This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments or events is entirely coincidental. Comments and feedback are highly appreciated, send to firstname.lastname@example.org
"Look what you got in the mail," Derick says walking up to my desk and handing me a large and official-looking white envelope. I pull away from my English midterm paper and study the name on the sturdy looking envelope. The elaborate letters spell out a name: Elisabeth Sarah Hightower. I nervously gaze at Derick who's munching away on some chips. He shrugs his shoulders, "open it." I shake my head no and hand him the envelope. He takes it and slowly tears the paper pulling out an ostentatious card, and staining it Cheddar Cheeto red in the process. He chuckles at the card and hands it to me. It's an invitation, and I stare at it dumbfounded. Elisabeth Hightower has invited me to a secret birthday bash, for none other than Mark Norton. Derick continues to chuckle at the invitation and my reaction to it.
"You should go," he finally says. I roll my eyes and wipe a red Cheeto stain from the corner of his mouth.
"Yeah..no," I say and throw the card into the waste basket by my desk, then proceed to work on my paper. Derick hovers over me and kisses my head.
"How are you feeling?" How am I feeling? I consider the statement for a few moments. I'm not really sure. I don't feel..anything.
"I'm okay," I reply. He studies my face.
"That's good. I gotta go to work. I'll see you tonight," he says.
"Okay, see you," I reply half-smiling.
After he leaves I stop typing, and sit there staring at the window for a long while. Going to the party would mean being able to see Mark once again, even if it was for the last time. It would also mean seeing Mark with his fiancé, and realizing how far apart we've drifted. Going to the party would rip my heart even further than it's already been ripped. I stare at the window and once again the memories come back.
"Jeremy, you need to come home right now," I hear my mother's stern voice say on the other end of the phone.
"Mom, you don't understand," I start saying but she cuts me off.
"Now, you need to come home now. You are not an adult. You can't be out any time you feel like it. I understand Mark is in trouble, but you can't help him right now. So I'm coming to pick you up." I hang up the phone, infuriated at my mother's lack of understanding. Doesn't she know my world is falling apart?
I look at Joanna, "I can't stay. Will you please let me know what happens?"
"Of course hon, I'll give you a call as soon as I know something. Don't worry," she says, but we both know that's an impossibility. How can I not worry when Mark's life is on the line? I can't even process the thought that I might not be able to see him for a while. It's crippling. I walk outside and get into my mom's car. She talks all the way home, but I tune her out. The only thing I can think about is how my life just drastically changed in a matter of hours, and how I'm nowhere near ready to deal with this change.
When we get home I walk upstairs ignoring my father's inquiries on the way. I make sure my phone is turned on, in case Joanna calls. Then I take a long hot shower. I grab some boxers and a T-shirt and change into them. Then I walk over to my bed and sit down--and I realize that I have no idea what to do, or how to deal with any of this. Sitting around feels helpless, but what else can I do? It's not as if I could possibly concentrate on doing homework or any other mundane activity. How can I stop the panic going on in my brain? How do I deal with so many feelings? I am a walking mass of nerves.
I get up and decide to go to the kitchen and busy myself with something, but when I'm in the hallway I hear my cellphone ring in my room, so I quickly run back to get it. I sigh with disappointment when I see that it's Lena. I talk to her for a while and explain the whole messed up situation. When I hang up I check the time, 11:00. I swallow hard realizing at this very moment Mark is facing some judge, who will decide wether he's going to be tried as an adult. I clutch my phone and check it obsessively for the next two hours, praying that Joanna calls soon. I pace my room back and forth, I check Facebook, I check my e-mail, and do a million other small things to try to help me pass the time. When I think I'm about to go crazy the phone finally rings. I pick it up right away.
"Jeremy, it's me," I hear Joanna say. It sounds like she's outside.
"What happened?" I ask, my blood pressure going through the roof.
"Well the good news is that he won't be tried as an adult. The bad news is he will definitely have to do some time in a detention center. They will not let him do a home probation."
"Oh god, how long do you think he'll get?" I ask sick with worry.
"I don't know, Paul is working hard on the most lenient sentence. But this judge has a reputation for being tough. We'll have to wait and see."
"Will I be able to see him?" I ask tearing up.
"I don't know hon, they usually only allow family. But I'll do my best to get you in," she says, shattering my world. "I have to go now, Mark's father is here. I'll call you if I get any other news, okay?"
"Okay, thanks," I reply and hang up.
I spend the next two weeks feeling like a train wreck. My life consists of just going through the motions. I go to school, I come home, and I call Joanna about any possible updates. I am a zombie. I can barely concentrate in my classes, and my parents give up on trying to talk to me.
Finally Mark is given his sentence, a year and a half in juvie. I try hard not to freak out, and instead I think about how in the world I'm going to keep in touch with him. I try to figure out whether I can send letters or talk to him on the phone. I beg Joanna to get me at least one visitation with him. I cannot live a year and a half without at least explaining some things. Finally I get good news.
"Only parents are allowed visits, but Mark doesn't really want to see me or his father anyway. He's not letting us help at all. But, I made a special request on your behalf, and got lucky. You have one meeting," she tells me sadly. I thank her and assure her that I'll find out why he's being so difficult. The next day I find myself being searched by a guard, before I'm taken to a medium sized visitation room, where I take a seat at a small table. I fidget with my fingers and try to figure out what in the world I'm going to say. I look at my nails, chewed and bitten for the past two weeks. Finally I put my hands in the pockets of my hoodie and sigh nervously.
Five minutes later he comes out, and all my thoughts fly out the window.
"Hey," I say trying hard not to cry as approaches. Seeing Mark like this, in this hopeless situation, not being able to touch him, it's unbearable.
"Hey," he says, not making eye contact with me, but looking down. He takes a seat. He's been in this place two weeks, but his face and demeanor are already unrecognizable to me. The warmth I am so accustomed to is gone. Instead it's replaced with an unmoving face, devoid of any emotion, and chilly body language.
"How are you?" I ask the stupidest question of all time. He doesn't answer.
"Why are you here?" he asks unexpectedly.
"I needed to see you," I reply taken aback. He looks agitated.
"Why aren't you letting your parents help? This is serious Mark," I start saying but he cuts me off.
"They've gotten me out of trouble my whole life. I can't rely on that any longer. I will deal with whatever I deserve. No more favors," he states. I shake my head, absolutely confused by his logic. Then he looks at me, and his eyes are no longer his. They're the eyes of the guy in his old pictures.
The dead cold eyes stare at me, making me wish I was never born. Making me wish I never loved, never cared, never felt. Mark's dead cold empty eyes. "I can't do this. I...I just can't," I hear him say. I hear it, but I can't process it. What I process are his eyes. Cold, like in the picture of him and Luke. My insides drop as I realize this is exactly what Luke must have felt like, and for a second how he chose to deal with his pain seems completely rational. The pain burns, the pain buries itself so deep and screams so loud that I think I'm going out of my mind.
"What are you talking about?" I mumble.
"Jeremy, this isn't going to work," he says harshly, looking away.
"Why?" I ask, my voice breaking. He swallows hard.
"Look at what I did. Look at what I've been doing. I haven't changed at all. I'm no different than I was in New York. I'm walking around beating people up, because I'm selfish, because I think I know better. You don't deserve to put up with someone like me."
"What are you talking about? Breckett is an asshole, you did that for me, to protect me," I say confused.
"I know, and that's the problem. I thought I could handle it on my own, that there was no way he was going to get away with it. Remember the look you gave me when you saw what I did to Spencer? Because I will never forget that. You looked at me like I was a different person, someone you didn't know. And that was for a black eye and a broken arm. Do you want to know what I did to Breckett?" I shake my head no, but he continues anyway. "I hit him, and hit him, over and over again, until it felt like I was beating a mushed up piece of fruit. Until his face felt boneless, and looked deformed. That's what I did. And then I hit him some more," he says clenching his jaw, the same way he did when he talked about Luke. "I'm not the law Jeremy. This guy is a fucking scumbag, okay, but I had no right to do what I did, just the same way he had no right doing what he did to you. He has two little girls, do you know how they would look at me if they could meet me? The way you're looking at me right now. Like you don't know me, like I'm a monster," he says and I feel the tears roll down my face. "And I can't have you look at me like that ever again. You don't deserve to have to deal with someone like me." I shake my head saying no, but he goes on.
"It's over Jeremy, I'm going to spent the next year and a half in juvie. I don't want you to contact me. I don't want visits, I don't want letters. Do you understand? I want you to move on. I want you to be happy."
"But I love you," I whisper pathetically. Doesn't he understand? His jaw unclenches and he makes eye contact with me. He stares at me for a while, then says mechanically.
"I have to go now. Please don't contact me. I don't love you, and I've never loved anyone in my life. I don't deserve love, but you do. So please don't try to see me again," he says and walks away from the table. The back of his juvie uniform is the last time I see Mark Norton. Up until now of course.
After my only visit with Mark, I try writing to him. I do it for two months, thinking he was just depressed, that he didn't mean the things he said. But soon my letters all come back to me. I call Joanna, thinking maybe I got the wrong address. "Why are all my letters being returned?" I ask.
"Jeremy, Mark filed to be transferred to a facility in New York. He wanted to be away from here," she replies sadly.
"What? I...I don't understand," I say more to myself than to anyone else. Joanna stays silent, she doesn't understand what's happening with her son either.
The next few years go by like a blur. A very painful blur. I live. I don't do anything stupid. I don't cut myself. I don't try to hurt myself. I refuse to be another Luke. I don't feel very human, as every movement hurts, and every moment is just another moment spent without Mark, but I live. I am a survivor. I survived middle school torture, I survived yogurt in my hair in high school, I survived Stuart Breckett, and I will survive this, too. Every day is a test, a test to survive. And I pass. I don't smile, I don't say much, and I go through life trying to avoid emotion. After high school, I get into a small college and move thirty minutes away from home, to a slightly bigger town. I start taking classes and live in a small dorm. Then I meet Derick. I am a wreck of a human being, but somehow he manages to glue me together. He is part time in school, and juggles two waitering jobs. I take some classes and work at a book store. After a while we move in to a one bedroom apartment. Life becomes somewhat normal. The only news I hear of Mark during this whole time is the one time I call Joanna after he gets out. She tells me he moved back in with his father, and that he's in NYU, on his way to becoming a lawyer. I tell her not to tell him that I called. I try to move on. And I almost do.
Seeing Mark after all this time is jarring. I find myself reliving a ton of emotions I thought were over. But I keep telling myself that it was just a one time thing. That I will never see him again, therefore I should keep trying to move on. He's clearly over it. He's engaged to a woman for Christ's sake. He's studying at NYU. He's not sitting around crying for me. I look out the window and notice tiny snowflakes lazily falling to the ground and melting. I can't believe it's winter already.
The next morning I'm barely awake sitting in a freezing classroom and sipping on a pumpkin spiced latte as my professor drones on about his fascination with Ernest Hemingway. By the end of the class I realize that I could become a Hemingway biographer, that's how much miscellaneous information I'm bombarded with for two hours. When the clock hits 12:00 I throw two books in my backpack and leave at the speed of light. I cannot be late for work again. My boss has already been more than accommodating about my school schedule. I pull my jacket tighter as winter air slams into my face when I exist the building. I almost miss my bus, which is crowded as usual, leaving me standing for the next twenty minutes. And even though I'm tired and sleepy I'm glad to be going to work, it provides a good distraction, especially since seeing Mark. I can tune out and focus on mundane tasks.
When I walk in I meet Danielle, who also works there, at the desk. She has short brown hair, and a face full of make up.
"Hey," I say smiling and putting my backpack behind the checkout, "I'm on time," I exclaim proud of myself.
"Hey Jeremy, how goes it?" she asks smiling back.
"Good, uhm some super hot guy is here looking for you," she says smiling and throwing a sultry look at someone close to the far left book row. I frown when I see the back of his head.
"Have fun, and get me his number if you can," she says grabbing her purse and throwing one more sexy look at Mark before leaving me in charge of the store.
"What are you doing here?" I ask as I walk up to him.
"Just stopped by to get a book, what a coincidence that you work here," he says, a smile playing on his lips. I shake my head, not at all amused.
"Uhhh," he says looking around, "this one," he says picking up a Walt Whitman book.
"Really, I didn't take you for a Walt Whitman fan," I reply sarcastically.
"Oh I love Walt, I mean best fiction writer ever," he replies looking at the section name.
"Walt Whitman is a poet," I say rolling my eyes and grabbing the book from him. I walk over and put the book in its correct section. Mark follows me.
"Right," he says. His appearance is once again professional. A light-blue long sleeve shirt and light-brown pants.
"So why are you really here? I though you'd be in New York by now," I ask. He takes a long look at me, studying my face for a while.
"I just...needed to see you," he admits seriously this time.
"Well now that you saw me, you're free to leave," I reply and start walking away.
"Jeremy," he follows me. I stop and look at him questioningly. He clears his throat. "I'm sorry." I look at him, unable to say anything. I just look. After all this time, after all he's put me through, this is what he comes up with? Not even half an apology.
"Will you meet me for lunch tomorrow?"
"No, I'm busy, thanks for the invitation," I reply annoyed. He sighs, clearly irritated with me. He seems to have an internal battle for a minute, and then something in him shifts. He looks at me with a sad gaze.
"I'm really sorry, for what it's worth," he says, and after a while walks out. I stand there, my heart beating wildly. Being around Mark is still nerve-wracking.
I get home feeling furious, and throw my backpack on the floor. How dare he just come into my work with some shitty ass apology and expect me to meet him for lunch. Why? So he could tell me what a huge mistake I was? So he could tell me how happy he is with Elisabeth? Does he think so little of me?
"You won't believe the crappy day I had," I start saying to Derick who's standing in the hallway, but the look on his face stops me.
"You have a visitor," he says motioning to the living room. I walk in and see Elisabeth Hightower standing in the middle of the room, absent-mindedly gazing out the window. She really does look like a magazine cover.
"Jeremy," she says when she notices me.
"Hi, Elisabeth," I say taking off my wet jacket, "how are you?"
"I'm good, and you?"
"Good, tired," I reply. I look like a huge mess. How does she manage to look so put together in this weather?
"Sorry, I didn't mean to surprise you like this. I can come back another time if you'd like."
"No, it's fine. Uhm, would you like anything to drink?" I ask, not really knowing what else to say to her.
"No, I'm fine, thank you."
"So, how can I help you?" I ask, confused.
"Well, I noticed that you didn't RSVP to my invitation." I stare at her for a while, not understanding the problem. First of all I just got the damn thing the other day.
"You did get my invitation, right?" She asks.
"Oh, sorry, yeah I don't think I can make it, I've got to work that day," I lie, still not understudying why she would come all this way to talk to me about an invitation.
"See, I would really like it if you came. You're the only one of Mark's old friends that I've met, and I want to make this party is really special for him."
"I'm sure it will be. Trust me, he won't notice that I'm not there. Do send him my best wishes though," I reply as politely as I can manage. She still does not look appeased. In fact something in her face changes.
"Please, I would really love it if you could attend," she pleads with me, her tone of voice sounding more and more desperate. "Couldn't you take a day off? Mark, well, he's so secretive, he's very private, you're the first friend of his I've met that's not just an acquaintance you know. An actual friend. "
"Elisabeth, I don't think you understand, we haven't talked for a couple of years now. We were friends in high school, but that's it. I mean, you guys are engaged. You know more about him than I do," I admit sadly.
"Jeremy," she pleads with a shaking voice that I find disturbing, it's like she's worried and scared at the same time, "he hasn't been acting normal recently, and I don't know what to do. He just won't talk to me," she says almost tearing up. This woman I've been so jealous of, now I just feel sad for her. "Now I know you guys have been out of touch for a while, but you know him, I can tell by the way he talks about you, and how protective he is when your name comes up. He really values your friendship. And it would mean so much to me if you would come and just try to help me figure out what's wrong with him." I stand there speechless. He's been talking about me to Elisabeth? I look at Derick hopelessly. What do I do? He shrugs his shoulders while Elisabeth look at me pleadingly.
"I'm sure you could take the day off," Derick replies after a while. I frown at him.
"Great!" Elisabeth exclaims before I can confirm my consent. After she leaves I continue frowning at Derick.
"What? It's better that you go and deal with it. Clearly there are still unfinished feelings there. I would rather you guys figured them out," he says. I love and hate how rational Derick is.
"Yeah, you're right. I just really don't want to go," I reply.
"Well, what are you scared of?"
"Everything. Everyone who will be there, the awkwardness of it all. I don't see why I should go. It's not like we're friends."
"Just be the bigger person. Show him that you've moved on," he says, "anyway, I'm gonna go make some popcorn, you won't believe what movie I got at redbox today," he starts saying but I tune him out. I'm still trying to figure out whether I have actually moved on. I mean, Mark clearly has, and I know that we're done, but have I moved on emotionally? Have I stopped loving him? Have I stopped dreaming of him at night? Have I stopped missing his touch, his smile, his scent, his voice? I sigh as I plop down on the old beaten down couch in our living room. Derick pops the DVD in and turns on the tv. I tune out everything and focus on the flickering screen.
When I park my sad old car outside of the huge mansion where Elisabeth is hosting Mark's birthday party, I am tempted to turn around and just run for the hills. But instead I sit there for ten minutes and talk myself into going. I tell myself this will be the last time I see him. It's my last chance to look at his beautiful face. To take in the essence of Mark, and then try to finally leave it behind. When I walk in, I feel completely out of place right away. Everybody is dressed like they are going to the Oscar's. I'm wearing a pair of dark jeans and a long sleeve shirt. I'm definitely the most casual person here. I breathe in, trying to steady my anxiety. I look around, trying to find a familiar face when I spot Chris and Hilary. Chris looks like he hasn't aged at all, Hilary looks just as fake as I remember her. While I try to figure out whether I should go and say hi, I feel a hand on my shoulder.
"You made it," I hear Elisabeth exclaim excitedly.
"Yeah," I say smiling at her nervously.
"Thank you, I really appreciate this," she says, and for a minute I feel guilty that she doesn't know who I really am, and what part I really played in Mark's life. We slowly make our way to Chris and Hilary.
"Jeremy," he exclaims, surprised to see me. Hilary immediately makes her awful sounding noise, and gives me a look of distaste. I choose to ignore her. I'm not a teenage boy anymore, and she will not intimidate me.
"Chris, how are you?" I respond.
"Good, surprised to see you here, it's been a long time," he replies cautiously.
"I basically had to force him to come," Elisabeth chimes in, "but I figure Mark will appreciate the surprise," she says smiling. The rest of us awkwardly nod and smile, knowing we are partial to information she wouldn't like.
"So when is he coming?" Chris asks looking at his watch.
"Very soon, the valet will ring me when he's downstairs."
"Elisabeth," says a man approaching her. I realize I've seen him before, and then I remember the google picture I looked at.
"Jeremy, my father Daniel," she says, "dad, this is Jeremy, Mark's friend from school."
"Hello," the large man says looking me up and down, "what school did you go to?" he asks, and I can immediately tell the question is a test of some sort. He already does't like my clothes.
"We just went to the same high school," I reply. He nods, I can see the judgement wheels turning in his head. I'm not worth his time, he clearly decides, and turns away.
"Chris, how are you? Why's that son of yours always late, huh?" he asks, and by Chris's tense facial expression I can already tell he doesn't like Mr.Hightower just as much as me.
"He'll be here soon," Chris answers annoyed, while Elisabeth throws her father a pleading look. Hilary tries to smooth the situation by indulging Hightower in small talk, and it seems to work.
"My father is not Mark's biggest fan," Elisabeth whispers leaning into my ear.
"I can see," I reply smiling.
"They'll have to learn to get along, after Mark passes his bar exam he'll be working for Hightower and associates."
"That's right, a pretty great job to have right out of college," Hilary chimes back into our conversation.
"Well let's hope he gets his act together. Many people would cut off their hand to get this position," Hightower senior muses. We all go quiet when Elisabeth's phone rings.
"He's coming up? Okay thanks!" she says excitedly, "Everyone hide!" she exclaims and turns off all the lights. After a few minutes we hear a key turn in the door.
The people gathered in the spacious room yell "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!" as Elisabeth turns the light back on, temporarily blinding Mark. When he removes the hand that covers his eyes, everyone, including me, gasps. His right eye is swollen, and his lip is bleeding. And on top of that he appears to be furious. He looks around for less than a minute, his face a perfect storm.
"Sorry guys, not a good time," he states annoyed and storms through the living room and into the adjacent room, slamming the door on the way. Elisabeth just stands there speechless. Her father clenches his jaw, and Chris looks worried. Everyone just stands around, and for some unknown reason I blurt out, "I'll go and talk to him." The second the words leave my lips I regret them, but it's too late to take it back. Chris just nods his head.
On my way to the door Mark walked through I stop at the kitchen and grab a pack of frozen peas from the freezer. Then I walk through the door, which leads to a study.
"Not now," he says annoyed, his back turned to me. He's sitting on a large desk, shifting through some papers. He's wearing black slacks, and a white shirt, now partially covered in his blood. His face bruised.
"You should put this on your eye," I say holding out the pack of frozen peas in his direction. His head snaps up.
"Jeremy, what are you doing here?" he asks surprised. He didn't notice me in all the commotion.
"Elisabeth convinced me to come. She's worried about you," I reply, asking myself if that was really the reason I came. He looks at me thoughtfully.
"Take it, they're freezing my hand," I say shaking the peas at him.
"Thank you," he says grabbing the bag and putting it to his face, "and thank you for coming."
"What happened?" I ask.
"Nothing, a misunderstanding," he replies. I nod my head, not surprised that once again he's withholding information from me. All of a sudden the door opens and Chris appears in the doorway.
"What in the hell are you doing?" he asks Mark infuriated. "Are you trying to piss off Hightower on purpose? Because it's working. I mean you couldn't have done a better job."
"I don't care about Hightower," Mark replies irritated.
"What...is this about the Br..," Chris starts but Mark interrupts him
"Don't," he says staring his father down. "Just go out there and get these people out of here, please." Chris sighs, "fine, but you'll have to apologize to him," he says and walks out. I stand there, completely baffled by the whole situation.
I want to ask him what the hell is going on, but I feel like that's no longer my right. He broke up with me after all, I tell myself.
"Well, happy birthday. I guess I should get going," I say.
"Please stay, just for a few moments," he says, his voice sounding almost panicked. "Just give me a few more moments, for my birthday," he asks. I walk up to him, sitting there and looking so lost and beat up. I take his hand, that's just hanging lifeless holding the frozen peas, and bring it back to his eye.
"You have to ice it," is all I manage to say. He holds the pack to his face.
"I'm really sorry," he says, his voice filled with a strange emotion, when Elisabeth walks in.
"Honey, what happened?" she asks running to him, her tan Louboutins making it slightly difficult. She places a hand on his face and he recoils at her touch.
"Nothing, I'm fine," he says getting up.
"You're not fine, " she answers, "please tell me what happened?"
"I better go," I say, not wanting to be part of this awkward exchange. Mark looks distressed as I walk toward the door. The last thing I see before I close the door is Elisabeth's arms going around his neck, as he looks into my eyes with dismay and confusion.