told me anything flat out. When he talked it was usually about you. Or me. I wasn’t—well… I wasn’t very kind to him back in college.”
My fingers tightened around my mug to the point my knuckles turned white. “What?”
“My mates bullied him. And I never stopped them. I just watched.” He bowed his head, staring into his tea again. “We made his life at college a living hell.”
“His life outside of college was living hell.”
His cheeks flushed. “I didn’t know that then.”
Poor Mal. “You’re not in college now, are you?” I couldn’t remember ever seeing him. Not with the group of lads who’d tormented Mal last year.
He shook his head. “I graduated last summer.”
“Mal was bullied this year too,” I said, not sure if I wanted to make him feel guilty or not.
“I know.” He seemed quite guilty. “I love him.”
That brought me up short.
“Or loved him, I guess.” He ran a hand over his face. Not once he did he look my way. “I thought he’d come to like me too.”
“Mal isn’t—wasn’t—he couldn’t ever…” I trailed off, unable to find a way to explain myself. “Mal was ruined. He wasn’t happy. I don’t think he ever could’ve been happy, not after everything.”
He licked his lips. “Part of me wants to know what happened to him. What he went through. But another part of me is terrified of knowing.”
“Mal’s like me,” I said, going for honesty again, “borderline. Borderline personality disorder. Emotionally unstable. We feel everything more intensely than everyone else. Sadness is grief, embarrassment is humiliation, depression is a big black hole we can never crawl out of… it’s chaotic and exhausting.”
He glanced up at me.
I didn’t meet his eyes. I couldn’t if I wanted to keep talking. “Mal was used and abused by the two people closest to him. People who were supposed to protect and love him. But they didn’t. They ruined him instead—they shattered him. And nothing could put those pieces back together. Not even love.”
He swallowed audibly.
“I was there, when he died. When he—” The images flashed through my mind. “He asked me not to hate him. He said he couldn’t take it anymore.” I could still feel his hand in mine, how it’d slipped from mine, and then— “Then he pushed me. Hard. So I fell. And he jumped out in front of an oncoming car.”
A shaky breath left me as the images played in front of my eyes. “I’ll never forget the sound—when the car hit him—” I closed my eyes, but that only made me see it all the more clearly, and I opened them again. “I’ll never forget seeing him lie on the ground, lifeless, and with blood pooling around him. I’ll never—I can’t—”
And cue the waterworks.
“The sound of cars braking, and arseholes honking impatiently. The sound of the ambulance. I’ll never forget any of it.”
I’d never forget my own screams either. Never forget how I’d been forced into an ambulance, forced away from the sight of Mal’s broken body. Taken to the hospital, where I’d been sedated, because I hadn’t been able to stop screaming.
He stared at me in horror, his tea-cup forgotten in front of him, hands curling into fists atop the table.
“I couldn’t do anything,” I said brokenly, wiping at my tears. “He made sure of it. He knew what he did. It wasn’t an accident. He pushed me so I couldn’t try and save him. Then he jumped, and he stood there knowing full-well the oncoming car drove too quickly to be able to stop. And it didn’t—it hit him. That sound—”
I couldn’t continue.
Instead I buried my face in my hands.
I tried to keep the tears at bay, and stop the sobs, but I didn’t succeed with either.
Harriet was at my side, her hand on my shoulder, her voice worried. “What’s wrong?”
I shook my head, because I couldn’t find my voice.
“He told me about Mal,” Tyler said in a low voice from opposite me. “About what happened to him.” His voice broke at the end too, and I heard him draw several shaky breaths. “Mal was my friend.”
Harriet squeezed my shoulder tight. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks,” he murmured, voice thick.
This must be even worse for him, considering he’d gone and fallen in love with Mal.
Yet I was the one left crying and sobbing.
But that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Harriet brought me tissues and I wiped my face and nose with them.
“I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like,” he whispered after a long time’s silence. “To be there, to see it happen. To not be able to do anything.” He’d finished his tea, and now only rolled the cup around in his palms. “If Mal hadn’t listed me as his emergency contact, we wouldn’t even have found out he was dead.”
My eyes hurt from the tears and I blinked several times to try and relieve it.
“Did you know that I saved him from being hit by a car?” he asked then, glancing briefly at me.
I shook my head mutely.
“I did. That was the night we met, when I brought him home with me. He stepped into the road, and a car came, and I got him out of the way.” His hands shook. “He’d cut himself so badly the sleeves of his jumper were soggy with blood. My mum’s a nurse, thankfully, so we got him cleaned him up. He refused to go to A&E. He was underage and they’d notify his family and he didn’t want that.”
Now that I could understand. “His family wasn’t ever any good to him. Or for him. They liked to abuse him. It was like he wasn’t even human to them. Like he was nothing but an animal.” They’d treated him as such. I hoped they’d never get a pet—because they’d surely be just as cruel to it as they’d been to Mal.
“His eighteenth birthday was only weeks before he—” He choked up. “I didn’t even know he’d put me up as emergency contact until he was dead.”
How horrible must that have been? To be in love with someone who only wanted to die. Who’d succeeded in taking his own life…
I didn’t want to ever do that to Damian.
At the same time I knew that I couldn’t ever promise I wouldn’t. Because that was part of me, of my disorder. Impulsive behaviour, impulsive suicide attempts. I’d been sectioned for it before. I wasn’t naive enough to think it wouldn’t happen again just because Damian was around now.
It didn’t work that way.
“I wish I could’ve done something.”
Now here was something I was an expert on. “There’s nothing you could’ve done.” I finally took a sip of my hot chocolate. It wasn’t hot anymore, but bearable. “Mal wanted to die—and he’d find a way, no matter what. He talked about it a lot in group.”
His lips pressed together again.
“You should read up on it. Borderline,” I suggested. “There’s a lot to it. Impulsive behaviour is only one of many things that make up who we are. Recklessness, emptiness, self-harm, splitting… there’s so much and it’s too much. Mal was even worse off than me.”
He frowned. “You seem normal enough.”
“I’m not.” I managed a small, tight smile. “I’m really not. Just ask my mum or my boyfriend or my friends. I’m not an easy person to live with, I know that, but I can’t change it. All I can do is go to therapy and learn coping mechanism. But they don’t always help.”
“Do you—?” He made a slashing motion with his finger over his forearm.
I nodded, gripping onto my wrists instinctually.
“I don’t do it as often as I used to. Not anymore. But I can’t quit completely.” At least my arms weren’t bandaged up right now.
“Mal… He had cuts over his whole body.” He gazed down at my arms. Not that he could see anything, as my scars were covered by my clothes. “Even—” He swallowed again. “Even down there.”
I didn’t need to ask where there was.
The thought that Mal had ever taken a razor down there horrified me. Just how much had his family messed him up? Even I, who’d been sexually abused by my stepfather for most of my childhood, had never cut myself there.
“I only ever saw his forearms. They looked a lot like mine.”
“The rest of him was just as bad.” He sighed. “So you don’t think there was ever anything I could do for him?”
I shook my head sadly. “You did enough. You saved him that one time. You gave him a home, even if it was only for a little while. He cared enough about you to list you as his emergency contact, so at least you’d know when he was dead.” I drank some more hot chocolate to clear my thoughts. “Mal’s always wanted to die. At least as long as we’ve been in group together. Out of all of us, he was the worst off. I don’t think anyone could’ve saved him.”
Which meant even if he hadn’t pushed me, there hadn’t been anything I could’ve done either. Maybe I could’ve prevented him from dying there, but he’d tried to jump in front of a car before and been stopped. He’d only find another place, another time, to do it. Eventually he would’ve succeeded.
“I think he’s in a better place now,” I murmured. “A place where he doesn’t hurt anymore. Where no one can abuse him.”
Tyler folded his hands. “I like to think so too.” But his smile was sad too.
“I’m glad he had you,” I said, leaning forward a bit. “Even if it was only for a little while. Even if it wasn’t enough. At least he didn’t have to live in hell the last few months of his life.”
He closed his eyes and covered his face with one hand, obviously fighting tears.
I reached into my pocket and drew my letter up. “I wrote this for Mal. I wanted to leave it on his grave.”
He sniffled, but removed his hand so he could look at the folded piece of paper. “Why didn’t you?”
I chuckled bitterly. “It seemed silly after you left a rose. That’s what people do, after all. Not leave letters. It’s not like he’ll ever read it.”
“It’s not like he’ll ever know the rose is there either.”
I unfolded the paper, put it flat on the table, smoothed it out, then slid it over to him.
His hand shook slightly as he took it, and he bent his head over to read.
I didn’t need to read it. I knew exactly what it said, word for word. I’d written it, after all. I’d obsessed over it for hours—and it wasn’t even a long letter. In fact, it wasn’t any longer than the journal entries I frequently wrote.
Still, it held so much.
I could never hate you. Not ever. Not for pushing me, not for jumping in front of that car. I know what it’s like to want to die. I know it so well. I wanted to die too, once. Not so much anymore, because I finally have something to live for.
But you never did. And I understand how hard it is to keep on living when you don’t have anything holding you back. When you have nothing to fight for. It’s an impossible battle—doomed from the start.
You lost your fight. But I think you’re in a better place now. I hope so, anyway.
I’m still fighting. And I’m going to continue fighting, because I’m not ready to give up. Not today, anyway.
I was messed up for a while after—but I’m out of hospital now. I think about you often. I’m glad I got to know you; that we went to the cinema that day. I hope you had a good last night. I hope you enjoyed the film.
I hope you’re at peace now, wherever you are.
We’ll see each other again, some day.
But don’t wait for me. I don’t plan it to be anytime soon.
Enjoy yourself wherever you are—live the life you never got to live here.
Tyler eyes swam with tears again as he lifted his head. “You believe in an afterlife?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not religious or anything. I just—I like to think there’s something after, you know?”
“Oh, I know.” He stared back down at the paper. “I’m not religious either, but I like the thought of there being more to life than this.”
He read through my letter again and I moved my focus over to the counter, where Harriet was back to serving guests. She smiled at each and every one of them, always in such a good mood, so easy to be around.
Mum was lucky to have found her.
In a way, it was thanks to me they’d even met. If I hadn’t brought her around here to meet Damian, she wouldn’t have met Harriet. They wouldn’t have hit it off, they wouldn’t be happy together.
“Do you think I can keep it?” he asked, startling me out of my thoughts.
“What? Oh.” I blinked in surprise. “Yeah, I guess.” Though I couldn’t see why he’d want a letter I’d written.
He carefully folded it together again. “I want to keep something of him, but other than clothes, I don’t have anything. No books, or any other knickknacks. He left nothing behind.”
That made me incredibly sad.
Without thinking, I rose and headed over to Harriet.
“Do you have a pen and paper?” I asked her, glancing back at Tyler, who was looking back at me in confusion.
“Sure.” Harriet pulled a pen and a notepad up from her apron and handed it to me.
I scribbled something on the first page, ripped it out, then handed it back to her. “Thanks.”
“No problem, Josh.” She watched me head back to my table.
“Here.” I handed the note to Tyler. “It’s my number. If you ever need to talk… or if you need to know the horrific details, if that’ll help you get closure—well, just ring me.”
“I don’t think I want to know any details.” But he took my note. “What I’ve already heard is more than horrific enough. I’m not sure I can deal with it if I knew everything.” He put my note together with the letter and slipped both into his pocket. “But I might ring you anyway, if that’s okay?”
For the first time, I managed a genuine smile. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”
Huh. Maybe I’d actually made a new friend?
He smiled back, a bit wider than his smiles up till now had been. “Good.”
When we parted, I felt better than I had in days. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And the thought of Mal didn’t hurt quite as much anymore.
He’d had a good few months before he died—or as good as life could’ve ever been for Mal, which wasn’t any good at all. But at least it was better that he’d lived with someone who didn’t abuse him. Someone who actually cared for him.
At the same time, it was a good thing for Tyler that Mal was dead. It wasn’t a good thought, but it was true. He’d said he loved Mal, but now he could move on. Even if Mal had been alive, nothing could’ve ever happened between them.
I knew just how damaged Mal was. I knew what had happened to him. What his mother and brother had done to him. Mal had been ruined for life. Nothing could’ve fixed him.
Damian might be asexual by nature, without any sort of sexual trauma in his past—but Mal had his sexuality shattered by his abuse. Whatever gender he would’ve grown up to be attracted to, the abuse had forever turned him off other people entirely.
He was better off dead.
I struggled every day with what I’d gone through. And it was a piece of cake compared to Mal’s trauma.
Damian was home when I got back to the flat.
He was in the kitchen, making himself toast.
I walked right up to him, and when he turned to look at me, I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him tight.
His arms slid around me, locking just as tight as mine around him.
“I love you,” I whispered against his ear. “I don’t want to ever leave you.”
A beat of silence. “Then don’t.”
I couldn’t promise that. I wanted to, but there was a likely chance I’d break such a promise. “I’m trying my best.” That was all I could give him.
He turned his head slightly so our cheeks brushed together. “That’s all I ask for.”
And he understood I couldn’t give anything more. That every day was a battle I tried my best to win.
But even if I won all the battles, I’d never win the war.
No one could survive this thing called life. Death was the end for all of us.
But like I’d written in my letter to Mal, I didn’t plan on that happening anytime soon.
I planned to be around, to be with Damian, for a very long time.
And no matter how scarred I was, no matter how wounded…
I wasn’t shattered, like Mal had been.
I could still be put back together. Maybe not as together as I’d been before, but it was a long time since I’d been whole. Andrew had stolen so much for me, ruined so much… but he hadn’t broken me.