I stared into the mirror, into my own reflected eyes, searching them, scouring them, desperately trying to find something, even though I didn't have any idea what I was looking for.  All I knew was that there had to be something; an aspect, a trait or emotion, something I possessed, or lacked, that made me different from everyone else.  For over a week I'd spent at least an hour each day stood in front of the mirror, regarding my own naked form, looking both inside and out for something, anything, that would help me to understand.


I'd found plenty of physical imperfections, many aspects of my appearance that I would happily have changed, but nothing that really stood out, nothing that truly explained what had happened.  In my rich green eyes I'd found a host of different emotions – anger, sadness, remorse, frustration, fear and  loneliness – but nothing unusual, nothing unexpected.  All I could see was a normal teenage boy, better looking than some, not as smart as others, physically fit and capable of the full range of human emotions, but I knew there had to be something I was missing.


Turning away from the mirror, I plucked my pocketknife from where it lay atop the chest of drawers beside me, carrying it with me as I trudged towards my bed.  I sat down on the edge of the mattress, a heavy sigh escaping my lips, my shoulders sagging.  With trembling fingers I pried open my knife and stared at the stainless steel blade, at the savage point, the contoured lip, wondering how I'd ever considered such a thing to be beautiful.  It had been a gift from my father, a present for my fifteenth birthday, in my possession for just seven months.  For the majority of that time I'd treasured it, admired it, smiling whenever I had the opportunity to appreciate its beauty, but as I gazed at it I could no longer see anything even remotely appealing about it.  It was cold, deadly, a weapon designed to induce fear, inflict pain or end life.


Nothing more.


Swallowing hard, I pressed the razor-sharp edge of the blade against my left wrist, pushing it firmly against my flesh until the tight pain brought tears to my eyes.  I stared at it, at the way my skin furrowed around it, at the way it seemed to so easily fit, knowing that with just one quick jolt I could tear open the vein beneath, spill my blood over the carpet at my feet.  I had no intention of doing such a thing.  In spite of the pain I was in, the misery I felt, I had no desire to end my life, but I needed to know how it felt, what it was like to exist in that moment where the smallest of movements, a mere twitch of the arm, could mean the difference between life and death.


And yet something eluded me.  I knew exactly what it was, but I couldn't find it within myself to feel it; the desire, the longing, the unwavering belief that only in death could I find peace.  I didn't feel....hopeless; as though there wasn't a single thing worth living for.  Sure, I was in pain, and at times it was almost unbearable, but in my heart I knew that there would come a day when I would be able to smile again, when I would love life, when I would have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and I didn't feel as though enduring the pain was too high a price to pay to get there.


Sighing once more, I withdrew the blade, staring at the deep red crease it left in my flesh as I folded the knife and set it down on the bed beside me.  For one brief moment I considered crawling back beneath the covers, resting my head on my pillow and closing my eyes.  I knew I wouldn't sleep, but somehow the idea seemed more attractive than leaving my bedroom and facing the day ahead.  Even if I couldn't dream I could daydream, distract myself with imaginings of a better life, of happy days filled with fun and adventure, of friends devoid of cruel intentions who cared about each other, about me, but I'd spent the past three days doing just that, hiding in my room, contemplating how my life could be better, and while those thoughts had brought me comfort at the time they'd left me feeling empty afterwards.


Besides, I knew there was something I had to do, somewhere I had to go.  I'd been putting it off, telling myself that it could wait, that it was pointless, unnecessary, inappropriate, but from the moment I'd opened my eyes, just before dawn, I'd known that I could delay no longer.  I wasn't sure what I thought I was going to achieve, and I was fairly certain it wasn't going to help, but I felt as though it was something I had to do.


Reluctantly, I clambered to my feet and crossed the room to my desk, to the chair in front of it where four days earlier I'd laid out clothes for the day ahead, clothes that had waited there for me since then.  I dressed myself slowly, drawing it out, delaying the moment when I would be fully attired and would have to face the prospect of leaving my room.  I'd chosen my clothing for comfort rather than style; loose blue boxer shorts, baggy black combat trousers, black socks, a grey T-Shirt and a black hooded zip-up top.  I finished the ensemble with my black and white running shoes, sitting on my bed as I pulled them onto my feet and tied the laces.


Normally I didn't wear so much black.  I preferred brighter colours; blues, greens, whites, even the occasional splash of red or yellow, but black seemed to better suit my mood of late.  And there was another reason for the choice of colour too.  I'd noticed that when I wore black people tended to take less notice of me.  Indeed, some would even intentionally look the other way as I passed them in the street.  I wasn't sure why, whether it made me seem more or less threatening, whether it conveyed a darkness people sought to avoid, whether it simply told people I preferred to be left alone, but whatever the reason I appreciated the solitude it afforded me.


When I was fully dressed I stood in front of the mirror once more, fiddling with my short hair, styling that which could not be styled, procrastinating, hesitating, delaying my departure.  Once I'd finished with my hair I took a moment to look around the room, seeking some reason to stay where I was even for a few minutes longer.  I looked for anything that was out of place, anything that needed to be tidied, but my bedroom was unusually immaculate.  Even so, I took a couple of moments to straighten the covers on my bed, to fluff my pillow, then straightened the chair beneath my desk, reorganised my pens, opened my curtains.


I managed to busy myself for a full five minutes, but then I found myself standing beside my bedroom door, grimacing as I stared at the handle.  I could hear my mother moving around downstairs, and though I couldn't tell exactly where she was or what she was doing I could almost picture the scene in my mind.  I could see her face, her lips tight, her brow creased, busying herself with tasks that didn't need to be performed, cleaning that which did not need to be cleaned, tidying that which did not need to be tidied.


I can't remember how old I was when I first heard the word “workaholic”, but I'm pretty sure that in that moment I thought of my mother.  She was a Human Resources Manager for the local council, and though she hated her job with a burning passion she was always the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave.  Even in the evenings, and on the rare occasions when she took some holiday time, she couldn't rest.  She had novels, puzzle books or something else equally meaningless to keep her mind or hands busy.


With the exception of one occasion, when I was nine or ten, and a particularly bad bout of flu kept her in bed for the better part of a week, I'd never seen my mother just sit and relax, put her feet up, watch the television or be alone with her thoughts.  I'd often wondered if maybe she was unhappy, and keeping herself busy was her way of avoiding thinking about the parts of her life she didn't like, the regrets she'd accumulated in her forty-seven years of life, but I never asked her about it.  Honestly, I wasn't sure she was capable of standing still long enough to give me a proper answer even if I did.


My father and I had both been surprised when she'd announced that she would be taking time off work until I was back at school.  That night I'd heard her tell my father that she felt she needed to be home, that it would give her a chance to talk to me, to get to the route of the problem, to understand what had been going on, but in the nine days since she'd barely spoken more than two words to me.  Indeed, she seemed to find an excuse to leave the room whenever I entered, to avoid even looking at me.


Yet still she was there.  Always there.  A constant reminder of why I was at home rather than sitting in a classroom at school, her mere presence holding open the wounds that kept me awake at night and tormented me throughout the day.


I was fairly certain that it wasn't her intention to hurt me.  In fact, I was pretty sure that she wanted to talk to me, to ask me about what had happened, to talk it through and perhaps find some resolution that would bring us both peace, but it was as though she was incapable of finding the words, unable to discuss it with me or even mention it.  Once or twice, during the rare occasions when we had been in the same room at the same time, I'd caught her looking at me as though she wanted to say something, and I'd waited, my heart thundering in my chest, but each time she'd just turned and walked away.


It worked both ways, of course.  I knew that if I initiated the conversation, if I said something, we could talk.  She and I had never been particularly close, but I'd never been in doubt that if I needed her she would be there for me, she would listen, try to help in any way she could.  Perhaps all she needed was for me to reach out to her, but it was every bit as hard for me as it was for her.  Maybe harder, because she hadn't been there, she hadn't lived through it, she didn't know the full story, just what she'd heard, just what she'd been told by my headmaster, just what she'd read in the newspapers.


And yet it was a conversation we both needed to have.  She needed to know what happened and I needed to tell her, to know what she thought of me, to know that she still loved and supported me.  Even if she could no longer bring herself to think of me as her son, no longer regard me with anything other than shame and disappointment, I needed to know.  I had to know.


Grasping the door handle, I turned it, stepped out of my room and made my way to the top of the stairs.  I could feel my heart hammering against my ribs, beads of sweat beginning to ooze from every pore in my body, my legs, my arms, every muscle quivering, but I knew the time had come.  We'd been silent for too long.  We had to talk, to get it out in the open, to begin the process of healing or at least to assess the extent of the wounds.  I descended the stairs slowly, gripping the banister to keep myself from falling, and when I reached the bottom I stopped, listened, tried to work out exactly where she was.


The sound of plates clanking together betrayed her location.  I felt a lump forming in my throat as I ambled down the hallway towards the kitchen, panting heavily as I reached the door, as I saw her there, stood in front of the sink.  She was washing the good china, the cups, plates and saucers we used on special occasions or when we had guests over for dinner.  It didn't need washing, of course.  It had been over a month since it had last been taken out of the cupboard and we had no plans to use it in the immediate future, but she'd found herself a task, convinced herself that there was a job that needed doing, found a way to stop herself from sitting, from thinking.


I opened my mouth, fully intending to announce my presence, to begin that much needed conversation, but the words faltered in my throat, stuck there, refused to budge.  Somehow I knew that she was aware of my presence.  She didn't turn, didn't speak, but there was something in her body language, something in her stance that told me she'd heard me come downstairs, heard my footfalls in the hallway.  I licked my lips and parted them again, watching as her shoulders tensed, as she braced herself for what we both knew was inevitable, but once again the words wouldn't come.


For almost a minute I stood there, staring at her, struggling to find my voice, and when finally I did all I could bring myself to say was, “I'm going out.”


My mother nodded her head, but didn't look around, didn't say anything.  I waited there for a few moments longer, hoping that she would find the courage I lacked, but when I saw her resume her task, casting another dish from the soapy water and onto the draining board, I turned away, wandered back down the hall to the front door.


I felt a surge of anger rush through me as I stepped out into the baking sunlight.  I wasn't angry at my mother.  Not really.  I wanted to be, but I couldn't blame her for feeling the way she did, for not being able to look at me.  There was a part of me that wanted to scream at her, remind her that I was her son, demand the unconditional love a mother was supposed to have for her child, but I was afraid.  After what had happened I couldn't imagine her feeling anything for me other than shame, contempt, even hatred, and if I pushed her, challenged her, forced her to talk to me I was afraid that my worst fears would be realised.


If anything I was angry at myself.  It was my fault.  It was all my fault.  Even if she did still love me I knew I wasn't worthy of that love.  I was nothing.  A worthless piece of shit, that's what a girl in my class had called me the last day I'd been at school.  She was right.  They were all right.  My classmates, my teachers, my parents...everyone.


I hurried away from my house, almost breaking into a jog when I reached the pavement, moving as quickly as I could without attracting attention to myself as I made my way to the bus stop.  By the time I reached my destination sweat was leaking from every pore in my body.  My clothes felt damp and heavy, the fabric clinging to my flesh, suffocating me.  I might even have considered returning home and changing my clothes, wearing something a little lighter, more appropriate to the weather, if it hadn't meant facing my mother again.  Instead I stood at the bus stop, glaring anxiously down the street.


I waited at the bus stop for what felt like an eternity, and with every moment that passed the sun seemed to grow hotter.  I felt a flash of relief when I spotted it rounding the corner at the end of my road, but that relief rapidly turned to frustration as it crawled towards me.  It was likely travelling at its normal speed, just shy of thirty miles an hour, but somehow it looked like it was moving more slowly.  When finally it pulled up beside me I jumped through the still-opening doors, emitting an audible sigh as the cool air within embraced my burning flesh.


“Thank God for air conditioning,” the driver quipped, offering me an irritatingly cheerful smile.


“You can say that again,” I muttered, trying my best to sound polite, respectful.  Plucking my travel card from my pocket, I showed it to him, struggling to hold it steady while he looked at it.  After a moment he nodded, beckoning me to take my seat.


Other than myself and the driver, the bus was empty, hardly unusual for mid-morning on a weekday, but even so I walked the length of the aisle, past more than two dozen perfectly adequate seats, to take my usual position at the back of the bus, right next to the window.  As was my habit, I stared out of the window as we travelled, watching as the scenery ambled past, though I didn't really take any of it in.  Instead I found myself thinking about my mother, considering what exactly I would say to her when I got home, when next I plucked up the courage to try and talk to her.


I knew what I wanted to say.  I wanted to tell her that everything she'd heard, everything that she'd been told, was a lie.  I wanted to convince her that it had all been a mistake, and have her look at me the way she used to.  It was bad enough that I had to live with what had happened, but for her to know about it, for her to believe it, that was almost too much to bear.  I couldn't imagine that she would ever be able to look at me again, talk to me again, without at least thinking about it.  But at the same time I knew that I had to tell her the truth.


It wasn't just that I knew she would never believe me if I tried to lie to her.  I wanted to win back her trust, her respect, and I couldn't do that through deception.  At best she would believe me, and thereafter I would have to live with the knowledge that whatever feelings she had for me were based on a lie.  At worst she would see through my lies and any hope of forgiveness, of understanding, would likely be lost forever.  I had to tell her everything, every sordid detail, hold nothing back no matter how hard it was to find the words, but how could I even begin?


More to the point, what would happen if I did tell her everything?  I wanted to believe that we could talk it out, discuss it calmly, and that she would try to understand.  I wanted to believe that when we were done talking she would wrap her arms around him and hold me tight, tell me that she still loved me, perhaps even offer my some helpful words of advice.  At the same time, part of me couldn't help but think that if I did tell her then it would all become real in her mind.  Everything she'd heard had come from other people, and that at least afforded her the opportunity to believe that they were lying, or at least exaggerating, but once I told her everything, not just what she'd heard from others but the whole truth, things she couldn't possibly know, she'd have to believe it.


And then she would hate me.


How could she not when I hated myself?  Even if she didn't hate me, there was no way she could feel pride when she thought of me, respect me, trust me.  As for forgiveness...


A familiar sound broke me from my thoughts.  I glanced first towards the front of the bus, a frown creasing my brow as I watched the doors swing open for an elderly couple waiting on the pavement, but as the high-pitched ringing died I found my eyes drawn towards the window.  My breath caught in my throat when I saw it, the place that had become the focus of my nightmares, in many ways the source of my pain.  To many people the school would have looked like a perfectly normal, if slightly unattractive, mismatch of old and new buildings, hardly welcoming but not in the least bit imposing.  For me, however, it was somewhat different.


I felt my stomach tighten as I regarded it, hot bile rising in my throat.  Even over the roar of the traffic that passed by the stationary bus I could hear the chaotic chorus, hundreds of young voices bantering back and forth, each one clamouring to be heard, inaudible words interspersed by the occasional bout of raucous laughter and shrill squeal.  I wasn't wearing my watch, but I knew it was too early to be lunchtime.  Fate had somehow brought me to the school during the two or three minutes between lessons, when pupils flooded the corridors, enjoying their few moments of freedom as they trundled between classrooms.


In that moment I almost felt as though I was there, trapped amidst the jostling throngs, a symphony of raised, excitable voices raping my ears, smiling faces and friendly chatter creating an illusion of anarchic harmony.  For a new student, a teacher or a visitor to the school the scene in the corridors might have been a little daunting, but it was a mask, a disguise that concealed the fear, the pain, the humiliation endured by a select few at the hands of a heartless minority.


I could see it.  I could feel it.  In one of the many toilets spread throughout the school I could see a boy being forced into a cubicle by one, two, maybe three others terrified at the thought of what they might do to him.  Along one of the many corridors I could see a girl walking, followed by other girls chanting seemingly harmless words at her, words that cut into her heart and brought tears to her eyes.  I could see another boy already in class, setting his bag down next to his desk, minding his own business, trying hard not to look at anyone else, taking his seat only to have it whipped out from underneath him at the last moment, pain flooding his rump and spine, his cheeks flushing red as those around him cackled gleefully.


And there were worse things that happened too.  Savage words and deeds designed to destroy souls and break spirits.  Threats that inspired terror, punches that drew blood, torments that evoked shame and gave birth to nightmares.  There were boys and girls who spent every moment within those walls consumed with fear, who cried themselves to sleep at night because of the things that had been said or done to them, who prayed each day for nothing more than to be left alone, to get through the day without being made to feel even more worthless, even more pathetic than they already believed themselves to be.


I felt tears in my eyes as the bus started moving again, my face burning red, my pulse racing.  All of a sudden I wanted to be back at home, back in my bedroom, locked away from the world where no one could see me, but to return home meant getting off the bus and boarding another, going back past the school once again.  Besides, I was more certain than ever that I needed to get to my destination, to do what I'd set out to do, even if it couldn't bring me the peace I was looking for.


I wiped the tears from my eyes and concentrated on slowing my breathing, pushing the dark thoughts and memories from my mind, and when I found I couldn't prevent them from invading my consciousness I focused my attention on the elderly couple, listening to their conversation.  The spoke of nothing in particular, and it seemed that their words left my mind just moments after they were spoken, but they provided me with the distraction I needed, enabled me to find the temporary peace I craved until I reached my stop.


I watched as the bus pulled away, almost wishing I'd stayed aboard, ridden it to the end of its route and then boarded another, one that would take me further, possibly even out of town, away from my home, my school, everything I'd grown to fear and despise, but I knew that even if I escaped those things I couldn't run from the one thing I truly wanted to escape.  Myself.  No matter where I went, no matter what I did, I would always carry with me the burden of memory.  Even surrounded by strangers, by people who had no idea who I was, what I'd done, what happened, I would always be there, I would always know.


I started walking, my feet dragging along the pavement, my eyes downcast as I moved slowly towards my destination.  For the first time since I left my house I began to consider why I was doing what I was doing, why I was going where I was going, what I hoped to achieve.  I felt certain that nothing I did, nothing I said, would make the slightest difference to me or anyone else, and yet I couldn't escape the feeling that it was something I had to do.  I didn't know if it was right or wrong, if it would make things better or worse, if it would begin the process of healing or hold open the wounds, I just felt as though I didn't have a choice.


It was necessary.


I hesitated when I reached the black, wrought iron gates.  My legs felt weak, my body heavy and had there been a bench nearby I would have gone to it, sat for a moment, gathered my thoughts, but the only benches I could see lay on the other side and once I was through I knew I wouldn't be able to stop.  I'd have to keep going, pushing myself onwards for fear that if I paused even for a moment my courage would fail and I would retreat, only to have to put myself through the same thing again another day.


With trembling fingers I reached for the latch, pushing it down and easing open the gate.  It let loose a tortured scream, bellowing so loud that I found myself glancing over my shoulder half expecting to find the traffic on the road behind me stationary, drivers peering curiously in my direction, but of course no one had noticed.  I closed the gate slowly, carefully, managing to elicit only a dull whine from the rusty hinges, and then continued on my way, once more dragging my feet as I followed the narrow path that wound its way towards the back of the property.


It was only when I was a good distance from the gate and the sound of the traffic behind me had diminished to a dull roar that I realised I didn't have the faintest idea where I was going.  I knew that I was at the right place, that I would find him somewhere within the ample grounds, but it wasn't somewhere I'd been before, wasn't somewhere I'd ever had cause to visit, so I couldn't even guess where to begin looking.  That thought alone was enough to give me the reason I was looking for to retreat, to return to my home, but I resisted the urge, resolving to find him no matter how long it took me.


Without my watch I couldn't say exactly how much time I spent searching, but I'd estimate it was no less than fifteen minutes and no more than half an hour.  I do know that I was on the verge of giving up, succumbing to my fear, my weakness, when I spotted him.  At first I wasn't even sure it was him, just a face that vaguely resembled his glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, but as I drew closer I could see his smiling face more clearly, recognise his gentle features, the familiar mop of messy blond hair that adorned the top of his head.


No headstone had yet been erected to mark the spot where he lay, though an ocean of flowers covered his grave, a stunning display of reds, yellows, whites and blues, some sculpted into words, others simple wreaths, and in the middle of them all, right at the back, a framed photograph.  I recognised the picture immediately.  On the wall at the top of the stairs at home a similar image had been hung by my mother; the same uncomfortable school uniform, the same bland backdrop, almost exactly the same awkward pose, just a different face.


His face.


I slumped to my knees in front of his grave, the feelings of grief, guilt and anger that I'd been struggling to contain for over a week bubbling to the surface as I stared at him.  I expect that most people who saw the photograph would have seen only his toothy grin, the smiling face of a normal, happy boy, but I didn't look at his smile.  I ignored is flushed cheeks, his crooked tie, the slight dimple in his chin, everything, in fact, except his eyes, for while everything else portrayed an image of angelic contentment his eyes told a very different story.


I hadn't been able to see it at the time, or perhaps I just didn't care enough to look for it, but it was there, in the photograph, in his eyes, all the pain, the misery, the despair.  Around the edges I could even see the strain, the energy he'd required to force that smile onto his face, to hold it steady until the picture had been taken.  Beneath his eyes I could see dark patches on his flesh, tell tale traces of sleepless nights spent worrying about the day ahead or dwelling on the events of the day before.  And within his eyes, within the pale blue irises, there was something missing; a spark, a glimmer, that radiant glow that signalled excitement, hope, a lust for life.


Four months.  The photograph had been taken four months before his death, but even back then the signs were there.  I'd told myself, convinced myself, that it had been a spur of the moment decision, an idea to which he'd given little thought, but as I gazed into his motionless eyes I couldn't help but wonder if he'd been thinking about taking his own life even on the day the picture had been taken.  And if he had, just how long had he been considering it?  How long had he been planning it?  Why didn't I see it sooner?


I turned my eyes from his picture, glanced at my left wrist.  The mark was still there, barely visible, but there; a faint red line running across my flesh.  I wondered how his wrists looked, as he lay in the grave, if the gashes had somehow been concealed, perhaps by make up or hidden beneath his clothing.  Were they still open wounds, or had they been sewn shut?  Either way, I knew they would never heal, never form scars.  They would be there until his flesh rotted away and only bones remained.  Or had he cut so deep that he had scarred his bones too?  If that were the case it would be generations before the evidence of his actions disappeared.


Not that it really mattered.  What lay in the ground beneath me wasn't him.  It was just an empty shell, a vessel for whatever it was that made him who he was; his soul, his spirit, his heart, whatever people chose to call it, that part of him was gone.  His body was nothing more than meat and bones, but if that was the case then...where was he?


I wasn't a religious person.  I hadn't been raised in a religious household.  I knew that my mother believed in God, but at best it was a casual belief.  In my lifetime I'd never known her venture inside a church for anything other than a wedding, a funeral, a christening, never heard her pray or even discuss her faith.  And so I'd given it very little thought.  I suppose in passing, from time to time, I'd contemplated what lay beyond death, but I'd never allowed such thoughts to linger long in my mind.  Why did I need to?  At fifteen I was far too young to worry about matters such as death.  Those were issues for older people.


Yet as I turned my eyes back towards his picture I found myself wishing that I had thought about it, for then I could have at least developed some rudimentary belief system, had some notion of whether he still existed somewhere.  I wanted to believe that his soul had moved on, that he was in a better place, that he could see me, hear me, that he knew how I felt, but the idea just seemed surreal.  Then again, the idea that he had just seeped into nothingness as the blood ebbed from his body, that he had simple ceased to be, was horrifying, too painful to even consider.


I had to believe that there was some kind of afterlife.  Even if God was a myth and there was no heaven, I needed to believe that death wasn't the end, that somehow he still existed.  But whether or not that belief was true didn't seem to matter.  Even if he was gone, even if I was kneeling before all that remained of him and he couldn't see or hear me, I had to talk to him, had to tell him how I felt, had to let him know how sorry I was.  Even if they were words that helped no one but myself, I needed to speak them.


“Kevin...” I began, my voice faltering, cracking, barely audible, but before I could utter another word I heard footfalls on the grass behind me.


I jumped to my feet, spinning on the spot, my eyes widening the instant I saw her.  She was clad in a long black dress, her weary face devoid of make up, a solitary lily clasped between the fingers of her left hand.  She stopped in her tracks as our eyes met, and for an instant, a fraction of a second, I thought I saw compassion in her face, a trace of sympathy, but then her expression hardened.  She opened her mouth as if to speak, but if any sound escaped her lips it didn't reach my ears.  Or maybe I just didn't allow myself to hear her.


I turned my eyes downwards, fixing them on the ground in front of my feet.  For a moment I considered saying something to her, telling her how I felt even if I couldn't tell Kevin, but even if I'd been able to find the words I felt certain she had no interest in hearing them.  Instead I found myself walking, trudging back towards the path.  As I drew along side her I paused, just for a second, just long enough to mutter the word “Sorry”, and then I continued on my way.


I didn't look back.  I didn't stop.  I told myself that the right thing to do was to get away from there as quickly as possible, that my presence would only serve to upset Kevin's mother further, to add to her pain, but perhaps I was being selfish.  Maybe I should have stayed there, let her scream and shout at me, pound me with her fists, spit in my face, call me every vile name she could think of, but I told myself that I was trying to avoid causing her further distress, that I was intruding, that I had no right to be at her son's graveside.  Maybe I was just trying to spare myself the condemnation I knew I deserved.


When I reached the path I hesitated, just for an instant, as the thought occurred to me that Kevin's mother had not come to the cemetery alone.  Though I could see no one else, not a single living soul, I considered that perhaps her husband, maybe even her other children, had accompanied her, and that they were waiting by the gates, sat on one of the benches, allowing her a few minutes alone with her son.  If that was the case then going back the way I'd come was not an option.  My presence would only serve to cause them all further distress, and perhaps create a scene I didn't have the strength to endure.


I turned right, heading towards the back of the graveyard, towards the four foot stone wall that lined the rear of the property.  I clambered over the wall and made my way down the gently sloping grass embankment on the other to the footpath below.  Once there I didn't stop to consider my best route home, just turned left and started walking, replaying over and over again in my mind my encounter with Kevin's mother, questioning my behaviour, wondering if there was something I should have done differently.


I felt as though I should have said something to her, but I found it hard to believe that there were any words I could have offered that would have eased either her pain or her anger.  Indeed, I couldn't conceive of anything I might have said or done that would have helped either of us, yet I couldn't escape the feeling that I should at least have tried.  If she knew how I felt, if she knew how much pain I was in, it may not have eased her pain, but perhaps it could have afforded her some small satisfaction, and perhaps she might have found some relief in the knowledge that her son's death had not been entirely in vain.


At the same time I felt sure she wouldn't be able to hear my words, that her anger, her grief, would deafen her to my words.  I wondered if perhaps the better approach would be to write her a letter.  I didn't know if she would even read it, if she would just tear it to pieces and throw it in the bin, but somehow I felt that it was the right thing to do.  At the very least I could tell her what I knew, what had happened, offer her some understanding of her son's state of mind in his last days of life.  Even if it couldn't help her, I started to think that maybe it could help me, enable me to get it all straight in my head, help me to understand what had happened.


I began thinking about what I would write, where I would begin, all the while making my way slowly towards home.  So consumed was I with the idea that when I began to feel a sense of discomfort, anxiety, I didn't pay it much heed.  I ignored it, focused on the words I intended to use in the letter, and when the feeling grew to the point where it began to distract me I unzipped my hooded top, shrugged it from my shoulders and pulled my T-Shirt over my head, carrying both garments under my arm.


The muggy air felt good against my bare flesh, and for a time the feelings of disquiet seemed to fade.  Had I spared a moment to consider those feelings I might have realised that they were caused by something more than physical discomfort induced by near-noon sun, but instead I was focused on the letter I was writing in my head, on the jumbled words I was desperately trying to sort into some coherent order.  It wasn't until I reached the edge of the meadow, until my feet were already entrenched in the long, willowy grass, that I realised where I was, where my route home had taken me.


I felt my stomach tighten, my breath catching in my throat, fresh tears flooding my eyes.  Anyone else standing where I was might have considered the scene before them pretty, but hardly noteworthy.  It was a simple grassy field, unkempt, wild, an ocean of green interrupted by the occasional yellow or white flower, a shadowy legion of trees standing silently on the far side.  It would have appeared to such a person to be nothing special, but for me it was a place brimming with memories.


As children, Kevin and I had played in the meadow whenever we could convince our parents to allow us out of their sights for more than a couple of minutes.  It had been our secret place, our special place, a place just for the two of us and our imagined universe.  For years it had been the place we'd gone to talk, play games, tell stories, share secrets.  I almost managed a bitter smile as I remembered how many an afternoon had been spent crawling through the grass on our bellies, hiding from unseen enemies as we set out on some mythical adventure.


So many days had been spent in the meadow, days filled with fun and laughter, mischief and innocent mayhem.  Our parents had forbidden us to go into the woods, telling us that they were dangerous, that we could get hurt, but of course we'd disobeyed them, spent hours climbing trees, pelting each other with pine cones, running around cackling like hyenas.  As a teenager I realised that my parents weren't really worried that we'd hurt ourselves, but rather that we would be accosted by some pervert in the woods, out of sight of any passing help, molested or worse, but nothing like that ever happened.  Every memory I had of the meadow was a happy one, and as I stood there I realised that every happy memory tore at my heart.


I told myself to turn around, to head back the way I'd come, to find an alternate route home, take a bus or brave the long journey along the pavements, but before I knew what I was doing I was moving deeper into the meadow as if pulled onwards by some invisible force.  Every step brought with it fresh tears, fresh memories, fresh pain, but I couldn't stop myself.  I had to continue.  I had to be there no matter how painful it felt.  I had to remember.


I don't know how old we were when Kevin and I first met.  To be entirely honest, I'm not sure how we would have come to meet in the first place.  Though we'd both been born and raised in the town, our parents had always lived some considerable distance apart and, at least on the surface, appeared to have absolutely nothing in common.  My mother worked for the local council, while Kevin's mother had given up her job as a shop assistant when she'd found out she was pregnant with her first child, opting to stay at home to raise her children.  My father worked in one of the banks in town, proudly boasting to anyone who would listen that he'd gone to the bank straight out of school and had worked his way slowly to the top.  Kevin's father, on the other hand, was a mechanic at a garage on the outskirts of the town.


Neither of my parents were particularly religious, while Kevin's family went to Church every Sunday without fail.  They had so little in common that I doubted they would ever have spoken to one another had Kevin and I not been friends, but still we somehow managed to cultivate that friendship and by the time we started at primary school we were inseparable.  There had been a time when I had known – not just believed, but known – that Kevin and I were destined to be best friends for the rest of our lives, and if anyone had told me differently I wouldn't have believed them.  Yet by the end of the first year of secondary school the two of us barely spoke.


We never fell out.  There was no argument.  I suppose if I was being generous to myself I would say that we grew apart, but the truth is I changed.  I'm not quite sure what it was.  Perhaps it was the beginnings of puberty, a developing interest in girls, a desire for popularity, for a wider circle of friends, but there came a point when I started to feel embarrassed whenever I was with Kevin, started to believe that he was somehow holding me back.


Kevin had always been what I suppose could be politely called a “nerd”.  He was enchanted by science fiction, dedicated to his computer, academically gifted but athletically inept.  His physical appearance didn't help either.  He somehow managed to maintain a fairly unblemished complexion, and never had need for glasses, but he was small, thin, and some of his physical features and mannerisms could even be described as effeminate.  I knew he wasn't gay – he wasn't quite as enthusiastic about girls as I was, but he was interested – but the truth is rarely allowed to get in the way of a good rumor.


At first I'd ignored the gossip, the jokes, the speculation, but at some point I began to be concerned about my image, my reputation, and it was at that time that I stopped spending time with Kevin, first at school and then out of it.  I found myself new friends, and though I missed spending time with Kevin at first, when I began getting invitations to parties, started to notice girls looking at me differently, I soon adapted.  It bothered me less and less that my former best friend was alone.  It upset me less and less when I heard people joking about him, laughing at him.  To my credit I did stand up for him on occasion, at least at first, but by the end of my second year I was laughing along with them.


Looking back, the hardest part was that Kevin never blamed me.  It was as though he understood, he knew his place and he believed, like I did, that I deserved better.  I think he was even happy for me, and when he saw that I was happy he made no effort to maintain our friendship, just the occasional nod as we passed each other in the corridors at school and a friendly greeting when we were alone.  It must have hurt him, and yet he never showed me any sign, never...


I stopped in my tracks, my breath once again catching in my throat.  I'd made my way across more than half the meadow without really seeing anything, my mind overwhelmed by memories, thoughts, regrets, but the moment I saw it I felt as though my brain and body had shifted into neutral.  I couldn't move, couldn't think, could do nothing at all except stare at the gnarled old oak with wide eyes and gaping mouth, hardly able to believe that I'd ever forgotten it.


It was Kevin who had first called it the “Wishing Tree”, though I don't think either of us had ever truly believed that it possessed any magical powers.  It was just so unusual, so ancient, so ugly that it was almost impossible for us not to have been drawn to it.  Even in the height of summer the tree bore only a handful of leaves, most of its withered, crooked branches remaining bare throughout the year.  So thick was its trunk that at the age of ten Kevin and I had joined hands in an effort to encircle it with our bodies, but even together we'd barely managed to stretch around half its circumference.


He'd named it the “Wishing Tree” not because we placed our hands on its rough bark and made any actual wishes, but because it was where we'd so often gone to sit, to shelter from the rain or sun, and talk about our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions.  It was the place where, less than a month before my twelfth birthday, he and I had really spoken for the last time, really talked about anything important.  Our friendship had been practically over before that Sunday, but that morning he'd called me, asked me to meet him and when I'd been initially unwilling he'd told me that his grandfather had died.


In spite of the way I'd treated him, or perhaps because of it, I'd agreed to meet him, finding him a little over an hour later sat beneath the tree, his back pressed firmly against its mighty trunk.  As I found myself moving towards the tree I tried hard to remember what we'd talked about that day, but the exact words eluded me.  I know that the one thing we didn't talk about was his grandfather, that I'd waited patiently throughout our conversation for him to talk about it, to ask me to offer him some comfort, support, but as the sun was setting we parted without once mentioning the man.


As I'd walked home that afternoon I'd known in my heart that my friendship with Kevin was over, and I think he'd come to the same realisation before we'd even parted company, and I remember feeling a tinge of sadness, perhaps even grief, but I resolved those feelings before I even reached my home.  Thinking back, I felt sick as I recalled how easy it had been.  I suppose it's natural for friends to grow apart, to change, to move on, but it didn't feel right.


I stopped in front of the tree, my heart racing.  With a trembling hand I reached out, pressing my palm against the rugged bark, closing my eyes.  Despite the nickname we'd given the tree, I'd never wished upon it, never even seriously considered doing so, but in that moment I closed my eyes, held my breath, and I did wish.  I wished for Kevin to be alive once more.  I wished that I had never abandoned our friendship, that I had stood by him.  I wished that I could have done things differently, treated him the way he deserved to be treated, shown him the compassion I knew he deserved.  I wished that I could be punished; not just suspended from school, shunned by my classmates, rejected by my parents, but really punished.  I wished that I could know his pain, his suffering, and worse, much worse.


The sound of high-pitched laughter caused me to jerk my hand away from the tree.  I span around almost expecting to find Kevin stood behind me, regarding me with contempt, but instead I saw no one.  I frowned, confused, wondered if my mind was playing tricks on me, but then I heard it again.  It came from within the trees, somewhere off to my left, a shrill, almost maniacal giggle.  I stepped back, my shoulders colliding with the tree trunk, my heart thundering in my chest, quickening further when the noise came again, only this time it was followed by a voice.


“Get the fuck off me you perv!” a girl shrieked, her voice jovial, happy.


Her words were met with an immediate response, and though I couldn't hear exactly what was said I recognised the voice immediately.  It was Duncan.  I felt my stomach tighten, a wave of nausea sweeping over me.  I wanted to run, to hide, but once again my body wouldn't respond.  I held me on the spot, frozen, unable to do anything more than watch the tree line and hope that they were headed away from me.


Duncan Ferguson had transferred to my school, my class, during my second year, and for some reason I took an instant dislike to him.  It wasn't because he was crude or aggressive, though he was certainly both of those things, but there was something about him, something savage, something primal.  He was like a feral dog, a vicious beast that could strike without warning and to devastating effect.  By the end of his first week at school three of the boys in my class showed signs of a physical confrontation with him; a split lip, a bloody nose, a black eye, though of course none of them reported him or even admitted that he was responsible.


I suppose it was fear that caused me to try and befriend him.  I had no interest in getting to know him, in spending time with him, but I figured that if I could get on his good side then maybe I could avoid joining my classmates in incurring his wrath.  It was self-preservation.  I don't know why, but he quickly accepted me as a friend, sat next to me in class, followed me at lunch time, though I expect in his mind I was sitting next to him and following him around.  Regardless, I rapidly became part of his small inner circle.


It wasn't entirely one sided.  I might have approached him in order to avoid getting beaten up, but in the space of a couple of weeks I realised that I actually liked him.  Or maybe I didn't.  Maybe what I liked was the way people looked at me when I was with him.  He was a boy to be feared, if not respected, and because I was his friend I quickly noticed that other boys at school looked at me the same way they looked at him, while the girls...well, there's just something attractive about a bad boy, isn't there?


He and I did have a lot in common, though.  We had similar taste in music and films, a similar attitude to school, and perhaps most important for boys entering their teenage years, completely different taste in girls.  We were both athletically inclined, and while neither of us enjoyed going to class I had an aptitude for science, while Duncan seemed to do reasonably well in subjects like English and History.  We were able to help each other with our homework, when we bothered to do it, and most importantly we had fun together.


I think if you looked at our friendship objectively, you'd say that Duncan was a bad influence on me, while I was a good influence on him.  Before we'd met, Duncan had been arrested three times, twice for vandalism, once for theft, but after we started hanging out he seemed to stay out of trouble, for the most part.  There were times when we were told off by the police, thrown out of shops, and at one point we were even barred from the local cinema, but neither of us were arrested.  And at school it was the same story – we had our share of detentions, visited the headmaster on a couple of occasions, but nothing serious.


It wasn't that Duncan actually changed, but rather with my influence he was a little more cautious, a little better at avoiding getting caught.  And for my part I loved the danger, loved the thrill, loved the excitement, and most of all loved the attention, particularly from girls.  After I terminated my friendship with Kevin I became more attractive to the girls at my school, but it was only after I started hanging out with Duncan that I got my first girlfriend.  And my second.  And my third.  And it was at his house, in his bedroom, in his bed, that I lost my virginity at the age of fourteen to a girl I'd been dating for just two weeks, a girl he had introduced me to.


He'd become my best friend, my only true friend, and I hated myself for it.


I watched as they stepped out of the trees, all three of them.  Duncan led the way, of course, his girlfriend, Kelly, walking a fraction behind him, his cousin, Stuart, bringing up the rear.  He spotted me almost immediately, his eyes narrowing, lips tightening, fixing me with a savage glare.  For a moment I thought he was going to just walk away, go on with what he was doing, but I should have known better.  He turned, began marching towards me, Kelly and Stuart trotting behind him like loyal dogs.


“What the fuck are you doing here?” he barked at me when he was within six feet.


I opened my mouth to answer, though I don't know what I intended to say.  It didn't matter.  Before I could utter a single word his fist shot out, driving into my belly, knocking the wind out of me.  I dropped to my knees, my hands darting out to prevent me from falling on my face, my T-Shirt, my top, slipping from my grasp.


“You couldn't keep your fucking mouth shut, could you?” he growled, his foot jerking forward, catching my arm, knocking it from under me.  My left shoulder hit the ground hard, the rest of my body following.  I rolled away, grasped the tree, tried to pull myself to my feet, but another blow to the small of my back sent me crashing back to the ground.  He kicked me again, and again, the first blow colliding with the back of my head, the second striking my shoulder.  As a third and fourth came I couldn't help thinking about the wish I'd made.  I'd asked to be punished.  I'd asked to suffer.  Somehow the Wishing Tree had given me exactly what I'd requested, though I hadn't expected it to deliver so quickly, if at all.


I felt someone else kicking at my legs, and though I couldn't see who it was I knew it had to be Stuart, because I could hear Kelly some distance away cackling like an old witch who'd just cast some terrible spell.  I could have fought back.  I could have rolled myself up into a tight ball to protect myself from the blows.  I didn't.  Instead I found myself twisting my body, turning towards him, granting him access to my stomach, my chest, even my face.  I didn't try to stop him, didn't resist, didn't even cry out until Stuart's foot clipped my crotch.  It was only then that they stopped, but it wasn't over.


Someone pressed their foot against my ribs, pushed me onto my back, and moments later I felt hands prying my legs apart.  I knew what was coming, and though my mind screamed at me to move, to fight back, to defend myself, I just let it happen.  I caught a glimpse of Duncan's face a split second before his foot pounded my exposed groin, before my body flooded with intense pain, before the world around me dimmed.  I didn't pass out, but I don't think I was entirely conscious either.  I was sucked into some dark recess in my mind where the only thing I could feel was pain.


When I came out of it I felt something...strange.  There was something drumming against my chin, my cheek, my right eyelid, my forehead, something tickling my belly, my chest, my neck.  I parted my lips for a moment and a foul, salty fluid trickled between them.  I didn't realise what was happening until I opened my eyes and saw Duncan stood over me, his feet either side of my arms, a stream of urine cascading down onto my face.  I jerked my head to the side, gagging, coughing, retching, but I didn't try to move, didn't try to get out of the way of the flow, just allowed it to continue pounding against the side of my head, my ear.


When he was finished he leaned down, rested his knee on my chest and spoke.  I don't think I heard his exact words, but he said something about how I was lucky his father was pulling him out of our school, but that I should watch my back.  And then he was gone.  I heard them walking away, but I didn't move, didn't try to stand, didn't even try to wipe my face.


As I lay there I wondered if Kevin could see what had happened, if he'd witnessed Duncan's assault on me, if it had brought him any satisfaction.  I could only hope it did, though I knew it was nothing compared to the prolonged torment he had endured at Duncan's hands.  At my hands.


It began with a rumor.  I don't know who started it or why, all I know is that one morning Duncan and I arrived at school together to hear someone tell us that a friend of a friend had seen Kevin in a newsagents in town and that he had been buying a gay porn magazine.  I knew immediately that it was a lie.  It didn't really matter to me if Kevin was gay, but I knew he wasn't.  At least, I believed he wasn't.  And even if he was, there was no way he would be able to buy such a magazine.  Only adults could buy pornography, and if anything Kevin looked several years younger than he actually was.


At the time we just laughed about it, and for three days nothing more was said, not to us or by us.  Then one afternoon as Duncan and I walked home from school we spotted Kevin and before I knew what was happening Duncan had run over to him, was taunting him, pushing him, mocking him.  I just watched.  That time.  But the following day at school I did more than watch.  For some reason Duncan had decided that Kevin was his newest plaything, and fool that I was I went along with it.  We cornered him behind the science block and harassed him, pushed him, threatened him until he “admitted” he was gay, and then Duncan called him a faggot and we left.


After that we tracked him down most days at school, but nothing we did to him was really that bad.  Not really.  We called him names.  We pushed him, though not hard enough to actually hurt him.  We laughed at him.  And when we got bored we walked away.  There was never any physical violence.  There were threats, every now and then, but nothing more.  And while Kevin looked irritated and afraid, he didn't look like a victim.  Not to me.


Towards the end of that school year Duncan seemed to grow bored of Kevin, and so we left him alone.  On the couple of occasions we saw him during that summer we ignored him, and I honestly believed it was over.  I think Kevin did too.  But it started again during our first week back after the holidays.  It was in the showers after our first PE lesson.  Though Kevin was minding his own business, Duncan suddenly announced that he'd caught him looking at another boy, called him a pervert, ordered him out of the showers.  Kevin had complied immediately, but that wasn't good enough for Duncan.  He followed him, told him to get out of the changing room and wait in the corridor until everyone was dressed.  I think he would have forced him out naked if I hadn't grabbed his towel and thrown it to him, but even then he'd barely wrapped it around his waist before he was forced out the door.


He made no effort to come back in, just waited out there until a teacher found him, pulled him back inside.  He was given a chance, an opportunity to tell that teacher who it was who had forced him into the corridor, but Kevin had seen the way I looked at him and had lied, told the teacher that it was a dare.  His deception bought him a week of lunchtime detention and a meeting between his parents and the headmaster.


He'd lied.  I didn't know if he'd done so to protect me or because he feared what might happen to him if he told the truth, but from that day on Duncan refused to leave him alone.  Every day we found him, harassed him, taunted him, and it wasn't just Duncan.  There were days when I initiated it, when I did all the talking, the pushing, the threatening.  I don't know why I did it.  I always felt bad afterwards, but at the time I felt this...rush, as though I was powerful, strong, capable of anything.


For the most part all we did was tease, call him names, compel him to say the most ludicrous things, but on occasion we went a little further, particularly in those final months.  On the day that the picture that adorned Kevin's grave was taken, we took a very different picture of him.  Duncan brought his mother's vibrator to school, told me he was going to threaten Kevin with it, but I had a better idea.  We found him at lunchtime, just an hour before his photograph was taken, and we took him to our favourite spot behind the science block.  There I forced him to put it in his mouth while Duncan took a picture on his mobile phone, a picture we then made sure everyone in our class saw, a picture, we claimed, proved beyond any doubt that he was a “dirty little queer”.


A couple of weeks later we cornered him in the toilets at school.  Duncan gave him the address of a gay singles site, told him that before he came to school the following day he needed to create a profile for himself there, a profile with a photograph, and email us both the link.  We didn't threaten him, didn't lay a finger on him, but by eight o'clock that night we'd received the link, and within an hour I'd forwarded it to everyone in my address book.


On the surface what we did to him could be regarded as harmless pranks, teasing, nothing truly sinister.  We never hit him, never forced him to do anything illegal, never really hurt him, and if you took any of the things we did to him on their own they might have been regarded as an uncomfortable or embarrassing experience for him, something from which he would quickly recover, nothing that would truly haunt him for the rest of his life, but each individual act was like a poison to him, building slowly in his system, gradually killing him.


Even so, I think he might have struggled through it if it hadn't been for that afternoon, those twenty minutes we spent with him after school just two days before he took his own life.  It was my idea to target him that day.  I'd been given detention that lunchtime for not completing a homework assignment and I was pissed.  I was looking for someone to take my frustration out on, and so we decided to follow Kevin after school.  He never saw us coming.  We grabbed him near the park and led him into the public toilets.  He didn't even try to resist, didn't object, didn't question, just did as we told him.


“Faggot!” Duncan had barked at him the moment we were inside.


I laughed as Duncan shoved Kevin into one of the cubicles, stood behind him, in the doorway, a broad grin spread across my face.


“Suck my dick!” Duncan had told him.


I couldn't contain my laughter when I saw the look on Kevin's face, the expression of horror, disgust, fear, and then finally resignation.  He didn't even utter a word, just dropped to his knees, reached for the front of Duncan's trousers.


“You dirty little freak!” Duncan had shrieked, jumping back, away from him.  Of course it had never been our intention to actually force Kevin to do such a thing.  We'd expected him to beg, to plead, maybe even to cry, and when he looked desperate enough, scared enough, we would offer him an alternative, tell him we'd let him off if he ran naked around the park, but even then if he'd refused, if he'd cried hard enough, we wouldn't have made him go through with it.


But he hadn't resisted.  He hadn't refused.  He'd just dropped to his knees and if Duncan hadn't put a stop to it Kevin would have done as he'd been told.  Perhaps I should have realised just how far we'd pushed him, how badly we'd hurt him, how we'd broken his spirit, but I was caught up in the moment, caught up in Duncan's reaction, shocked that the boy I'd once considered a friend would even consider doing such a thing.  And so I said something, uttered words so cruel I could hardly believe they'd come from my mouth.


“You disgusting cunt!” I'd shouted, and I spat in his face.  “Why don't you do the world a favour and kill yourself!”


As much as I'd like to believe that I didn't mean it, in that moment I think I actually did.  Kevin didn't come to school the following day, and the day after that, at two in the afternoon while his parents were out at work, he ran himself a bath, climbed into the water fully clothed, and sliced open his wrists with a kitchen knife.


His mother found him later that evening.  When she first arrived home from work she thought that he was just using the toilet or in the shower, but after an hour she'd become concerned.  She'd tried calling for him, and when he didn't answer she'd pried open the lock and found him.  He'd been dead for nearly three hours, and though she called an ambulance there was nothing anyone could do.


I felt numb as I scrambled to my feet, both physically and emotionally.  The visit to Kevin's grave, my encounter with Duncan, the memory of what I did, they'd me dry, empty, cold.  I spotted my T-Shirt and top in a pile a few feet away, and though I knew I hadn't dropped them there it didn't register why they were so far away until I reached out and touched them.  They were wet.  While Duncan had emptied his bladder on my face and torso, Kelly, or more likely Stuart, had done the same to my clothing.


I left them where they lay and started walking in the direction of home.


We heard that Kevin had died the following morning at school, and by lunchtime it was common knowledge that he'd committed suicide.  Perhaps I was in denial, but I didn't even consider that anything I'd done had contributed to his decision until that afternoon when Duncan and I were called to the headmaster's office.  It was there he told us about the note Kevin had left, how he'd cited bullying as his reason for taking his own life, how he'd named me and Duncan as his primary tormentors.


Duncan denied it, came up with some story about how Kevin hated us, tried to claim that it was a malicious lie designed to hurt us, but I told the truth.  I admitted what we'd done.  There was no point in lying.  I knew the headmaster wouldn't have believed us, but Duncan saw it as a betrayal and attacked me.  It took the headmaster and his secretary to drag him off me and out of the office.  After that a fog seemed to descend over my mind.  At some point my parents arrived and we sat together while the headmaster explained what had happened, while he told them that he had decided to suspend me from school for two weeks, while he cautioned them that the police might want to pursue criminal charges against me.


I said nothing.  I nodded or shook my head when I was asked a direct question, but I didn't speak.  I think I was in shock.  I didn't feel guilt or anger or sadness.  I didn't feel anything at all.


We drove home from school in silence, and when we arrived and my father ordered me to my room I didn't argue.  I just went straight upstairs, stripped off my clothes, climbed into bed and immediately fell asleep.  It was two days before what had happened really hit me, and when it did I found myself racing to the bathroom, vomiting into the toilet until I had nothing left to expel, until my stomach felt as though it was being torn open, until my throat was raw.  And there, on the bathroom floor, I cried the first of many tears, though at the time I don't think I was crying for Kevin.  I was crying for myself, because in that moment I realised exactly what I was.


A murderer.


I might not have been there when Kevin cut his wrists, I might not have held the knife, but it was my actions, my words, that drove him to it.


I killed him.


I walked the rest of the way home in a daze, barely noticing that my father's car was in the driveway as I approached the front door.  There was no one in the hallway to greet me, no one to question why I was wet and bleeding, so I just continued upstairs, into my bedroom, closing the door behind me.  I undressed slowly, tossing my clothes, even my shoes, in the bin, and then went to my bed, pulled the covers, fully intending to just...sleep, but there, on the mattress, I saw it.  My pocketknife, still sat there exactly where I'd left it that morning.


Alert, aware once more, I sat down on the bed and pried open the blade.  With a trembling hand I pressed it against my left wrist once again, and for the first time I could actually feel it.  I could feel what Kevin had felt.  Perhaps not exactly the same thing, perhaps not as intensely, but it was there, if only a glimmer, that desire to end the pain, to sleep and never wake again.  I pushed the blade harder, deeper, until the pain became too intense, and there I held it, stared at it, thought about how easy it would be to just...cut.


A sharp knock on my bedroom door startled me.  I jumped, the blade jerking in my hand.


“Ben!” my father's voice called from the other side.  “Are you coming down for dinner?”


I glanced at my wrist, watching as the blood pulsed from the open wound.  I gazed at my hand, watching as a red torrent flowed over my thumb, as it dripped down onto my foot, as it seeped into the carpet beneath.


“Ben!” my father repeated.


I swallowed hard, but didn't shift my gaze, just called out as calmly as I could, “I'm not hungry”, and watched the dark red pool forming at my feet.


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