Do you want to know the truth?

My boyfriend, Seth, has – or had, I should say – been in my life since I was 14 years old. I remember it very vividly because the same night that he and his family moved into town, my step father… Well, he did something awful to me, and that was the start of 2 years of even worse hell than my previous 14 years had been.

That awful night, after my step father left the room, I gazed out of my bedroom window, tears rolling down my cheeks. I was frightened and alone. That’s when I saw Seth for the first time. He must have just moved into the large house opposite; the posh, detached, three storey house. He was in the bedroom that was directly across from mine. His dad was in there with him, his arm thrown around his shoulders, pointing around at the bare walls, probably chatting about how to make it their own. I watched his mum enter the room with a tray of mugs. ‘Probably hot chocolate’, I remember thinking, my mouth watering and my stomach grumbling.

Seth was there in the middle of his family, the centre of their universe, and I was mesmerised by him. He had messy black hair and a mischievous grin, and I could see his parents laughing so I just knew he was funny. They were an attractive family, the sort you see in stock photos but without the dead eyes. Their eyes were full of love.

I desperately wanted to be friends with someone like him, but I didn’t believe he would ever want to be friends with the weird kid of the neighbourhood. There wasn’t *anyone* who wanted to be friends with me.

Seth wasn’t just anyone, though. He was very special. On that first proper day of him living there, my mum had tossed me out onto the street to play with the kids who lived on the road, even though she knew they just picked on me. Seth’s mum probably encouraged him to get out and make some new friends while her and his dad unpacked their things. As Chelsea, a girl in my year at school who lived on my street, and her younger cousin, who stayed with them regularly, were being horrible to me, I saw him doing kickflips on a skateboard in his front garden.

“Rose, why don’t you ever brush your hair? You look so ugly” Chelsea sneered at me, her cousin cackling like a hyena. They were right, I *did* look ugly, and I really did never brush my hair. I think that’s what stung the most. You get horrible people in life who do and say awful things to you, but you can take comfort in the fact that that person is just a terrible excuse for a human being. But when you’re attacked with a truth, it cuts through you like a knife. The truth can either completely devastate us or it can give us the strength to rise up. I seemed to be constantly devastated by it.

After throwing a few more painful insults about my personal appearance, they got bored and wandered off. Probably into town to hang around with their mass of friends. Why do the mean kids always have so many friends? As soon as they had gone, Seth wandered over to me.

“Hi.” He said, his voice shy but with a confidence I knew I would never have.

“Hello,” I responded, nervously. I couldn’t understand why he was talking to me, and when he sat down on the curb next to me I flinched, expecting him to do something nasty. Instead, he kicked at a stone lazily at his feet.

“Those girls seem pretty… awful.” He mumbled. I was shocked. I had expected him to ask me to introduce him to Chelsea, because all the lads my age wanted to go out with her. But I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was disgusted by the way they spoke to me, and my heart soared.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mum coming out of the front door. I stood up quickly while she locked up, and headed around the corner where I knew she wouldn’t see me. I didn’t want her yelling at me or telling me to do something.

To my surprise, Seth followed me. We stood next to each other silently, both aware I was hiding from my mother. He didn’t make fun of the way I stooped when I walked, like so many of the other kids did. Like a tortoise trying to hide in its shell, which earned me the nickname tortoise at school. The truth stung.

After 30 seconds, I allowed myself to breath. I looked up and he was staring at me, smiling kindly. I darted my eyes to the ground, unable to keep eye contact. He lightly touched my chin, raising my eyes to meet his.

“Do you want to watch The X-Files with me?” He asked me, gently.

“O…Ok.” I stuttered, sure it was all a trick. I swallowed noisily, trying to gulp down my insecurities. “Aren’t your parents still unpacking, though?”

“Yeh, well, we can watch it at yours, right? My parents work from home, so I’m not really allowed friends over.”

I nodded, smiling now, aware that I looked goofy but unable to hide my grin. Friends! So I led him to my house and showed him how to climb up to the fixture above my front door, and then pull up into my bedroom window. I always left it slightly open because my mum and stepdad often locked me out when they were out for hours on end.

I was nervous, at first, having a boy in my room for the very first time. There was mould all up the walls and I had no sheets on my quilt. My pillows had all funny yellow stains on, and there were holes in my mattress where I had been playing with one of my mum’s lighters when I was bored. Seth didn’t seem to notice, though. Or at least he pretended not to. Either way, he seemed so at ease that it kept me from feeling humiliated.

We sat on my bed next to each other, and that became our daily routine over the summer. As soon as my mum went out, we would jump up and watch The X-Files. Over and over again.

I couldn’t believe it when, a few weeks in, Seth put his arm around me as we were watching. My stomach did a flip as I nestled into him I felt, hearing his heart pound in his chest. For the first time in my life, I felt accepted.

We fell in love, even though we were so young. I kept him a secret from my parents, because they were truly evil and I didn’t want Seth to have to have such negative monsters in his life. But his parents knew all about us, and his mum and dad often chatted to me in the street.

It didn’t matter to him that I had no friends… In fact, it seemed to suit him. He was a huge introvert – probably on the spectrum – and I preferred to keep him all to myself, anyway. He was unbelievably gorgeous, his hair always perfect, his clothes always new and so stylish. But he kept himself to himself, so I didn’t have to contend with all the girls of the neighbourhood trying to tempt him from me.

I asked him, one day, what he saw in me.

“You’re beautiful. You’re clever. You’re funny.” He said. I grinned at him like the cheshire cat, knowing none of that was true but also believing that he saw me that way.

It was the best summer I’d ever had, even though the worst things my step father did to me began that year. However, Seth had been the most perfect distraction. Chelsea even moved away, so I didn’t have to deal with her and her vile cousin anymore. I heard my parents talking about it one evening. They’d heard she had taken an overdose and barely survived… she had some sort of brain damage. Her family moved swiftly away for ‘a fresh start’. I was pleased that I wouldn’t have to have her treating me so terribly anymore, but sad that she had had so much bitterness and anger inside her that she’d felt she needed to try and end it.

When school started back in September, I found that Seth was home educated. He had a habit of not really telling me huge things about himself unless they were completely relevant, he was more of a listener than a talker. I was glad that he wouldn’t have to see me getting bullied every day. Even though home life had become so much more bearable now I had Seth, I knew the school days would be as miserable as before.

Sometimes I wished he was there to stand up for me, but every evening as soon as my mum had fallen asleep and my stepdad had left my room, Seth would climb up and into my room and make me feel better. We’d cuddle, watch The X-Files and sometimes kiss. But even as the years went by, he never, ever pushed me any further. I never told him what my stepfather did, but I think he knew, and he was content with what we had. He just wanted to make me happy.

When I was 16, my step father died. He slit his wrists in the bathtub. I was out in the woods with Seth at the time, and my mum was working. I felt irrationally guilty about it all afterwards. Maybe if I’d been home I could have stopped him. Maybe I could have got him some help.

“But why would you want to?” Seth had asked. I wasn’t sure, so I didn’t answer.

Losing my step dad had pushed my already bitter mother over the edge and she was furious, all the time. She drank more and more, and she took it all out on me. After a year I could no longer cope with it, and so I left home.

I was placed in a council flat in a very rough area of town, but even though the neighbours screamed and fought and took drugs in the stairways, at least I was away from home. I saw a light shining somewhere in my future. Seth would come over most nights, and sometimes he would stay with me. Other times he would go home after I had fallen asleep. He was always there when I needed him, and every day I felt myself becoming stronger.

He worked for his parent’s tech business, mainly remotely. It suited his need for solitude. I worked in a dead end factory job which was soul destroying, honestly. I thought I would lose my mind at points. But I had to pay the bills and buy food. I couldn’t escape my depression, and before long Seth moved in full time to try and keep me in bright spirits. His parents didn’t pay him well, wanting to teach him some sort of life lesson about privilege, so we always struggled for money but we had each other, and we were happy.

You never really heal from an abusive childhood, but things get easier over the years. And with Seth by my side, things really did improve. When I was in my early 20s, I went to college and got the qualifications I needed to attend university. I struggled at college. I still never fitted in anywhere, and had very low self confidence. But when I started uni, there were so many people there that I was barely noticed.

Early on in my first year, Seth had to work in London for a month. I wanted to surprise him when he got back. I threw out my wardrobe of baggy, black clothes that had always rendered me as close to invisible as possible, and bought some tight fitting, bright dresses. I got my haircut and I allowed myself to stand out. When he got back, he held me for a long time.

“I’ve missed you.” He said. “You look beautiful. You know you always do, though, don’t you?” I blushed, turning on The X-Files and cuddling into him all evening.

I was nervous about my new style getting noticed at uni. I know that seems weird, but the idea of people complimenting the change would make me face the fact that there had been a problem in the first place. However, there were so many people there that they really didn’t notice. Not directly, anyway. I did find that people made more of an effort to talk to me. I began to make friends.

I was encouraged by my peers to join societies based on my interests. One night at a social event, I met some bloke who was studying art who quite clearly wanted to be more than friends. I couldn’t believe it! I told him I had a boyfriend, but would love to be friends. He seemed disappointed that we wouldn’t go any further. I was so flattered! When I got the bus home that night, I couldn’t stop smiling.

I told Seth about it and he laughed. “Of course he tried it on. You’re perfect.”

I graduated, not inviting my mum, who I was estranged from now. Seth was working away more frequently now, and the graduation ceremony coincided with him being in London. When he offered to tell his parents he needed to come home, I promised him that it was fine. I didn’t mind. I insisted he stayed there. I was kind of glad to simply share it with my university friends. It seemed like I had created my own safe spot there, just for me. Plus, I had an inkling that his parents were setting him up to take over company when they retired. I believed that good times were coming for both of us.

As yet more years passed, I climbed up the ladder in my new job that I had practically walked into, with my degree and my new found confidence. Seth and I did little more than best friends might, but we adored each other with a passion that my proper friends were envious of when I told them about it. He was the perfect boyfriend.

However, when a new boss took over my section at work, depression started to cripple me in bouts. He was a misogynistic bully and he reminded me of my step dad. Every day I was terrified of being called into his office. When he walked past me, I struggled to breathe.

I found myself coping by retreating into my imagination. During those dark times that often lasted weeks, sometimes even months, I have to admit that I pushed Seth away. I would become obsessed with celebrities that I had watched on the television, forming wild crushes on them and creating entire personalities for them, with story lines that centred around them falling in love with me. I would imagine they were there with me, holding me to sleep, falling in love with me, doing everyday things with me… all the things that my wonderful Seth had done for so many years. He was left behind, but I was honest with him. I told him about my imaginary affairs, and what was happening at work. He told me they were a coping mechanism and though they probably weren’t healthy, they were a sign of a shift in my mental state. He promised that I shouldn’t feel guilty about them. After all, it wasn’t real.

As my boss started to call me into his office more regularly, openly staring at my breasts and legs, my mental health deteriorated. I retreated further and further into my imaginary relationships, sometimes calling in sick just so I could spend time with my creations. I didn’t really see it as dangerous. Well, not until I went to see a comedian perform at the theatre and I booked *two* tickets even though I attended alone. I wanted to pretend one of my creations was there with me. I kept turning and laughing at the empty space, pretending he was next to me, falling in love with me a little bit more every time I laughed because I was giving him an insight into the way my mind worked.

As I made my way home, I felt sick with shame. I was allowing my weird game to spill over into my real life. I knew what I had just done was dangerous. I also felt rueful that I felt sexually attracted to these creations, but I had never even been able to sleep with Seth.

I fell into bed and sobbed hysterically when I got home. I felt Seth’s arm rubbing my back.

“Rose, what’s wrong?” He asked. But I couldn’t speak, I just shook my head frantically. “Please. You can tell me anything.” He urged me. “You know that. I just want to help you.”

I swallowed down the sobs and told him what I had done. I told him how out of hand this was getting. I told him I was scared that I was crazy.

“Perhaps you realising that it’s getting ot of hand is a good thing, Rose.” He said, stroking my hair. “Maybe this is your glass shattering moment, you know? They say crazy people don’t actually know they’re crazy, they think they’re normal. So you can’t be crazy, right?”

He had calmed me down, and comforted me like he always did. I fell asleep with my arms wrapped around him for a while, listening to his heart beat slowly. My Seth. My saviour.

I woke up at 3am with chest pains. Seth held me close, helping me catch my breath. “What’s wrong with me?” I gasped.

“You’re panicking, Rose. It’s your mind making your body react this way. You’re having a bad reaction from facing the truth. It will get better soon. I promise.”

It was my first ever panic attack, but looking back now I guess I was lucky not to have been having them for much longer. And though I trusted Seth, it didn’t feel like it was ever going to get better. Night after night in the following weeks, I would fall asleep listening to Seth’s heart beat. Then I would wake up hours later, my chest tight, struggling to breathe, crippled, frozen to the spot.

A few weeks after the first, I whispered to him as I recovered. “When is this going to end?”

He sighed. “Whenever you want it to, Rose.”

I went back to sleep.

The next night, after yet another panic attack, I lay there exhausted. I shuffled out of his arms and twisted around so I could look at him. “I don’t want to lose you.” I said, my lip trembling and a lump in my throat. “I can’t imagine a world without you in it.” Tears filled my eyes, so I looked down.

He smiled at me, then he lightly touched my chin, raising my eyes to meet his. My tears spilled out. “The good thing is, Rose, that you don’t have to imagine a world without me in it, do you? You just have to step into it. You just need to say goodbye.”

“How long have you known for?” I asked him, the tears flowing freely now, because I knew this was the end.

He was calm. “As long as you have, I suppose. I think that’s the way it works. And there’s no point in asking me questions about the meaning of it all, because you know as much as I do already. Or, I guess I should say, *I* know as much as *you* do.” He shrugged.

“But… What’s changed? Why now?” I pleaded.

Seth gripped me into a bear hug. “You have changed. You’re getting better, can’t you see? Going to the theatre, realising what you did was unhealthy, that was just the beginning. It’s just been me and you for so long, Rose, since your step dad…” He let the sentence trail off.

“I invented you the first night he did it to me.” I murmured.

“Looks that way, doesn’t it?” I felt him kiss me on the head as I pushed my face into his chest, my heart breaking.

“Hey, cheer up.” He said. “Maybe in a parallel universe, *I’m* the real one and *you’re* the imaginary friend.” I laughed, even though I felt like my insides were being ripped out.

“Do you want to watch The X-Files with me?” He asked me, gently. I nodded, and turned on the television, crying silently all the way through, but safely cuddled into him. I fell asleep listening to his heart beating, slower than before. I supposed it had been getting slower every night, these last weeks. I just hadn’t wanted to accept it.

When I woke in the morning, I was cuddling my pillow. It was still wet from my tears. I had a ball of pain in my stomach, and I believed that I would not see Seth again, so the pain I felt was grief. I had lost my best friend, my protector, the person who had always saw beauty in me when everyone else had seen a freak. But I also knew that he was my creation, so essentially he had simply been a version of me. I’d always found it cheesy when people were dying in movies and they’d say “I’ll always live on inside you.”, but in this case Seth really would live on inside me, somewhere.

I drove to my parents old house that afternoon, and I wasn’t surprised to find there was no house across the road from mine. I always knew, I’d just buried it down. It was just an unused, three storey, shoddy council building. I stared at it for a while, looking through the window that I had pretended was Seth’s room. And for a moment I thought I saw him, staring back at me, his face contorted in terror, screaming silently, fists banging against the window. His eyes pleading with me to release him. But I closed my eyes, counted to ten, and when I reopened them there was nothing there.

It’s strange, really, because just a few weeks later, my boss threw himself out of the top window of that old council building, so close to my parents house, so close to my life. It’s funny how life is full of such strange little coincidences.

I was sorry he felt so disgusted by his perverted ways that he needed to end his life. But I was glad that life at work started to go back to normal, and I began to flourish again.

I have my first appointment with a very good therapist soon. It’s expensive, but I know it will be worth it. I won’t tell them about Seth. I always liked to keep him all to myself. But I’ll tell them about the obsessive crushes, and what my step dad did.

Unless, of course, I’m imagining the therapist. Or the dream job I have that allows me to pay for it. Maybe I’m locked in an asylum somewhere, maybe I cracked at some point and… Well, maybe everything is in my mind, created by myself to protect me from the truth.     

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