ME AND SHAWN HAD BEEN friends since the first day of high school. It wasn't because we had a lot in common, but because we were different from everyone else. Even with the conformist school uniform we managed to stand out. It was as though we were standing in the shadows, while everyone else was in harsh sunlight.
The other kids thought we were weird, freaks. Every day we would endure kids poking fun at the way we looked. People would trip us in the corridors and kick us when we were down. Kids would shout "emo!" or "cutter!" down the corridors after us too. And it didn't get any better either as we grew up, when most of the other bullying had stopped. In fact, for me and Shawn, it probably got worse.
Not everyone hated us though. There were the odd few who talked to us every now and then. So by the time we got to Year 11 and were studying for our GCSEs, we had a small group of friends.
The worst lesson had to be English. Miss Harrison didn't like us. It would have been okay if she just ignored us, but she often stood us out in front of the rest of the class.
We sat at the back next to the window. It was the safest place to sit. The other kids couldn't throw stuff at us from behind and Miss Harrison tended to ignore us more.
I gazed out the window. I wasn't actually looking at the world outside, but at my reflection in the rain-stained glass. I had dyed my hair blood red for so long now I'd almost forgotten what I looked like with my natural colour. Golden brown eyes stared back at me from the window. They took in the lip and ear piercings I had which glinted in the classroom lights.
Shawn nudged me under the table and I looked at him. Shawn's hair was black and, by a mastery of hair products, formed into a fan of spikes. A long fringe covered one side of his face, just letting one deep blue eye peer out. He was pierced too, but as well as his lip piercings and the stud in his ear, he had a bar through each eyebrow. He'd been doodling as he always did down the side of his notes. By the end of class there were always more drawings than notes. His doodles were actually pretty amazing. Today there were a load of zombies down the side of an essay about Romeo and Juliet.
We were studying Shakespeare for our coursework, Romeo and Juliet in particular. It's one of those stories that are so over done though. I think everyone must study it at some point in their lives now. A tragic love story that ends up with both lovers dead.
Miss Harrison had set us off writing an essay. I really hate essays. Who doesn't? The essay title for today was: How does the suicidal impulse that both Romeo and Juliet exhibit relate to the overall theme of young love? Does Shakespeare seem to consider a self-destructive tendency inextricably connected with love, or is it a separate issue? Why do you think so? It was boring. Miss Harrison sure knew how to give a good lesson.
I may have hated writing essays, but I wasn't bad. I like writing. I had pretty much finished, so I checked it through, wrote a conclusion and put my pen down. That was my mistake. Miss Harrison looked up at the tap and her eyes zoned in on me.
"Finished already, Rivern?"
"Well perhaps we aren't stretching your English skills far enough. How about I set you another essay to be completed by the end of the class? Discuss the relationships between parents and children in Romeo and Juliet. How do Romeo and Juliet interact with their parents? Are they rebellious, in the modern sense? How do their parents feel about them?"
At the front of the class a girl, Sarah Watson, put up her hand.
"Miss, I've finished too."
"Well perhaps you'd like to do the other essay as well?"
"But Miss, that's the essay you set us last lesson."
Miss Harrison went to rummage in the cupboard, probably for her Book of Evil Essay Titles. Sarah turned round and gave me a small smile. She was one of the few friends that we had. I smiled back. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shawn reach down and rummage in his bag on the floor.
Miss Harrison didn't set me or Sarah another essay but set about marking ours. Reluctantly, she gave me full marks. I told you I was good at essays. Sarah did really well too.
After English it was lunch. Shawn and I grabbed a sandwich out the canteen and then went to sit out on the field. Our regular spot had been taken by some year 8s, but since we're not mean we went and sat down the side of the art block instead. We didn't really talk much over lunch. We don't always. I've known Shawn for so long we often know what the other is thinking without asking. Recently though, Shawn seemed to be off in his own little world.
Another of our small group of friends joined us for lunch. Michael had obviously been at band practice for the first half of lunch. He had a guitar slung round his shoulder. I played guitar too, but I'd never thought of going to band. The music teacher was just too
Before the bell for the start of afternoon lessons, Shawn and I went for a walk round the front of the school. It's where all the smokers go. As long as you're not on school grounds, they can't tell you off. We walked a short way down the street and back. Shawn doesn't really smoke, but he likes the odd drag of one of mine.
Friday afternoon lessons for me had to be one of the worst: double P.E. And to make it worse, Shawn wasn't in the same class. He was in Art. We stopped at the gates.
"I'll see you tomorrow," I said as we went our separate ways.
"Yeah, see you." He seemed really out of it.
I headed over to the changing rooms by the edge of the sports field and two hours of physical exercise.
* * *
IT WAS 8.30PM FRIDAY NIGHT when the phone rang. I answered.
"Rivern? It's Kat, Shawn's sister." She was crying. "You need to get here now," she sobbed. "It's Shawn. I've already called an ambulance."
My heart missed a beat.
? I'll be right round."
I shouted a quick "bye" at my parents and bolted out the door. It took me only five minutes to run round to Shawn's house which was the quickest I'd ever got there. I'd never run so fast in my life. I didn't bother knocking. I was round there so much they just let me let myself in.
I ran up the stairs and went straight to Shawn's room. I stopped dead.
Shawn was lying sprawled on the floor. He wasn't moving. Kat was leaning over him, sobbing into her hands. There was an empty pill bottle on his bedside table. Shawn was on tryptizol, a TCA.
I dropped to my knees by Shawn's side and put my hand in front of his face. I could feel his breath on my skin, but only just. At least he was alive.
Kat sniffed and unfolded one of her hands. Inside was a crumpled page from a notebook. She handed it to me and I took it. Written in shaky, but unmistakeably Shawn's, handwriting was a note.
I am so, so sorry.
I never told you I was gay. No one knew but Kat. I don't think Mum and Dad will accept it. I didn't want school to become more unbearable than it already is. I don't think I wanted to admit it.
But then I fell in love, Rivern, and it was hard because I saw them every day and I couldn't tell them how I felt. That would mean announcing it to the world. It would mean admitting it to myself. It would mean I would lose everything I loved.
I hope you can understand why I did what I have done. Please tell Mum and Dad I love them and Kat too. She is the best sister ever. Give her a hug. She's given me so many and now I won't be able to return them.
I love you, Rivern.
Tears streamed down my face. I pocketed the note. I moved round to Shawn's head and scooped him up in my arms. I buried my face in his hair. I breathed in his smell, memorising it: the smell of shampoo, of hair gel and of hair spray; the smell of Shawn.
There was a knock at the door. The ambulance had arrived. Kat went to get the door. I lay Shawn back down and wiped my eyes. The two paramedics came upstairs with all their gear. I gave them the bottle of Shawn's bedside table. Maybe if they knew what he'd taken they'd be able to help him. There wasn't really much more I could do, so I did as Shawn had asked and gave Kat a hug. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and she leaned into my shoulder and cried.
Kat's 14, two years younger than me and Shawn, but she's pretty sensible for her age. She's also quite strong, emotionally.
We watched as the paramedics treated Shawn and got him ready to be moved to hospital. I was going to go with him. Kat was going to stay and wait for her parents to get home. She'd rung them right after she'd rung me. They were out shopping and were about an hour away.
I felt awful leaving Kat on her own when it was time to go. She stood at the front door as they lifted Shawn on a gurney into the back of the ambulance. I clambered into the back after them.
The paramedic asked me all sorts of mundane questions on the way to the hospital. How long had we known each other? What kind of stuff did I like doing? What subjects did I enjoy in school? Did I have any pets? I know it was to try and keep my mind off things, but it wasn't really working. I was kicking myself. Shawn was gay. Why hadn't he told me? We talked about everything.
Minutes later we arrived at A&E. The back doors of the ambulance were thrown wide open and suddenly there was a crowd of people around the vehicle. They pulled the gurney out the back and began wheeling it into the building. The paramedics were talking a load of medical jargon to the doctors as they walked. If I understood half of what they were talking about it would have been an achievement. I followed them through the automatic doors and along a corridor. They wheeled Shawn off through another set of doors but a nurse came up to me.
"I'm sorry, you can't go down there. If you wait through there, someone should be along soon to talk to you." She pointed through an archway to a waiting room.
I went through and sat in the very corner, away from everyone else, curled up against the wall. They were the hard plastic chairs that you only get in hospital waiting rooms. Out of my pocket I pulled out the crumpled note Shawn had left me. The writing was smudged where his tears had fallen. I read it over and over, tracing his words with my finger. But I couldn't drag my eyes away from the last line: I love you, Rivern. The tears started falling again, rolling down my cheeks all the way to my chin where they dripped onto my chest. I'd never felt so alone.
Thoughts trawled through my mind. Why had Shawn believed he couldn't tell me? Did he think that if he was gay, if he loved me, that we would no longer be friends?
Could he not see? Could he not tell that I loved him too?
Almost an hour after arriving at A&E a nurse came down the corridor with a clipboard, flipping through the papers.
I stood up. The nurse looked me up and down before gesturing for me to follow. She took me over to the desk.
"Shawn is in a stable condition. Luckily he didn't overdose by too much. It may take a few days, but he should be fine," she said. "I'd just like to ask you a couple of questions, if that's okay."
I nodded and wiped my eyes on my sleeve. "Sure."
"Shawn overdosed. Do you know any reason why he might do that?"
I could feel my face reddening so I looked at the floor. I took the note out my pocket and showed her it. "He left this."
The nurse read the note. "Ah." She handed it back and it went straight into my pocket again. "Yes, we see that more often than we'd like." She read something on her clipboard. "Was it you who found Shawn?"
"No, it was his sister, Kat. She rang me, their parents were out. They should be here soon."
"Ah, okay." She scribbled something down in the file. "Shawn's been moved into his own room now. He's on a High Dependency ward just so we can monitor him. Over dosing on TCAs can cause problems with breathing and the liver. If he doesn't show any symptoms of that today, he'll be moved onto a regular ward. If you'd like you can go see him, although I believe he is asleep."
I nodded. I didn't care if he was asleep, just that he was alive. The nurse gave me a small smile and led me through a maze of corridors to Shawn's HDU room. She opened the door for me and then left, leaving me alone with my friend.
I went and sat in the chair by the bed. Shawn was asleep. He looked so peaceful. Wires and tubes snaked their way from out of his skin and into the machines and IV drips. The steady beep, beep, beep of the heart trace was a bazaar comfort.
I watched Shawn's breathing: the rise and fall of his chest. It was best that he was asleep. He would heal faster. I took my friend's hand, careful not to disturb any of the tubes. It was cool and smooth. I ran my fingers along the grooves in his skin then pressed his hand to my face.
"Shawn," I breathed.
* * *
HALF AN HOUR AFTER I had been allowed in to see Shawn, his parents arrived with Kat following behind them. Shawn's mum was crying as she ran to her son's side and gave him a hug. His dad stood silently behind her, one hand resting on her shoulder. When Kat came into the room she looked to me. She saw I was holding her brother's hand and gave me a small, sad smile which I returned.
Shawn's mum then came round the bed to me and gave me a hug too.
"Thank you, Rivern. Thank you for going with him."
I gave my chair up for them. It was best if I left them alone for a while. They were his family. And anyway, I hadn't smoked since I'd arrived at the hospital. I was starting to get the nagging at the back of my mind. Since Shawn's family was now with him, I thought it was as good a time as any to go for a smoke.
It was dark outside. I sat on the curb leaning against the base of a sodium yellow street light and took out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. There were a few other people doing the same. I lit up, took a drag then blew out a lung full of smoke. I know smoking isn't good for me, but it helps keep me calm. I watched the smoke trails, trying to keep my mind from thinking over things. Why hadn't I told Shawn I was gay? Why hadn't I told Shawn I loved him too? I guess it was for similar reasons. Sighing, I stubbed out the butt and got out my phone. Mum and Dad would be wondering where I had got to.
It was probably the hardest phone call ever. Mum answered on the third ring.
"Mum, it's Rivern."
"Rivern, where are you? It's quarter-past-ten."
"I'm at hospital."
Mum paused. I heard her take a sharp breath and then she started off on a motherly spiel.
"Hospital? Why are you there? Rivern, what's happened? Are you okay?"
"Mum, I'm fine. It's Shawn. He overdosed. Kat rang."
"Yeah, you don't have to repeat everything I say."
"Why? He was such a nice kid. Is he okay?" That was the question I had been dreading. The first one, that is.
I took a while to answer. "He's stable, but he's
he couldn't bring himself to tell me," my voice cracked again and my eyes prickled, "that he
"Oh, Rivern. Do you want me to come get you?"
"Nah, it's okay. Shawn's family are here now. I'll go see them. I'll ring you later."
"Okay. I'll wait up a bit longer. Bye. Look after yourself."
"Okay, bye Mum." I hung up and headed back inside.
Kat was waiting for me when I came back. She smiled when she saw me coming down the corridor. She was a nice kid. As I reached her she gave me a hug. I guess I was round at their house so much I was like another older brother.
"Thanks, Rivern," she said. I wasn't sure what I was being thanked for. "I don't know how Mum and Dad will take it Shawn being gay," she said. "But they like you. That might make it easier."
I looked at my feet. "I should have told him. I should've
" My voice cracked. She patted my shoulder.
"I've held Shawn nearly every night since he told me he was gay," she said in a quiet voice. "It was so painful for him. He would cry for hours before going to sleep. But he should have told you too."
Mum picked me up half an hour later. That night it was me who cried myself to sleep, but unlike Shawn, I didn't have a sister like Kat to comfort me.
* * *
SHAWN WAS IN HOSPITAL FOR four days. Those four days I spent going in and out. I just wanted a chance to talk to him. His mum or dad was usually there too. They didn't want him to be alone. I hadn't told them yet about the note. I couldn't bring myself to tell them. And anyway, what would I say?
For most of Saturday Shawn slept. I went in on Saturday afternoon. His mum was sitting in the chair dozing. His dad was probably at home with Kat. I went to the other side of the bed and took his hand. Shawn was asleep too, but I just sat there for a while watching him sleep. After I left they moved him out of the HDU and onto the regular wards. He hadn't shown and breathing difficulty and his liver seemed to be working okay.
Sunday came and our few friends decided to visit Shawn as well. Me, Michael, Sarah, Jamie and Alice all piled into his room. His parents decided they would leave us alone for a while. It was the first time Shawn had been awake when I'd visited. I really wanted to talk to him, to tell him how I felt, but I didn't want the others to know. Not yet anyway.
They'd brought get well soon cards and flowers and grapes, which made Shawn smile. We talked for about an hour then Shawn's parents came back. I stayed for a little while longer, but his mum showed no sign of leaving, so I said my goodbyes and left. On the way out I turned and glanced back at Shawn. The happy face of a couple of minutes ago had slipped and he looked sad. I guess he wanted to talk to me too.
On Monday, I had to go to school. It was lonely without Shawn. People commented on his absence too, which made it worse because they came to me to ask what had happened. There were the rumours of course. Shawn's parents had rung the school to let them know what was going on and there was a Chinese Whispers effect. Stories became more and more exaggerated as the day went on, but a couple of them weren't far wrong.
I visited Shawn after school. I got the bus to the hospital with Kat. Shawn's dad had gone to work, but his mum had had the day off. When we got there, his mum stood up.
"Ah, you're here. I can go for some food, I'm starving."
Kat looked at her brother then to me.
"I'll come with you." As she left she patted me on the arm and gave me a wink. I smiled. Thank you, I mouthed.
The door shut behind them and I stood at the end of Shawn's bed for a while before going to sit in the chair. Our gaze locked. There were dark rings under his eyes. He looked tired.
"I wanted to talk to you yesterday," Shawn said.
"Yeah, me too."
," he began. "I'm so, so sorry."
I pulled out his note. He blushed. "I read."
," Shawn was looking for words.
"Shawn," I said, pretty much decided on what I was going to do.
I stood up from the chair and leaned across the bed. My face was so very close to his. I could feel his breath on my skin. Vaguely I heard the beep, beep, beep of the heart trace pick up pace. I shut my eyes and brushed my lips against his in the softest of kisses. I felt him freeze at the contact.
"I should have told you, too," I said quietly in his ear. I took a deep breath. "I love you."
I heard Shawn's sharp intake of breath. There was a moment that seemed to last forever, but then his arms were around my neck, wires and all and his mouth was on mine, kissing me fiercely. For a second my brain refused to function. It just shorted out. But then I put my hand to his face and kissed him back, and it just felt so intensely good. The heart trace was going wild, but I couldn't hear it. All I felt was Shawn and all I heard was his breathing.
Gradually our kisses became less hungry and more comforting. Our breathing calmed and I slanted my gaze up to him. Shawn was smiling. It was the biggest smile I'd ever seen on his face. I really did love him.
The door opened and Kat came in. I jerked backwards. Shawn's parents still didn't know.
"Ha! I knew it," she said happily. "I just came to give you a heads up. Mum's coming back, a nurse just stopped her."
"I haven't shown them your note, by the way," I told him.
"Thanks," he said looking at his toes. "I guess it would just have been another thing for them to worry about. But," he sighed, "I guess I'll have to tell them sometime. Probably better sooner than later."
" I still had my parents to tell.
I stayed another hour before I went home for my tea. I was trying to work out a way of telling Mum and Dad. I didn't know whether or not to wait till Dad got home from work or just tell Mum first. Get her reaction.
She was waiting for me when I got through the door.
"Well? How is he?" she asked.
"He's okay." I smiled, I couldn't help myself.
She raised an eyebrow. "That's good." She rubbed my arm.
"He still hasn't told his parents he's gay though. He's worrying about that now." Should I tell her now?
"I'm sure they'll take it okay. He's their son after all." If that was her attitude maybe I should tell her. But what if that only applied to other people?
"Yeah, maybe, but he doesn't think they'll take it too well." I had to tell her sometime. She seemed ok about Shawn being gay, about loving me. Could I tell her?
I was looking at my laces. I had one converse with red laces and one with purple today. I had to come out eventually. I couldn't lie all my life. She'd find out soon enough. All it would take was a simple Mum, I love him too. I'm gay. But of course it would never be simple. What if she freaked out? I didn't think she would, but what if she couldn't accept it?
Mum seemed to sense I was having a mental argument with myself. She put a hand on my shoulder as if to reassure me it was okay. I took a really deep breath.
I love him too."
There was a horrible silence. Mum didn't say or do anything. There was no reaction, no shock or horror. Nothing.
She sighed then her face split into a mumsy smile.
"You know something, Rivern. I've been waiting for this conversation for a while now. I just wanted you to be ready to bring it up. I didn't want to push you into telling me."
"You know?" I was just a bit confused.
"Yes, I had my suspicions, but when you rang me from the hospital on Friday night, I was sure."
"You don't mind?"
"Rivern, you're my son. I love you no matter what life choices you make. If you love Shawn and you're happy together, then who am I to disagree? No, why would I mind if you're gay?"
It was as though a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Relief flooded through me. I mumbled something inaudible and then started to cry again. I gave Mum a hug and she hugged me back.
"Oh, Rivern." She rubbed my back ad held me tight. "I can't believe you thought we wouldn't accept it. Me and your dad, we love you."
"Does Dad know?" He would probably have something to say.
"Yes, he does and he's okay with it too."
I stood back and she wiped the tears from my eyes.
"Now how about I make you some tea? What do you want?"
I thought about it for a minute.
"Waffles it is."
And so I got away with having waffles, ice cream and chocolate sauce for my tea.
* * *
TUESDAY AT SCHOOL DRAGGED ON. I just wanted to go and see Shawn. I almost ran out the classroom when the final bell went and the ten minute bus journey to the hospital with Kat seemed to take an eternity.
There were a couple of doctors in the room when we got there so we waited outside. They were doing some more tests. An hour later they came back. Shawn would be okay. The overdose hadn't been enough to cause any permanent damage to his liver, but he should have the rest of the week off school and take it easy. He was good to go, but he'd have to come in next week for a check-up. They took all the drips and cannulas out of his arms and put plasters over where they'd been. Everyone came out of the room to let him get out of the pale green hospital dress and back into some normal clothes. We went and sat on those hard plastic chairs at the end of the corridor.
He came out with a bag of his stuff which his parents had brought. He looked a little bit like a pin cushion with all the needles taken out. There were some pretty nasty bruises forming too. As soon as he was through the door his eyes had met mine and he smiled. I smiled back and Kat who was still sat next to me elbowed me in the ribs.
"He told Mum and Dad last night when they were both here. They were a little bit shocked but I think they're more okay with it than Shawn was at first. I guess they'd already figured it out."
I looked back to Shawn and stood up. He ruffled his hair up swung his bag over his shoulder and then came running down the corridor at me. Shawn crashed into me and hugged me so tight I could barely breathe. We toppled over backwards onto the chairs and Shawn kissed my cheek. I turned my head before he could pull away and our mouths met. I kissed him softly then leaned back against the chair, Shawn straddling my legs.
Shawn's parents were looking a little embarrassed, but they smiled. His mum came and put her hands on his shoulders.
"Of all the people in the world you could have found, I'm glad it was you, Rivern," she said.
We all left the hospital and piled into the back of Shawn's dad's car. He dropped me off home and as I got out, Shawn kissed me goodbye.
"Bye, Rivern. See you tomorrow," he said.
"Yeah, tomorrow." Tomorrow was full of possibilities.
* * *
I REALLY THOUGHT ABOUT SKIPPING school on Wednesday. I would have done too, but Mum had threatened to march me up to the school gates on the morning and march me home again and then ring the school to find out whether or not I had been in all my classes. Even with all the comments from the other kids, I couldn't help but feel happy. Shawn was fine. He loved me. I loved him. The world, for all its failings, seemed perfect.
He met me at the school gates, wearing a rare smile and I smiled back. Kids were whispering to one another when they saw him, saw us. The rumours were flying again. And right there in front of everyone Shawn stepped close, wrapped his arms around me and kissed me, and I put my arms around him and kissed him back with everything I had.
"ZOMG," I heard someone whisper, but still Shawn and I kissed slanting out heads this way and that to get closer. I could have stood there and kissed him happily for the next millennium, but I was growing ever more aware of the people crowding around us.
Escaping from the crowd, we walked down to the park hand in hand. We came here quite often anyway, but this time was different. There was a new buzz, a new energy between us. It felt amazing.
We sat down on the grass under a small group of trees. It was warm and sunny and there were plenty of people in the park. But we didn't care. Not anymore. I lit up a cigarette. After a while of just sitting in silence watching the smoke trails, Shawn smiled. He leaned closer, breathing in the smoke. Tentatively he put a hand to my face, then his lips, warm and firm, met mine and we kissed once more. Somehow we slid sideways and we were lying in the grass. I was lying on my back, my arms round his neck, and Shawn was leaning over me, lips still brushing mine.
* * *
I KEPT THE NOTE SHAWN had left me. I kept it in an old hot chocolate tin I kept everything special in. I kept it because it was a reminder of the day my life turned completely and utterly upside-down. And even though it was a reminder of one of the worst days in my life, out of it came the best times.
Shawn has been my best friend for years. I don't really know when our feelings towards each other changed. All I know is that Shawn is the best thing in my life and I hope he is for a long time.