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Too Late

by Kit

Everything had seemed to be going so well on that Thursday afternoon. As I walked home from school I was enjoying the thought that it was just a few days to go before the start of the long summer holiday. I was looking forward to it even more than usual because now that I was almost fourteen years old my parents had agreed that I could go on vacation with Alan and his family. The prospect of being away from home without my parents was exciting enough in itself, but the idea of spending ten days sailing on the Norfolk Broads with my best friend from school was even better.

The sight of Dad's car in the driveway was unexpected, but I wasn't particularly concerned and assumed that he'd just finished work early. Mum, who worked part time as a receptionist in a local dental practice, was always home when I got in from school, but on that day she did something unusual. She came into the hallway to greet me as soon as I got through the front door. Behind her in the kitchen I saw my dad and the impression that I got was that my parents had been waiting for me. That alone would have made me wonder if something was wrong and when Mum said she and Dad wanted to talk to me as soon as I'd changed out of my school uniform I began to feel a little worried.

While I was in my bedroom putting on casual clothes it occurred to me that for the past few days my parents had seemed a little stressed, but I'd assumed that if it was anything at all it was just some adult problem they'd tell me about if it concerned me. Then I remembered that one of my schoolmates had said that his parents had been behaving oddly for weeks before his dad walked out and left them. However, the thought of my parents splitting up passed through my mind only very briefly. Apart from anything else, for the past few days I'd noticed that my dad had been showing signs of affection toward Mum more often than I could remember him doing previously. That morning at breakfast he'd reached out to squeeze Mum's hand a couple of times and that didn't seem like the sort of thing he'd do before leaving us.

Just as I was beginning to feel less concerned, it occurred to me that Mum had been vomiting a few times over the past few weeks and she'd said she was going to see the doctor. My heart sank as I wondered if there had been some bad news about her health. For a while I was reluctant to go downstairs and find out, but eventually I realised I couldn't put it off forever.

"Would you like anything to drink? Or maybe a snack?" Mum asked me when I joined them in the kitchen. She and Dad were sitting at the breakfast bar and his hand was resting lightly on hers.

"No, thanks," I said. Frowning and looking at Dad, I added, "You're home early. Is everything okay?"

"Yes, it's more than okay," he replied with a reassuring smile. "Your mum and I just got back from seeing the doctor and we have something to tell you."

"You're not ill, are you?" I asked her, trying not to sound as worried as I felt.

"No, Eric. I just went to confirm something I suspected, but couldn't really believe." She paused and took a breath before continuing. "You're going to have a little brother or sister."

They looked at me closely, obviously trying to assess my reaction before I said anything. My first feeling was one of disbelief. She'd recently had her forty-sixth birthday and Dad was almost fifty. Even if they still did the sort of thing required to make babies, which was something I didn't want to think about them doing, I hadn't thought it was possible to have a baby at her age.

"B-but you're too old," I stuttered.

Dad frowned and looked annoyed, but before he could say anything, Mum smiled wanly and said, "Yes, that's what we thought, too."

"But it's too late, now!" I protested, shocked by my own outburst and by a rising anger that I couldn't understand.

"Clearly not," Dad said, his irritation indicated by his tone and his face. Obviously he'd misinterpreted my words.

"No, I didn't mean the being too old thing," I said. Frustrated, I tried to explain my feelings to myself as much as to them. "I mean that for years when I was a kid I wanted a little brother or sister and I kept asking if I could have one."

"We did try," Dad said, smiling a little sadly. "It just never happened."

"But I'm not a little kid now and I don't want it any more. I don't want a baby brother or sister. It's too late," I said petulantly, pointing out what should have been obvious to them.

Dad stood up, making no effort to hide the anger in his piercing blue eyes. I took a step back. Although he'd never hit me he was tall and muscular and he still had the power to scare me when he got really angry. Mum put a hand on his arm and he sat down again, still glaring at me.

"It's not all about you," he said eventually, his voice grating a little. "Maybe you're being so selfish because you're an only child, but it's about time you started thinking about other people. Your mum's going to be a, erm… mature mother and it could be hard for her. So she'll need our consideration and support."

Feeling a little ashamed of myself, I realised that my mother was no longer as young and as strong as she was when I was a small child. That's when I again began to feel concerned about her health.

"Erm, if it's going to harm Mum," I said tentatively, "can't you, erm, get rid of it?"

That question seemed to upset him, but before he could say anything Mum spoke.

"Of course that's something we discussed," she said calmly and reasonably, "but we decided that we really wanted this baby. After all, we'd been trying for so many years and then given up hope. Now it would feel wrong to reject what we'd always wanted."

"You had me," I pointed out. It wasn't entirely relevant, but I had the irrational feeling that somehow maybe I wasn't enough for them.

"Yes, Eric, and we're very grateful for that," she said, smiling and making me feel a little better.

"Another thing," Dad said, "is that your mum won't be going to work after the baby's born. So we'll all have to cut down on luxuries."

I wondered what he meant by 'luxuries' because I wasn't aware that I had any. As far as I was concerned everything I had was a basic necessity. However, realising that giving voice to those thoughts would be unwise, I decided to ask the obvious question. "When's the baby due?"

"Around the end of December," Mum replied.

There seemed nothing else for me to say and in any case I felt the need to get away and think about the situation. "Is it okay if I go and see Luke?" I asked.

"Of course," she replied, "but be back by six. We're having an early dinner."

I nodded my acquiescence and turned to go, noticing that Dad still didn't look very pleased with me.

Luke and I had been best friends almost from the time he'd moved into our street seven years previously. In many ways he was the brother I'd always wanted, but there was no way anyone could mistake us for such because we looked so different. Despite being just a few months older than me, he was considerably taller and much more muscular. I'd inherited my mum's brown hair, slim build and hazel eyes, but Luke, with his black hair and blue eyes, looked more like my dad than I did

Occasionally Luke and I had, with a little embarrassment, said that we each regarded the other as a brother. I wasn't sure if he really did feel the same as me because he already had two older brothers as well as three sisters. So I felt that he had really no need for me to be a sort of brother.

When I got to his house he still hadn't got home from school, but that wasn't a surprise because he went to the Catholic school on the other side of town and his daily commute was about half an hour longer than mine. His mum offered me a drink and said I could wait in the living room, but I declined her offer and because it was a warm sunny day I asked if I could wait in their back garden. As I went outside I wondered how she could remain so calm and almost always smiling in a house made chaotic by so many kids.

The chaos had decreased a little when the oldest child, Anne, had left home and got married almost a year earlier and interfamilial frictions were less common while the oldest son, Matt, was away at university. However, Matt would be coming home soon for the long summer vacation and then no doubt the sibling rivalry between Matt and the next youngest brother, Mark, would be reignited. Even at its quietest Luke's home life was much more hectic than mine and that's probably why he spent so much time at my house. Observing Luke's family situation for a couple of years had greatly reduced my desire for a sibling.

Luke finally arrived home, much later than I'd expected, and I'd almost decided to give up waiting. When he explained that he'd missed his usual bus because he'd been chatting to his latest girlfriend, Sandra, I just gave a resigned shake of my head and rolled my eyes skyward. He'd reached puberty considerably earlier than I had and since then his obsession with girls had continued to increase. That obsession was one of the few interests that I didn't share with him.

"You change your girlfriends more often than I change my socks," I chided.

"It's not my fault you're so unhygienic."

"Anyway, I've got something to tell you," I said, becoming more serious when I told him my news.

"Really? No way!" he said. "When's it due?"

"End of December."

"Poor little sod," he said sympathetically.

"What d'ya mean?"

"Well, it'll never have a proper birthday," he replied. Seeing my puzzled frown, he continued, "My cousin Peter's birthday is on the second of January. His parents keep saying that he'll still have a proper birthday and presents even though it's so close to Christmas, but he never does, and last year they even said that the new bike he got for Christmas was so expensive that it would be his birthday present as well."

"At least he can have a decent birthday party," I commented. "That doesn't cost much."

"Maybe in theory, but it never happens. Who really wants another party so soon after all the Christmas and New Year parties?"

"Poor sod," I agreed, feeling considerably more sympathy for Luke's cousin than for my future sibling.

I'd considered phoning Alan to give him the news, but then I'd decided it would be better to talk to him in person. So at school the following day I told him that I wanted to talk to him and took him to a quiet corner of the schoolyard. For some reason I felt almost embarrassed by the fact that my parents were having another child and didn't want to reveal the information where anyone else might overhear. At first I was confused by what seemed a flicker of disappointment on his face, but then he grinned and asked me if I was really sure. Apparently disbelief was the standard first response to the news.

Although Luke was my best friend and I'd known him for almost as long as I could remember, we went to different schools and that meant that we each had a different set of school friends. For the most part I got on reasonably well with his group of friends and he got on with mine, but there was almost never any socialising between groups. The main exception to that general rule was Alan, my best friend from school, who quite often joined Luke and me when we socialised and especially when we went cycling or swimming.

Alan's family had moved up to Linchester from the South Coast almost a year previously and apparently he and his younger brother, Henry, had been very much against the relocation. However, it had been a requirement of their father's job and so they'd had no choice. On his first day at my school he made a huge impression on me. His height combined with his bright ginger hair made him stand out from the crowd and his southern accent made him seem a little exotic. Overcoming my usual shyness with strangers, I immediately went over to greet him and welcome him to the school. Very soon after that we became close friends.

Soon after we started spending a lot of time together, he'd told me that he thought of me as his best friend. I wanted to say the same about him, but that would've felt as if I was being disloyal to Luke. So I just acknowledged that I felt closer to him than anyone apart from Luke. Seeing the look of disappointment on his face I felt guilty and wanted to make him feel better, but the only thing I could think of saying was that I really liked him a lot and that I always enjoyed being with him. Of course, I didn't dare to tell him that I found everything about him, especially his gorgeous green eyes, a huge turn-on.

Sometimes when Luke, Alan and I were together I detected a slight friction between the two of them and occasionally I got the impression that they were vying for my attention. However, I couldn't understand why there might be any problem. After all, although they were very different in physical appearance, they had a lot in common both in interests and in personality. Of course I could never tell them that there was no need for any competition between them because although I loved Luke as a brother my feelings for Alan were different, and in some ways even stronger.

A couple of weeks after the long summer holidays started I went to the Norfolk Broads with Alan and his family. By that time I'd developed a coping mechanism to deal with the impending arrival of a sibling. I ignored it. Forgetting it completely would have been my preferred option, but my parents talked about it frequently and even Alan would occasionally raise the topic. He seemed to think that I should be excited and happy by the prospect of having a little brother or sister.

Alan, who would be fifteen in October, was the oldest boy in my year at school whereas I was the youngest. His brother, Henry, who looked like a miniature version of Alan, had recently had his eighth birthday. With such a big age gap between them I couldn't understand how they managed to find anything in common, but they seemed to get on reasonably well. However, with an age gap of fourteen years, I couldn't imagine that there could ever be any meaningful interactions between my future sibling and me.

The journey to Norfolk took over three hours with Alan, Henry and me in the back of the car, which had seemed spacious at the start of the trip, but felt considerably more cramped by the time we reached our destination. Also I would have been happier had it not been decided that Henry should sit in the middle because of his shorter legs. When we arrived at our destination my first impression was that the sailing boat looked bigger than I'd expected. However, when I looked below decks it appeared smaller than I'd hoped.

In the bow was a double berth that was separated by a sliding partition from a gangway with a toilet on one side and a tiny shower on the other. That section of gangway was in turn separated from the main cabin area by another sliding partition. On the port side of the main cabin was a table and on the starboard was a sofa, and both table and sofa could be converted into double berths. However, I thought that the description of them as double berths was overly generous because they seemed barely bigger than a single bed.

Aft of that there was a galley on the starboard side and a 'pilot berth' on the port side. Just beyond that there were steps that led up to the cockpit. Alan's parents chose the double berth in the bow for themselves and suggested that Alan and I should each take one of the other double berths. Henry was not at all pleased by that suggestion because in previous years he'd shared the main cabin with his brother. However, his parents pointed out that a smaller boy would feel less cramped in the pilot berth.

They also pointed out that as this would be a new experience for me I might feel more comfortable sharing the cabin with Alan. Of course, in a strange environment I would indeed be more comfortable sharing with my friend and I liked the idea of being close to the boy I found so attractive, especially if I got to see him undressed. On the other hand I was concerned about the prospect of being undressed in front of him, especially if his proximity caused me to have an erection that he might see.

The first afternoon on the boat was spent without unmooring from the dock, with Alan and his family teaching me about safety and the basic terminology of sailing. There was a lot to learn and at times it was almost as if they were speaking a foreign language. Eventually, though, I managed to grasp basic details such as why one bit of rope was a line, but another bit of rope was a sheet. Henry, though the least experienced member of the family, had been sailing for years and he frequently cast pitying looks in my direction. Perhaps it was just paranoia that made me imagine that occasionally there was a hint of contempt in those looks.

By the time they felt that I knew enough not to be a danger to everyone including myself, we were all hungry and it was decided that we should change into more suitable clothes and go to a nearby restaurant. After a very good meal we went back to the boat and went to bed relatively early so that we could have an early start in the morning. That night I discovered that Alan, like me, wore boxers to bed. So that he wouldn't think I was ogling him, I went to brush my teeth while he got changed and later kept my back to him while I got ready for bed.

That night I slept surprisingly well, which was fortunate because the next day I found that sailing was physically much harder and also technically more complex than I'd expected. So it was also fortunate that Alan's dad was an experienced skipper and that the rest of his family knew what they were doing, because it turned out that I wasn't much use as part of the crew. Still, thanks to the previous afternoon's training, for most of the time I at least managed not to be a hindrance. That night we went to a pub for our evening meal and by the time we got back to the boat and got the berths set up I was so tired that I didn't care if Alan saw me getting changed for bed. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

The next day was much like the first except for the fact that I managed to be of some small use in handling the boat. That night I wasn't quite so tired, but still went to sleep very quickly. In the middle of the night I briefly came partially out of my sleep, enough to see a vague shape in almost complete darkness. From its size and outline I guessed it was Henry in the gangway between my berth and Alan's. Still half asleep and presuming he was on his way to the toilet, I turned over and immediately went back into a deep sleep.

When I next woke up the pale light of early morning illuminated the cabin and my attention was caught by something bright blue across the gangway. As my eyes focused I saw that it was Henry in his blue pyjamas and that he was curled up behind his brother. At that point the signals from my uncomfortably full bladder reached my consciousness. So I set aside my curiosity and, as quietly as possible, went to the toilet.

Perhaps I hadn't been quiet enough because when I returned Henry was awake and standing in the gangway. The way he was shifting his weight from one foot to the other and the expression of discomfort and embarrassment on his face told me that he was probably desperate to empty his bladder. As he brushed past me on his way to the toilet he paused.

"I had a bad dream," he whispered. Then he hurriedly continued along the gangway.

By that time Alan was also awake and had turned over to look at me blearily. "What?" he asked vaguely.

"It's still early," I said, suddenly realising that many of my muscles were still aching from the previous day's activities. "I'm going to try to get some more sleep before your parents get up."

He seemed to accept my response to his unspecific question, but as he became more alert he continued to look at me. Feeling a little unsettled and unsure what else to say I got back under the bed covers. Just as I was beginning to settle down, Henry returned. He paused by my berth and frowned at me.

"You won't tell Dad, will you?" he asked.

"No. Of course not," I said reassuringly, though I didn't really know what it was that I wasn't going to tell.

My response seemed to satisfy him, however, and he continued on to his own berth. By that time Alan was fully awake and as our eyes met, he held my gaze. I had the impression he was going to say something, but it was difficult to interpret his expression and he didn't say anything. So I decided to break the silence.

"What was all that about?" I asked.

"He has nightmares sometimes and can't get back to sleep. So he comes into my bed until he calms down."

"But why was he so concerned that I might tell your dad?"

"When he was very little he used to scream for Mum when he had had a nightmare and she'd go and cuddle him until he went back to sleep. Then when Henry was five, Dad decided that he should be old enough to deal with nightmares on his own and that it would make him soft if Mum kept on treating him like a baby. So after that Henry started coming to me when he was scared after a bad dream, but he doesn't want Dad to think he's soft or behaving like a baby."

Unable to think of any response, I looked at my watch on the little shelf above my head. "With a bit of luck we can get another couple of hours of sleep," I said and turned to face away from him. As I drifted off into a doze, I had the feeling that he was still looking at me.

The rest of the holiday passed without any major incidents. The weather was mostly sunny and warm and the whole sailing experience was very enjoyable. As far as I knew, Henry had no more nightmares and I didn't see him in Alan's berth again. However, the little episode I'd witnessed, combined with spending so much time on the boat with him, had made me think of him more as an individual person than just as Alan's little brother. Also, seeing the brothers interacting so closely during the holiday gave me a new insight into their relationship.

They squabbled quite frequently, but even if there was a little ill feeling it quickly disappeared. Alan clearly cared a great deal about Henry and the younger boy seemed to respect his older brother and sometimes treated him almost like a guru. Henry apparently preferred to ask his brother for help and advice rather than ask their father and Alan never hesitated in giving whatever assistance was requested.

After everyone had gone to bed on our last night of the holiday I found it difficult to sleep. I'd enjoyed the holiday so much and had especially relished the time spent so close to Alan that I wanted to savour the last few hours. He may have had similar feelings because after tossing and turning for a while he whispered my name.

"Eric? Are you asleep?"

"No. I'm not really sleepy." I turned toward him, but there wasn't enough light for me to see more than just a general outline of his head and shoulders.

"I hope you enjoyed the sailing," he said and with a hint of humour he added, "despite all the aching muscles."

"It was great," I replied enthusiastically, "and there weren't any real aches after the first couple of nights."

"Maybe you'll come with us next year, then?" he said hopefully.

"Definitely. If I get invited."

"I'll make sure you are."

There was a pause in the conversation, but I was still not sleepy and so I switched to a topic that had occasionally been in my thoughts for a couple of days.

"Ya know," I said a little hesitantly, "I always got the impression you thought of Henry as a bit of a pest."

"When did I ever say that?" he asked, sounding a little surprised.

"Erm, I don't think you ever did, but I just got the impression."

There was quite a long silence before he spoke again. "Well, if I'd told you how I really feel about him, I'm afraid you might think I'm a bit of a wimp."

"I'd never think that about you," I said with certainty. Then after a brief pause I asked, "So how do you feel about him?"

"I love him to bits." From the tone of his voice I had the impression that he was probably blushing.

"But isn't having a little brother a nuisance?"

"I s'pose it can be, but it's my job. It's part of who I am and, well, it makes me feel good about myself."

"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled by what in my mind seemed to be a contradiction. "How can a nuisance make you feel good?"

"Well," he said slowly, obviously trying to pick his words carefully, "I look up to my parents and some other adults and most of the time they treat me like a kid, but it makes me feel good to know someone looks up to me and thinks that my opinion matters, even if it is only my little brother."

"I do too," I mumbled very quietly, not sure if I wanted him to hear me.

If he had heard me he didn't react and I quickly tried to think of something to move the conversation on. Then I thought of how Luke's older brothers usually either ignored him or teased him and how even when they were nice to him, he often seemed suspicious of their motives. The situation was clearly very different with Alan and his brother.

"Henry really seems to trust you a lot," I said.

"I've never given him any reason not to," he replied simply, as if stating the obvious.

The next day we returned home and normal life resumed with the interactions between Alan, Luke and me carrying on as before. However, to me everything felt somehow flat and anticlimactic and at first I thought that was probably because normal life wasn't as exciting as sailing and being on holiday away from home. Then, thinking about it as I lay in bed one night, I realised that something else was contributing to my general feeling of dissatisfaction.

While we were on the boat Alan and I had not only been physically close, but I'd felt we'd grown emotionally closer. However, after we got home Alan had shown no indication that he wanted that extra closeness to continue. Our friendship was just as it had been before the holiday and that made me feel very disappointed and a little depressed.

Because of her age Mum was getting regular check ups during her pregnancy and in the middle of August, just a couple of weeks after my fourteenth birthday, she had an ultrasound scan. Dad had gone with her and when I got home from school they were both there. Before I went upstairs to change my clothes Mum told me that the baby was a boy. When I asked if they'd thought of any names yet, she just frowned and said it would be bad luck to choose a name before the baby was born. That surprised me a little because until that time she'd never shown any indications that she was superstitious about anything.

At the beginning of October Alan had his fifteenth birthday and on the following weekend he had a small celebration to which I was invited. As well as five friends from our school, Alan had also invited Luke. We met at his house to watch him blow out the candles on his cake and eat a slice each. Then his parents gave him enough money so that he could pay for us all to go to the cinema and then have pizza.

Much to my surprise, Henry also went with us and he'd even been allowed to invite a couple of his own friends. Also with us was a boy called Joe, one of Alan's closest friends from where he used to live, who'd travelled almost three hundred miles to spend the weekend with him. Although my rational mind told me I was being foolish, I couldn't help feeling a little jealous of their obvious closeness and envious that Joe would be sleeping in Alan's room.

During Mum's check ups in November the doctors began to get worried about her increasing blood pressure. However, I wasn't told about that until the beginning of the first week of December, when it was decided she should be constantly monitored in hospital so that if her blood pressure increased to a dangerous level an emergency caesarean delivery could be carried out. It was only when she was preparing to go into hospital that I was told that there had been concerns about her blood pressure for weeks. The fact that I hadn't been kept informed about such an important topic as Mum's health had already put me in a bad mood. So Dad's next announcement nearly made me lose my temper completely.

"Your mum and I have decided that while she's in hospital it will be best if you stay with your Aunt Susan," Dad said, sounding as if it was a trivial matter.

In retrospect I realised that his apparently cavalier attitude to the subject of my living arrangements was because he was distracted by his worries about the health of my mother and their baby. However, at the time I didn't consider that and reacted without thought.

"No way!" I protested. Aunt Susan was actually Mum's aunt and so was, from my young teenage viewpoint, positively ancient.

"She's the only relative who lives close enough so that you can still get to school," Mum pointed out patiently, having probably predicted my reaction.

"But I don't want to stay with any relative," I said, trying to stay calm.

"Most of the time when I'm not at work I'll be visiting your mum and I won't be able to look after you properly on my own," Dad said.

"I'm fourteen. I can look after myself."

"Even if you could feed yourself properly, do your laundry and do all the other things you take for granted," he replied, "I don't think you should be left alone in the house so much."

"And I'll probably be in hospital over Christmas and maybe even into the New Year," Mum added. "You won't have much fun here on your own and looking after yourself then, will you?"

"I could go over to Luke's house."

"His mum will have enough to cope with without you," she said. "Anne and her husband will be staying from Christmas Eve to New Year's day. So there will already be nine of them squeezed into the house."

"Maybe I can stay with Alan," I said hopefully.

"We only met them a few months ago when you asked if you could go on holiday with them. So it would be a big imposition to ask them to take you in for what might be three or four weeks," Dad said.

"They took me with them on holiday for almost two weeks," I pointed out, relieved that he hadn't actually vetoed the idea. "Can't I at least ask them?"

My parents looked at each other for a couple of seconds, then Dad shrugged and after a couple of seconds Mum nodded and sighed. "But I'll do the asking," she said.

Mum was scheduled to go into hospital early the following morning and despite reassurances from both parents that there was nothing to worry about, I didn't have much appetite for dinner. Luke and I had arranged to meet that evening, but after we'd eaten I was a little reluctant to go out. Feeling that it would be better to stay in with Mum, I was about to phone him and cancel the meeting when she more or less instructed me to go out, saying that I was hovering around like a lost soul.

As usual, Luke was very sympathetic and supportive, though he frowned a little when I mentioned that I hoped to stay with Alan's family while Mum was away.

"You could stay with me. I'm sure Mum won't mind," he said, though he didn't sound too sure of himself.

"Then I'd have to share a room with you and Mark or Matt would have to let me move in with him," I said dubiously. When I'd mentioned the idea to my parents I hadn't considered the practicalities. "And what happens when Anne comes to visit? Won't Matt have to move in with you and Mark?"

"Well, I s'pose that might be a bit of a problem," he said, "but what if you're mum's not home by Christmas? You could always spend it with us. There won't be much difference between having nine or ten for Christmas dinner."

"Thanks for the offer," I said after pausing briefly to consider it, "but it wouldn't be a nice way to treat Alan's family. How would you feel if you'd been letting me stay for three weeks and I told you I'd rather go and spend Christmas day with someone else?"

The following Saturday I went to stay with Alan and his family. A foldaway bed had been put in his room and I was both happy and nervous about spending at least three weeks in such close proximity to him. On the boat I felt that I'd managed to hide the fact that I found him to be very attractive, but I was concerned that a much longer time sharing a bedroom might allow my feelings for him to be discovered.

For the first couple of days I felt very unsettled. Although I'd been to the house on many occasions I'd never been there overnight and so I had to adapt to their household routine. Besides that, I was worried about my mum and I wasn't looking forward to the arrival of my new baby brother. Even before he'd arrived he'd already put Mum's life in danger and messed up my Christmas. That, combined with such a big age gap, made me wonder how I could possibly be a big brother to him like Alan was to Henry. I even wondered if I wanted to be such a nice big brother.

On my second night there I had a really bad nightmare. I dreamed that I'd woken up and that there was some sort of evil dwarf sitting on my chest and trying to suffocate me. Still half asleep, but thinking I was awake, and being confused by the unfamiliar surroundings, I thought I saw the reflection of another evil shadowy figure in the mirror that covered the wardrobe door adjacent to my bed. When I began to really wake up and realise where I was, I found that I was screaming loudly.

By the time I was fully awake Alan was kneeling next to my bed and was grabbing my shoulder. Seconds later the door opened and the light was switched on. Despite being dazzled, I could see his parents standing in the doorway in their dressing gowns and looking as dazed as I felt. Feeling horribly embarrassed, I tried to explain about my nightmare and despite my lack of coherence they quickly grasped the situation. His dad turned off the light, but just before they could close the door and go back to bed, Henry appeared in the doorway, which was dimly lit by the light from their parents' room along the hallway.

My embarrassment increased greatly when his mum told Henry that the screams that had awoken the household were the result of my nightmare. After all, it might be okay for a little kid like him to be scared of nightmares, but I was a teenager. However, instead of being contemptuous or even disapproving, Henry gave me a look of sympathy and a nod of understanding. His dad told him to get back to bed, but his parents returned to their own room without ensuring that he was obeying that instruction. He hovered in the doorway for a couple of seconds until his parents had gone into their room, then, as if making a decision, he turned to me.

"Maybe you should sleep in Alan's bed for a bit," he said. "When I have a bad dream that always makes me feel better.

Then he left, closing the door behind him. I was glad that there wasn't enough light in the room to illuminate my blushes.

"Are you okay now?" Alan asked as he stood up.

"Yes, thanks," I replied. My voice was quivering a little and I realised that I was shivering, though the room was quite warm.

"You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure," I said, trying to hold both my voice and body steady.

He got back into his bed and I turned over onto my side, trying to relax enough to go back to sleep. However, whenever I closed my eyes I kept imagining the evil figure on my chest and its weight crushing me. So for several minutes I tossed and turned, trying to calm down and get comfortable.

"Eric, are you okay?"

Despite the fact that Alan's voice was barely more than a whisper I could hear the concern in it and felt guilty that the sounds of my movements had obviously been keeping him awake.

"Yeah. Sorry," I said, unable to think of anything better to say.

There was another long silence, broken only by the occasional creak of my bed. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't remain still and I couldn't get back to sleep. I felt the need to clear my throat, but tried to resist it so that I wouldn't disturb Alan. However, eventually I couldn't prevent it any longer and tried to cough as quietly as I could.

"It's okay, ya know," Alan said. "It's bad enough having a nightmare, but I bet it's worse trying to settle down again when you're in a strange bed."

"Yeah," I admitted, feeling guilty. "Sorry."

There was silence for several seconds and I was hoping that he'd gone to sleep. Then I heard him move.

"Ya know," he said hesitantly. There was a pause before he continued. "Henry's right. It always helps him get to back sleep after a nightmare if he comes into my bed for a bit. You can… if you want."

The prospect of sharing Alan's bed was both exciting and terrifying and the most terrifying thing was the fact that it would be exciting. Fear made me want to think of a polite way to decline the invitation, but the opportunity of being so close to the most gorgeous boy in the world was something that I didn't want to give up. The deciding factor was the possibility that rejecting his offer might hurt his feelings.

So, too nervous to trust my voice, I said nothing as I got up and crept tentatively into his bed. Trying to avoid any physical contact, I lay on my back as far from him as I could [be] without falling out. He turned toward me and without a word he welcomed me by putting his arm over my chest and cuddling up to my side. My body surprised me by not showing any sexual response and I immediately relaxed and began to feel safe. The ease with which I quickly drifted off to sleep made me understand why after one of his bad dreams Henry sought refuge with his brother.

Early in the morning and while it was still dark, I partially awoke and found myself on my side, cuddled up behind Alan. My arm was over his waist and my nose was almost touching the nape of his neck so that I inhaled his scent with every breath I took. At first I thought it was all a dream, one not unlike many I'd had before. Then when I began to realise it was real I was horrified to find my erection was not only pushing against Alan's buttocks, but that for at least a few seconds it had been slowly grinding against them.

The sudden burst of fear-induced adrenaline jolted me to full wakefulness and I froze. Desperately hoping that he was still asleep, I tried to work out how to disengage from him without waking him up. I was so scared and so caught up in my predicament that for a while I forgot to breath. Eventually, though, my need for air took command and I was forced to take in a long, ragged breath. Realising that my gasping inhalation would probably have roused him if he had in fact been asleep, I began to pull away.

"It's okay," he said gently, putting his arm over mine and keeping it pressed against his waist.

I made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to move my arm and then became still as all strength seemed to drain from my body. My life and my whole world seemed to be collapsing around me. "I'm sorry," I whispered, trying not to cry.

"It's okay," he repeated even more soothingly. "I'm the same."

"What?" I said stupidly, feeling totally confused.

"I'm the same," he said, slowly stroking my arm. Then he grasped my hand and moved it down to the crotch of his boxers. "I feel the same."

"You, you mean you're gay too?" I asked hopefully as my fingertips touched his erection through the thin layer of cotton.

"Yes," he said and flexed his hips to push his hardness into my hand. "But more than that I feel about you the way I think, well, hope you feel about me."

My fears suddenly evaporated and I shocked myself by doing something that I wouldn't have dared to do just a few minutes earlier. I began to grind slowly and gently against him, brushing my lips against the back of his neck and putting my hand inside the fly of his boxers. Touching his erection skin to skin was almost like receiving an electric shock and we both twitched.

"You don't need to think or hope," I said. "I really do feel like that about you."

For a few seconds I was lost in the physical sensations. Then I had a terrifying thought and froze again. "What if someone comes in and sees us in bed together?" I whispered.

"No one will come in without knocking and waiting… unless you start screaming again."

The next day at breakfast and later at school the atmosphere between Alan and me was a little awkward, but not really uncomfortable. It was clear that our relationship had changed and although we were both clearly happy with that, it seemed as if we just needed to work out what new rules and behaviours were required for the new situation. That night when Alan went to brush his teeth I opened up the foldaway bed, but didn't lie down on it. Instead I stood hesitantly between the beds, not wishing to be presumptuous, but hoping that he'd invite me into his. He did.

Although that was an opportunity to talk privately, neither of us seemed to be prepared to initiate a deep conversation. Getting what I'd dreamed about for so long had been a surprise and it all felt a little unreal. I was concerned that trying to pin our relationship down with words would destroy it or expose it as just a figment of my imagination. So I needed time to think and acclimatise before I could talk about it.

It took a couple of days before we could talk in depth about our relationship and a few more days after that before either of us dared to mention the word 'love'. However, when we did take that daring step it was a relief for both of us. We'd just got into his bed and were cuddling together when he said the word and I repeated it with relish. That led to a long discussion, during which Alan introduced a topic that from the seriousness of his tone he obviously considered to be of great importance.

"I don't want love to spoil our friendship," he said. "We were friends before we fell in love and now we have to stay friends as well as being in love."

"Of course," I replied, though I didn't really understand what he was saying.

"So will you promise that you'll still be my friend if you stop loving me?"

"Of course," I said again. Bearing in mind that it had only been a few minutes since love had been mentioned at all, I wondered if some previous bad experience had caused his apparently pessimistic thoughts. "But what if you stop loving me?"

"I'll always be your friend," he replied with absolute certainty.

The conversation went on from there and lasted so long that we drifted off to sleep before we could get down to anything more sexual than a kiss and a cuddle.

Because I wasn't living just across the street from Luke and we went to different schools, I didn't get to see him as often after moving in with Alan. Previously Luke and I had spent some time together almost every day, but because of school, homework and going to visit Mum I had very little spare time. So during my first eight days at Alan's house I saw Luke only twice and both of those times Alan had been with me. However, we'd spoken on the phone almost every day, though our conversations had occasionally been very brief. On the Sunday morning of the week after Mum had gone into hospital, Luke phoned me.

"Can you come round this afternoon?" he asked as soon as we'd exchanged greetings and I'd given him what little news there was about my mum.

"Yes, of course. Any particular time?"

"Any time after one thirty," he said. After a brief pause he added hesitantly "On your own."

"Okay," I agreed. "I'll come round to your place about two thirty."

When I told Alan about my arrangement to meet Luke I was a little uncomfortable and wondered how he would react to being excluded. As it turned out, however, he was very understanding and thought it quite natural that my best friend wanted to see me on my own, especially if he wanted to talk about something personal. As soon as I arrived at Luke's house, he suggested that we should walk to the nearby park so that we could get away from his family and chat privately. As the weather was fine, though chilly, I made no objection.

For a while we walked in silence until he looked at me from the corner of his eye and said, "I've not seen you much recently."

"I've not had much free time since Mum went into hospital and while I'm at Alan's house I can't just pop across the street," I pointed out, though of course he already new that. "But we've been chatting on the phone more than we used to do."

"Yeah, but it's not the same, is it?" Some things are easier to talk about in person… and with just you and me," he said. Then he quickly added, "I mean, Alan's okay, but he's not my best friend and there are some things I don't want to talk about when he's around."

Bearing in mind that there were some things that I couldn't yet discuss with him, and others that I wasn't yet comfortable discussing with Alan, I could empathise with the way Luke was feeling. I smiled sympathetically.

"Well, there's no one else around at the moment," I said. "Is there anything particular that you want to talk about?"

His only response was to shrug his shoulders and I knew him well enough to recognise that he was deep in thought and probably considering what he wanted to say. So I didn't press him and allowed him to take his time. When we arrived at the park a couple of minutes later there weren't many people around apart from a few who were playing and watching football. Luke led us away from them and toward an area where no one could possibly hear what we were saying. Then he stopped and turned to look at me.

"I've seen how you and Alan are when you're together," he said bluntly, frowning and locking his eyes on mine.

"Wh-what?" I stuttered, looking away from him. Terrified, I wondered how he'd guessed about us and how he was going to react.

"Is he your best friend now?" he asked sadly.

"No, of course not!" I protested. "You are. You're the only best friend I've ever had."

"But you seem so close," he said doubtfully. "Much closer than before your Mum went into hospital."

"That's because we live together. We're more like family," I reassured him. "You're still my best friend and when Mum comes home things will get back to how they've always been. I promise and you know I've never broken a promise to you."

An expression of relief washed over his face and that was followed by a look of embarrassment. "It's just that I've been missing you," he said.

He turned and started walking quickly along the path. As I hurried to catch up with him I realised that soon I'd have to tell Luke that Alan was more than just another friend. However, this wasn't the time or the place. I told myself that I'd definitely share my secret with him once my life had settled down and things were back to normal. Then I wondered what exactly was normal and if things would ever settle down.

In the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Eve Alan's parents returned home from some last minute shopping and decided to treat themselves to some mince pies and sherry before getting on with more preparations for the following day. Alan, Henry and I joined them in the living room to have some mince pies and tea. Although there were many reasons for me to be happy, real happiness eluded me because couldn't help feeling concerned about my mum.

Up until then a choir singing carols on TV had been just background music and I hadn't actually been listening to it. However, trying to distract myself from the worry and get into the Christmas spirit, I tried to pay more attention to the music. Then my phone rang and when I saw it was a call from my dad my heart skipped a beat.

"Is everything okay?" I asked anxiously before he could say anything.

"Yes," he replied, sounding tired but happy. "Your baby brother arrived safely about an hour ago."

"That's early," I said. Strangely, the way he used the word 'arrived' evoked a mental image of a stork delivering the baby. "Is Mum okay?"

"Yes. She's very tired and sore, but she's fine. Her blood pressure started climbing and the doctors decided it would be best to delivery the baby early. So she had to have a caesarean."

"But she's okay?" I persisted, trying to push aside visions of scalpels on skin.

"Yes," he said patiently. "I'd tell you if she wasn't."

"You didn't tell me she was having the caesarean," I pointed out a little resentfully.

"But we all knew it was possible and maybe even likely. When the decision was made it all happened very quickly and we didn't want to worry you."

"Can I come and see Mum now?"

"She's very tired and she's resting now. You can see her and meet your brother tomorrow. I'll pick you up in the morning," he said, sounding as if he too needed to rest. "Is Alan's mum or dad there? I'd like to talk to one of them.

The whole family had been watching me and listening to my side of the conversation, but only Henry was still nibbling on his mince pie. I offered my phone to Alan's mum because she happened to be nearer to me. "My dad wants to talk to you."

Alan, who was sitting next to me on the sofa, leaned over and whispered "Is everything okay?"

"Yes, it's fine," I replied, noting the concern in his eyes.

"Congratulations!" his mum exclaimed into the phone before Alan could follow up on his question. Then after a few seconds listening to my dad she said, "Yes, yes, of course. As long as you like."

She handed the phone back to me and turned to her husband. "Kath and the baby are both well. He's just over seven pounds," she informed him. "Eric's dad is coming round in the morning to take him to the hospital, but he'll be back here for Christmas dinner and will be staying for a few more days."

The family tradition in Alan's house was to stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve and open their presents before going to bed. All of them, including even Henry, had got me something and I also had presents from my own family, as well as from Luke. So there were plenty of packages for me under the tree.

When we eventually went to bed I didn't sleep well, despite feeling very tired from the late night of fun and excitement. As had become usual, I joined Alan in his bed, but it was clear that my restlessness was keeping him awake. Although he didn't complain or show any sign of displeasure, after a few minutes I kissed the back of his neck, apologised and told him that it would be better for him if I was in the foldaway bed. However, he just turned to face me and held onto me, whispering that he'd prefer me to stay with him.

Dad arrived a little before ten o'clock, just as we were finishing breakfast. He'd been home to get some sleep as well as to shower, shave and get fresh clothes, but he still looked tired and a little dishevelled. However, as he drove us to the hospital he seemed very happy. I was tired and although I was looking forward to seeing Mum and giving her and Dad the presents I'd got for them, I wasn't sure if I wanted to see the baby who could have killed her.

Mum was sitting up in bed with the baby in her arms when we arrived. She smiled and was clearly proud and happy, but she also appeared to be very tired. I was shocked to see how thin she seemed and how the dark skin under her eyes made her look ill.

"Come here and meet your baby brother," she said as I paused about half way between the doorway and the bed.

When I didn't immediately move, Dad put his hand on my back and gave me a gentle push. I approached her hesitantly and looked down at the child in her arms. His eyes were closed and his face seemed so scrunched up that my first thought was that he was far too ugly to be my brother. Then I noticed his tiny hands and fingers and I was amazed when I saw how perfect they were.

With a sense of wonder and without any conscious thought I reached out and gently touched and stroked his miniature hand. Suddenly his fingers grabbed onto my index finger and clung onto it with a surprising strength. His eyes opened, giving me the initial impression they were too large for his head and then I noticed that they were the same hazel as my own. In retrospect I don't think that he could have been smiling at me or even looking at me, but at the time I felt sure he was doing both.

"What's his name?" I asked, my voice barely louder than a whisper.

"Well, as he was born at Christmas, we were thinking of Noel," Dad replied.

Although his tone indicated that he wasn't serious, he rarely showed any sense of humour. So I couldn't take the risk that he really meant it. "No!" I protested. "Not that."

"What do you suggest, then?" Mum asked gently, smiling up at me.

At first I couldn't think of an answer, but then I remembered that when Dad had phoned to announce my brother's arrival one of my favourite carols, Once in Royal David's City , was being sung on the TV.

"How about 'David'?" I said.

My parents looked at one another and smiled. Then as if they'd reached some agreement by telepathy they nodded.

"I think that would be a perfect name for him," Mum said.

I couldn't understand why my suggestion had apparently made her so happy, but I was also pleased that my first duty as a big brother had been so successful. Then I had a thought.

"As his birthday will be on Christmas Eve, we'll have to make sure he gets proper birthday presents as well as Christmas presents," I said.

"Of course we will," Dad reassured me.

Just at that moment David's hand, which was still gripping my finger, seemed to give me a little squeeze.

To emphasise my point, I added, "I really mean that."

Surprising myself, I realised that I really did mean it. Then it occurred to me that my baby brother wasn't too late after all.

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