Scott scratched his nose as he watched.
‘It was the chicken,’ Phil explained as Kane threw up violently into the gutter. ‘The human body is just not designed to consume that much unheated fowl.’
Kane gurgled something, then settled and let the drool collect on his lower lip.
‘What was that?’ Mark Johnson asked.
‘Gonna kill those fucking,’ Kane said, clearer this time, ‘food poisonings.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ Phil said cheerily. Kane had just been the recipient of a punch to the belly. He had been determined to show he was quite able to handle his piss. The chicken factor, apparently, he hadn’t accounted for.
Richard took a photo. ‘That’ll be one for the kids,’ Scott said.
‘Children should be exposed to life in all its dubious glory.’
‘I’m tagging out,’ Phil said to no-one in particular. ‘Someone make sure he doesn’t die, okay? Hey, Scott, Rich.’ He joined them crunching down the gravel drive. ‘How’s your night?’
‘Good,’ said Scott. ‘Somehow.’
‘Kane managed to fuck it up for me, his girl went home when he started throwing up and mine went with her. He’s not in my johnny favorite books right now. How’s the photo album coming, Rich?’
‘Magic, mate. I’ll send you all copies.’
They went inside. The stereo was roaring because the Travers parents were, as usual, away. No dancing, everyone pretty much danced out, but lots of couples making out. Shane was strutting around the room, his white suit still somehow unstained. ‘All I need is someone to sit on my dick for a little while, she wouldn’t even need to jiggle. I can do the jiggling. Anyone? Sitting on my face is good too…’
Phil grabbed his arm. ‘Pennywise! You crazy fuck, what happened to your partner?’
‘I lost her, man! She fell out of the plane!’
‘Give me a three-shot,’ Richard called, ‘Scott, get in there.’ Scott and Phil and Shane posed. Phil and Shane had the scariest grins in St Francis so it would be a good picture. Scott looked scared of both of them.
‘What is this, the dateless photo?’ Shane said at the flash.
‘Yeah, what happened with Paula?’ asked Phil, lowering his tone as Richard was distracted by some girls wanting their photos taken. ‘No go, huh?’
Scott shrugged. ‘Less than that, even.’
Phil nodded. ‘Bad scene. She’s a temperamental bitch, huh. Fucking gorgeous chick but she’s too damn aware of it.’
‘It wasn’t like that,’ Scott said.
‘I showed her my little devil one time,’ Shane said. ‘Or did I imagine that? I think Pamela Anderson was there too. My brain is so confusing without the drugs!’
‘What she needs,’ Phil said conspiratorially, ‘is someone to take her to the end of the road she opens up, you know what I mean? That’s what she needs.’
Shane looked serious for a moment. ‘Best cure for a cockteaser is a cock.’
Scott snorted. ‘You thinking of any cock in particular?’
‘Well, let’s just say I’ve got one that’d be up for the task,’ Phil said.
The others were around the table in the dining room when Scott entered. ‘Right,’ Richard jumped up. ‘Here he is! I require photos, while we’re all here. Scott, get over here.’
Kirsty stood up. ‘I’ll get some with you four guys.’ Richard handed over the camera and pulled Scott into frame. Dennis and Adam stood up from the table to fill out the picture. ‘How does this work? Oh, I got it. Smile, guys!’
‘I hate this,’ said Scott
‘I hate it too, actually,’ Adam murmured.
Lauren crossed her arms. ‘Check it out. All these boys. Don’t you all look good enough to eat?’
Scott threw his hand up in protest. ‘Stop that!’ Another flash. ‘I’m going to look very very stupid in that photo.’
‘Get a good smile on,’ Dennis advised. ‘Just think of something wonderful, like me for instance. That’ll get you cheered up.’
‘Fuck you,’ Scott said, smiling, but there was an edge to it.
‘Great, everyone, we’re done!’
Richard rubbed his hands. ‘Now, come on, partners too…’
Scott shrugged. ‘Well, I’m out.’
‘Come on, Scott,’ said Kirsty.
‘No way. I don’t need a reminder of this.’
‘But Richard does, you clown,’ said Lauren, ending the argument by grabbing his arm and pulling him back into shot. They clustered together. Kirsty let Adam put his arm around her as she slipped in front of him, his enormous grin beaming over her shoulder like a searchlight. Dennis pulled Lauren closer as well, but she held on to Scott with her free hand.
‘Good stuff,’ said Richard as he finished.
Adam rushed forward. ‘Oh, look, we need one of the two of you, Rich and Kirsty.’ He was insistent, taking the camera. The others slipped back to the walls, and Kirsty and Richard hesitated. Adam lifted the camera, simplicity in the gesture. They came together as waves to the beach, and the flash was like the moon.
‘This is going too fast,’ Richard said.
He and Dennis were sitting outside, smoking cigarettes. The gravel was underfoot, the familiar gravel in the Travers’ drive that had been scraped along for party after party after party. The same people but a different feeling each time, more community, more respect, crazier and more desperate. Richard couldn’t remember the first time he’d come here. He didn’t know if he’d remember this time. He was having trouble remembering it now, face piled upon face so they obscured each other.
‘Nothing lasts,’ Dennis replied. ‘You know it as well as anyone.’
They were sitting on the steps under the outside light, music coming from within in the familiar stereo thump, people drifting slowly out and in as if by tides.
‘Scott told me Paula asked him about Lauren.’
Richard took a drag and looked hard at him. ‘You told her?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe she saw him dancing with her.’
‘Maybe you told her.’
Dennis played with a cigarette, but he didn’t light it. ‘These things’ll kill us, you know?’
‘What is it? You want to be at war with everyone all the time?’
‘I just want to go my own way.’
‘Don’t know. Wherever it takes me.’
‘What if you’re wrong?’
‘Nothing to be wrong about.’
They sat in silence for a while, alone now. Everyone was inside with the music.
Richard shook his head. ‘The world doesn’t care what you tell it. Do things wrong, you got to recognise it or you just end up trapped in the shit. Maybe your friends won’t forgive you. I learned that the hard way. Remember?’
‘I tried your way,’ Dennis replied. ‘Living up to something. Didn’t work.’
‘I don’t think you can get there like this.’
‘Fuck you. How can you even talk? You’re so fake and you can’t even tell how fake you are, all that better-way bullshit you’ve bought into so long, and you think you’re so much better than all of the rest of us? You’re a joke, Richard King. I go my own way now.’
The music continued, everything continued.
‘Look at what you’re doing,’ Richard said. ‘There’s going to be people hurt.’
‘Like you’re so innocent?’
‘And you’re going to break his heart.’ Dennis shook his head. ‘You know that, right?’
Richard finished his cigarette. He dropped it into the garden. Dennis stood there, turning his unlit smoke over and over in his fingers.
‘Listen,’ Richard said, ‘this isn’t how we should say goodbye. You’ve been a good friend. Kept me honest.’
Dennis snorted. ‘Don’t fool yourself.’ He pulled out a lighter and fired it. The tiny flame caught Richard’s eye, jumping like a child. Dennis ignited the cigarette and inhaled. He blew smoke into the dark and kept the lighter on, holding it out before him so it reflected in his eyes. ‘There’s nothing special about you going. It’s the end of school. Everything falls apart now, everything shifts.’
‘It doesn’t have to be like that,’ Richard said.
‘Yes,’ Dennis answered quickly. ‘It does.’
There was only one question left for Richard to ask. ‘Why me?’
Dennis flicked off the lighter. He looked straight at Richard. There was nothing in his eyes. Or maybe there was, but it was so complete it was like darkness. And quietly he said, ‘Why not?’
‘I was just another kid.’
‘From another place.’
Richard wasn’t satisfied. ‘So tell me.’
Dennis laughed gently. ‘Because you stood out, and you weren’t weighed down by anything. You were better than us. I could hardly even believe in you.’ There were shapes in his eyes now, great sad circles reaching up into the light. ‘I had to learn that I couldn’t be like you, you get it? Do you get it? Always making the choice and never losing sight of yourself, because you knew exactly where you came from. So even you didn’t help, not when it mattered.’
The night was continuing forward into the early hours of a pale morning. Richard was quiet. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It was never your fault.’ Dennis took a nervous drag. ‘How could it have been?’
Richard put his hands down at his side. ‘So, this is it?’
‘I guess it is, Richard, all-American.’ Dennis’s face was swallowed up in shadow, smoke carrying his words. ‘Everything shift, everything change.’
Richard waited a moment, and then he stood up. Dennis watched him. ‘It’s been good,’ Richard said.
‘Yeah,’ Dennis replied softly. He watched without blinking as Richard left him, left them all, away from the house, down the driveway, towards the gate, measured strides to the emptiness.
He held the cigarette in his fingers, tenderly, and lowered it towards his forearm. He imagined it might calm him. He hovered there, feeling the warmth tingle the tiny hairs on his skin. A tiny circle to burn him into truth.
‘Dennis,’ came a voice. He paused with the end over his arm, then smoothly stubbed out the cigarette on the gravel and stood up. It was Kirsty, her dress creased from dancing.
‘He’s just gone,’ Dennis said. He pointed at the gate. Kirsty looked and saw Richard disappear from view. She looked back at Dennis and her eyes said thank you. She ran back into the house. Dennis watched her go, away from him, remembering the cold night, back on the beach with her, back in the right place, back between fire and water and earth and air.
Lauren and Scott and Adam were sitting around the dining table, reluctant to move. Adam stretched. ‘It’s all winding down, I think.’
‘Where the hell did Dennis go?’ asked Lauren. ‘Hello! Abandoned date here!’
‘Hey, like that makes you special,’ Scott said. ‘Note that Kirsty is also absent, and we all know what happened to Paula. Even Richard has buggered off somewhere. All three of us are abandoned.’
‘Kirsty’s seeing off her friends,’ Adam said protectively.
‘At least we have each other,’ Lauren said.
‘Well, that’s some tiny comfort I guess.’
Adam nodded. ‘Yeah, the three of us. We’ll be okay.’
Scott looked at him. ‘Why am I not reassured?’
Adam shook his head. ‘Liar,’ he said, smiling. Scott grinned back, he couldn’t help it.
‘Anyway, I’m sure Kirsty will be back in a moment, she’s the reliable one,’ Lauren said.
Kirsty appeared in the doorway as if on cue. ‘Hey. What did you call me?’
‘She called you the reliable one,’ Adam said. ‘In a nice way, truly.’
Kirsty looked guilty. ‘Oh. Um, Adam, sorry about this, but I’m gonna go home. I just got offered a lift, and I’m a bit tired, and they’re leaving now so…’
Adam stood up. ‘Okay, that’s fine. Will we get a taxi, do you think?’
Kirsty shook her head vigorously. ‘No, it’s okay, you stay. You’re having fun. Make the most of it. I’ll go up with them now, okay?’
‘I’ll go too, then, huh? It’d be bad form for me to go without you.’
‘No, there’s no room. Hey, Adam, I’ll see you around, soon. Thanks for a great night. I’ve really had fun, okay?’ Kirsty hugged Adam tightly.
‘Yeah,’ Adam said through the hug, ‘I’ve had a good night too.’
‘I better go, they’re waiting. Bye Lauren, bye Scott! See you guys.’ Kirsty ran out the door. Adam stayed standing a while then sat back down, smiling oddly.
‘She’s really nice,’ said Lauren.
Adam rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. ‘So what do you think?’
Lauren smiled at him. ‘I think there’s a definite possibility.’
Kirsty passed Paula in the hall. She was cross-legged on the floor with a big bottle of vodka. Not her problem. And Dennis again, still sitting just outside the front door, but he didn’t look up this time. Hitching up her dress, she hurried down the gravel driveway.
There was no-one else on the street. She took her heels off and ran along the roadway to the corner, feeling tiny stones bite her feet and the cold grab at her. Dark trees bulged between the sidewalk and the road. There were distant car noises. And there he was.
‘The game is up,’ she called as she got closer. ‘Hands in the air!’
The figure stopped walking. ‘Don’t shoot,’ it called.
Kirsty caught up, and stabbed a finger into his back. ‘Gotcha.’
Richard looked at her. He nodded gently. ‘Yep.’
They walked together.
‘Where are you going then? It’s still early.’
‘I’ve said all I want to say.’
‘What if I want to hear more?’
‘Always leave ‘em wanting more.’
‘Without even saying goodbye?’
Richard didn’t answer. ‘It just seemed like a good time to go.’
They walked in silence for a bit.
‘It’s okay that I’m here?’ Kirsty asked.
‘Where are we going then?’
‘Find a taxi at the train station.’
‘At this hour?’
‘You don’t need to worry about that.’ She took his hand. ‘Clouds have even cleared. You can see the moon now, look.’
Richard looked up with her, the pale crescent shifting through tree branches and flanked by constellations. ‘And the stars.’
‘I like the stars.’
‘At home, they’ll all be upside down.’
Kirsty smiled. ‘Then stand on your head.’
‘So how long we planning on sitting at this table?’ Lauren asked.
‘I don’t want to move,’ Adam said distantly.
Scott lifted his glass of water, taking another sip, letting it mellow out the alcoholic fug he was in. ‘I think we are currently in that state of general lethargy that prevents any useful action being taken.’
Lauren nodded. ‘In other words, all a bit fucked.’
‘Most of Dennis’ dates end up that way.’
She made a face. ‘Low blow!’
‘The boy’s got – ’
‘– a reputation, I know. Figured that one out.’
‘So you’re not buying it?’
‘Give me some credit. I’m way out of his league.’
Adam leaned over, concerned. ‘Aren’t you having fun?’
‘No, no, sure I am. It’s great, Dennis included.’
‘Except for being hit on by him?’ Scott asked.
Lauren let a smile creep up on her. ‘Well, there are some nice things about that. But mostly, come on. I came here to hang with you all.’
Scott looked at her and she looked at him. ‘Not how I remember it,’ he murmured.
‘Did it work out that way?’ Adam asked.
‘Yeah, sure. I like you guys.’
‘I don’t know if I buy that,’ Scott said, loudly this time, and now he was smiling.
‘Yeah, really. Prove it. Go on, show that you like me as well.’
‘Sure, fine.’ Lauren was ready to play his game. ‘What proof do you want?’
‘Well,’ Scott said, ‘I guess a good start would be managing to see each other again.’
‘That would help?’
‘I don’t doubt it.’
‘Maybe we can arrange something.’
Scott nodded. ‘Well… that would probably be enough to stop me dismissing the idea out of hand, see? But it would take a more sustained campaign of seeing each other again to actually convince me that you like me. I suppose I have many doubts in my mind.’
Lauren pushed him on the shoulder. ‘I should be offended by that.’
‘Not doubts about you, not at all. Doubts about the world.’
‘Of which you happen to be a part.’
‘Not as good.’
‘But! By and large, the prognosis looks good.’
Adam looked at them drowsily.
‘So when shall we start the treatment?’ Lauren asked.
‘I think a long delay will only exacerbate the problems. How about this coming week?’
‘That might be a good idea.’
‘You talk like me sometimes,’ Scott said.
‘Funny,’ Lauren replied, ‘I was just going to say that.’
Scott put his arm around her.
‘What’s this?’ Dennis said.
Everyone moved. Adam sat up, eyes wide open, saw Dennis in the doorway, blocking it, neatly dishevelled. Scott stood up. Lauren sat back in her seat. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘where’d you get to?’
‘Funniest thing,’ Dennis said. ‘I’ve been trying to get back here to spend some quality chill-time with my lovely date for the evening, but I kept on getting bailed up. Looks like I was maybe gone too long?’
‘Why do you say that?’ asked Lauren.
‘Have a seat,’ Adam said, not getting the subtext.
Dennis let his eyes touch Scott. He looked very calm.
‘What d’you want me to say?’ Scott said.
‘Why you’re making all these moves on the girl I brought here. Pretty disrespectful, isn’t it?’
‘What, did I spoil your plan to give her some swimming lessons?’
‘Done with swimming. Wasn’t working.’
‘Seemed to work when you got that chick too drunk to think straight and then fucked her in the pool.’
‘You want to step into this?’
Lauren stood up. She planted herself directly between Scott and Dennis. ‘Okay, time. That’s enough. Way too much testosterone. For future reference, all this queening around is quite the turnoff.’
‘I don’t like being caught up in games,’ Dennis said.
Lauren kept going. ‘Shit, Dennis, knock it off before I start being convinced you believe all this bullshit posturing.’
Dennis bristled. ‘Posturing?’
Scott went to the table. He picked up his glass of water. It was still about half full. he felt its weight in his hand as he turned back to face Dennis. ‘You don’t fool anyone, you know.’
They locked eyes.
Scott lifted the glass. ‘Except maybe yourself.’
Something other than anger. It might have been doubt.
Dennis turned away, went from the room, everything became surfaces and friction, down the hallways, pressing against the walls.
Lauren shook her head. ‘Whatever.’
‘I think it’s time to go home,’ Adam said, still blinking with shock.
‘Yeah. I guess so,’ Lauren replied.
Scott came forward, about to speak, but Adam raised a hand to silence him. ‘No. Not another word. Let’s just move, okay?’
Scott didn’t speak. Lauren put her arm around him. Adam was leading the way.
Richard opened the door to his house. It was darker than usual, even when he turned on the light. ‘Creepy,’ said Kirsty, looking down a hallway choked with boxes.
‘That’s what I said.’ The emptiness was almost audible, like the ocean-sound locked up in a seashell. They went upstairs. Richard’s room had too much wall and floor, but somehow seemed smaller. ‘I took down my posters. It feels weird.’
‘You’re taking your posters halfway around the world?’
‘Sure. They’re what make my room my room.’ As he said it Richard realised she was absolutely right, that the posters would never go back up.
Kirsty sat on the edge of the bed and took off her shoes. ‘I remember when I wasn’t allowed to have posters because the wall was all painted, or something. It was so unfair as far as I was concerned, you know, all my friends had posters. Then one day I put one up with sellotape over my bed, unicorns and rainbows…’ Kirsty smiled at the memory. ‘I took it down before Mum came in the room but the marks stayed on the wall until we moved out.’
‘Cute.’ Richard hung his jacket in the wardrobe, which was almost empty. ‘It’s been a good night.’
‘I had a great time.’
‘We’re good company.’ Richard put the camera on the floor. ‘Would you believe I’d never taken more than five photos in my life before today?’
Kirsty grinned, taking off earrings and necklaces. ‘You are so deprived and weird.’
Richard slid on to the bed, maneuvering behind her, putting one leg on either side of her. ‘Just deprived. But I make up for it in other ways.’
Kirsty felt his presence just behind her and waited. Neither of them moved. Their legs were touching. ‘What other ways?’ she inquired softly.
Richard reached around and let his fingers run over the back of her hand. They lingered on the soft pale hair of her forearm and trailed up to her shoulder, then in along the line of her collarbone. The edge of his hand touched her breast. She leaned back into him then, pressing into his chest, and he softly stroked her throat. When she reached up to brush hair from her eyes he snared the hand and trapped it on the back of her neck, pressing his lips to it. When he let go she kept the hand there and he continued to kiss it. With both hands he pulled her body against him. They lingered. Then Kirsty sat forward and lifted her hands to her shoulders, waiting. She felt him slide the zip down to the small of her back, brush her skin with his fingertips. She closed her eyes tight. He reached into the dress, sliding the straps off her shoulders, reaching around the front to her belly, fingers trailing over skin. She eased the dress down off her torso and stretched back against him, shifting her hands back to undo the buttons of his shirt. He embraced her, his arms crossing over her breasts, and, and,
‘Fuck,’ she whispered hoarsely, giggling. ‘I can’t get this button!’
‘Help me, dammit! Oh, that’s gone and buggered the mood, huh?’
Richard spun her around and pulled her mouth to his. They kissed, exploring, yielding. He pulled her hands out, put them around his neck. Her face so incredibly close to his, her delicately upturned nose, the line of her cheekbones, her few scattered freckles, her eyes squeezed tight.
He pulled away from her to say ‘Fuck!’
‘What is it?’ Kirsty asked anxiously.
‘This fucking button! This button is ruining our moment!’
‘Let me see,’ Kirsty said, a huge smile on her face. She slid along his body and put her face inches from the stubborn fastener. ‘Now listen up, button. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. If I have to bite you off then that is exactly what I’ll do.’ She looked up at Richard sweetly. ‘Now try.’
Richard put his hands down again, and the button came open easily. ‘Miraculous.’
‘I’m very convincing,’ Kirsty said, and grabbed his hands before they could move, kissed them quickly and pushed him back until he was lying flat on the bedspread. She crawled on top of him, letting him feel the weight of her, and smiled.
‘We’re right,’ Richard said. Kirsty looked at him, feeling weightless, then put her lips to his. They made love then, and it was like gravity.
Dennis sat by himself in the dark backyard, smoking, playing with his lighter. He could see the pool through the trees. He had fucked some chick or other in there. He didn’t even remember her name. It had been crappy sex, even for the novelty. She’d been off her face, she’d probably nearly drowned, clutching him close and fucking giving him her number afterwards. Dumb bitch.
Posturing. What did she know? He was the only one who wasn’t. Everyone was bullshitting themselves the whole damn time. He was sick from all the lies everyone told to get by, day after day. And he was posturing? She didn’t know shit. Arrogant horrible cow.
That chick he’d picked up in Ecstasy that time. Why was he thinking about her? Her crappy little student flat bedroom, wrenching on her hair as she cried out, and he had wanted to, wanted to, fuck, fuck –
Fuck all of you.
The door to the house opened and Shane bopped through it. He took his time, dancing to an internal rhythm. Finally he stood in front of Dennis, hand-jiving, one hand to his hip, the other hand to his hip, first hand to his head, second hand to his head, pelvic thrust... Shane froze in position, smiling at the applause from some audience only he could see and hear.
Dennis said nothing to him.
Shane looked down. ‘It’s Dennis! You big boofie! What’s the story, hori? Baboon time over?’
Dennis stared at him. ‘Yeah. Go away.’
Shane bent down to come close to him. ‘Aw, whassamatter? Has widdle Dennis been crying? Hahahaha! Is there a boo boo on your soul?’
Dennis’ hand swung around and clutched at Shane’s collar, wrenching it tight around the thick neck. Dennis pulled Shane down. He wasn’t thinking. It was just happening. He wanted Shane down. Shane was meant to be down.
‘Ah ah ah!’ Shane said, and without any apparent effort he broke Dennis’ grip and bounced upright. ‘Naughty boofie! I kick you ass!’
He smiled, and Dennis took a swipe at him. Shane’s expression didn’t change as he punched back, hitting Dennis right in the gut, wind exploding out of him, everything going, and driving further in, Dennis rocking back, god it hurt – Shane pulling his fist away as Dennis rolled – Shane shaking his head, still smiling, ‘I kick you ass, silly mother flipper!’
He went inside. Dennis was curled up on the step, struggling to breathe. He forced himself to straighten out, to sit up. His cigarette lay on the concrete, crushed by Shane’s foot. His lighter lay beside it.
They went into Adam’s house quietly. ‘I’ll organise a bed for you,’ Adam whispered to Scott, and he disappeared down the hall.
Scott followed Lauren in the other direction. She turned to face him halfway. She was a good arm’s length from him. ‘Good night, Scott.’
He looked at her, wondering what to say. ‘Good night,’ he said back.
They stayed still, looking at each other in the darkness.
Lauren sighed. She turned around, walked away from him, and closed the door to her room after her.
Scott went back to wait for Adam.
Paula wasn’t asleep.
Things were still going on. There was music and voices out there somewhere.
She wasn’t sure if she had been asleep or not. Her head was swimming. She couldn’t bear to open her eyes. She’d tried but the room just swirled, and swirled. She had to close them again. When they were closed it wasn’t much better.
Karla thought she was such a loser. What a disaster. She’d tried so hard but it had gone stupid. They just thought she was just a little girl. She wanted to cry but everything was hollowed out inside her.
It was hard to concentrate. Why wasn’t she asleep? She was sleepy, the room was spinning, so dark and cool. Time passing like a silk scarf pulled across her face.
Scott had turned out to be a fuckwit. They always did. It sucks, guys suck.
She was totally ruining her dress. She should get out of her dress. It was a nice dress. Get under the covers, maybe then she would sleep. So dizzy. She moved slightly, felt the cold curve of glass against her temple, empty bottle, that bottle, had she finished it really? Oh god, that wasn’t good. She was going to be so sick. Maybe she was going to die. Good. Let her die.
There was a gentle creak of the door opening.
‘James?’ she asked. Her voice sounded far away, scraped thin.
There was no answer.
She opened her eyes, sat up slightly. There was someone there – she was so dizzy, subsided, she felt so bad, she couldn’t see who it was. She tried to concentrate, but she was so sleepy. Why was she still awake?
A voice, she didn’t understand, ‘What?’ she asked, she wasn’t sure if she could make the words right, she could hardly hear herself.
Warm touch, so gentle on her brow. That was nice. She breathed, heard herself breathing. Yes. Keep that on. Sleep. Good.
A gentle kiss. Touch on her lips, god, it felt good, her lips parting, she kissed back, whoever it was, all she wanted was someone to kiss her, was that so wrong, did that make her so bad, she kissed back, heard his breathing, hard and rough in her ear.
When he started to pull off her panties she started to resist. She said no. He didn’t listen, he forced her arms down, she couldn’t fight it, she couldn’t find any noise to scream, as he, as he, maybe it wasn’t even real, maybe it was all a dream, oh, oh – no – please no – please no – this was her voice saying over and over again, please no.
Morning light. Half-awake, bodies curled together. She was perfect and peaceful. Her hair was tangled, wild. An ear visible, cheekbone ridge, freckles on her shoulders, fine hair on her arms.
He thought of Adam.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ Kirsty murmured.
He whispered. ‘I didn’t think you were awake.’
‘I’m not.’ Her voice was tiny. ‘What’s the time?’
Kirsty closed her eyes and snuggled against him, her hair tickling his throat. He stroked the back of her neck softly. She stretched into it. ‘S’nice.’
His room was pale, all the colours washed out . It felt like they were intruding on whoever would be living there next.
He could remember his old room at home, the nooks and corners and how he’d arranged posters on the walls and the view in summer and winter, that view he’d soon see again. Home.
He thought of Adam again.
Kirsty opened her eyes again. ‘What is it?’
Richard shook his head. ‘Go back to sleep.’
Instead she rolled on her back and woke herself up a bit more. ‘Talk to me.’
‘About what’s stopping you from falling asleep with your arms around me.’
Richard lay there. Everything in his life was now her and him, the closeness of their bodies, the way her toes were cool against his ankles. He’d lain on the bed like this when they’d talked on the phone. ‘I was thinking about Adam,’ he admitted.
‘What about him?’ Kirsty asked.
‘You and him.’
‘Is there a me and him?’
‘He might think so.’
‘We’re just friends.’
‘This still feels wrong.’ The last word seemed to throw their bodies apart then press them closer together.
‘This is just this,’ Kirsty said eventually.
‘I encouraged him after you. You know that?’
Kirsty’s voice was more distant, like light through curtains. ‘Oh?’
‘He liked you. I told him to go for it. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry for what?’
‘I don’t know. I was just trying to bring him out a bit. And he totally believes it, that it’s his moment, I got him to believe it and then I go and do this.’
Kirsty sat up. She didn’t seem sleepy any more. ‘Richard, it wasn’t you chasing after me at the end of the party, remember? I came out to find you. I wanted to sleep with you, you wanted to sleep with me, we did, and that’s all there is to it, all right? If Adam has the wrong idea – well, then that’s something he has to deal with.’
She slid out of bed and gathered clothing. Richard couldn’t work out what to do so he just watched her dressing. ‘Kirsty, I know all that.’
‘Do you?’ She assembled herself into something vaguely presentable.
Richard watched helplessly as she picked up her shoes and went to the door. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.
Kirsty shut her eyes. ‘I think I better.’
‘It’s okay. I’m sorry, it’s okay.’ Kirsty shook her head. ‘I’ve been thinking about Adam too.’
Richard swallowed scratchily, his mouth dry. ‘So what do we do?’
‘We sort ourselves out.’
‘Stay with me.’
Kirsty shook her head. ‘No – no, I need some time to myself. So I can work out exactly what I want to say to you before you’re gone.’ Downstairs, the hall clock chimed eight. ‘I’ll call you later. I promise.’
The first thing Richard said on answering the door was ‘Who are you guys?’
‘New tenants,’ Scott said, sauntering in with Adam following. ‘We figured we’d do a drop-round-unannounced. For old time’s sake.’
Naomi appeared in the hall. ‘Hello there you two. Come to help us clean?’
‘No, actually,’ Scott said. ‘But we will if you like.’
Naomi smiled. ‘How about some coffee instead?’
The boys settled into what remained of the living room. Richard stretched out on the armchair that his father had always used. ‘Didn’t expect you guys to be up and about so early,’ Richard said. ‘It’s still daylight!’
‘Well, we can’t waste your final moments in Godzone, eh?’
Adam coughed. ‘Why did you leave early last night?’
‘I didn’t want to do the big goodbye thing. Sorry about that. I miss anything?’
‘Some things, I suppose. Dennis had a go at Scott.’
‘What kind of go? Scott?’
‘Ahhh…’ Scott waved his hands about. ‘He just got bitchy because I was talking to Lauren.’
Adam asked, ‘What was that about?’
Richard smirked. ‘Scott has a thing for Lauren.’
Adam looked surprised, and then a lot of things fell into place. ‘Oh! Of course!’
Scott shrugged. ‘Well, yeah, maybe. She’s all right.’
‘Wow,’ Adam said. ‘She always talks about you, you know.’
The shift in Scott’s body language was subtle but Richard, at least, picked it up. He tried not to give away his interest with his questions: ‘She does? What does she say?’
‘She thinks you’re a nice guy and she wishes you came around more, that kind of thing.’
‘That kind of thing?’ Scott sat forward, dropping the pretense. ‘What kind of thing is that kind of thing, exactly?’
‘You know. She thinks you’re kind of cute, too.’
‘She does? She told you this?’
‘Mmm-hmm.’ Adam couldn’t hold it any more. He burst out laughing and Richard followed suit, the two of them grinning at each other like idiots. Scott sat between them looking affronted as Adam clapped gleefully. ‘Oh, man, I’ve never done that before!’
‘Yeah, very funny. Very fucking funny. Laugh it up.’ Scott pouted and Richard batted him about the head until his smile broke. ‘You’re not meant to do that stuff, Adam! For Christ’s sake!’
Adam did a little dance. ‘I am the man, huh? I am the man!’
When Adam stood up, Richard had a sudden urge to order him to sit back down. But Scott stood up too. ‘It’s time to go,’ Adam said.
Scott nodded. ‘Yeah, man, we know you’ve got stuff to do, so, yeah.’
‘Yeah,’ said Richard.
Adam extended a hand to him. ‘Thanks, Rich. You’re a really good friend.’
‘You’re a solid guy, Adam. Thanks for being there.’
Scott wrapped Richard up in an enormous bearhug. ‘Thanks, man.’
Richard hugged him hard. They disengaged. ‘Thanks.’
Adam loomed over and suddenly he was hugging Richard too. Then Scott joined in again. They split, grinning self-consciously.
‘I guess we should go,’ Adam said.
‘Wow, this is weird,’ said Scott. ‘It feels all… weird.’
‘It’s a strange business,’ Richard agreed.
Naomi and Daniel appeared out at the door, sensing the departure. Mr King shook hands with both of them, clapping them on the shoulder, wishing them well. Mrs King gave them both hugs, and pressed small parcels of food into both of their hands, leftovers from the party yesterday. Then they went back to work on the house, and Richard took Scott and Adam outside.
They lingered on the step. Scott looked around. ‘So… this goes to the next family?’
‘Would they mind if I came by and ate all their food?’
‘There’s always my food,’ Adam said.
‘Way up the hill?’
‘Getting there, you’ll work up an appetite.’
Richard smiled. ‘I’d be careful, Adam. You might get yourself an overstayer.’
They stood there. The sun was breaking through.
‘So this is it, huh?’ Scott said.
‘I guess it is.’
‘It is weird, isn’t it?’ Adam said.
Scott grinned. ‘All right then.’
‘All right,’ Richard said.
Adam said, ‘Bye, Rich.’
‘Don’t you mean, see ya?’ Richard said.
Adam nodded. ‘See ya.’ He backed away from the house, hands deep in pockets.
‘See ya round bro!’ Scott called, following.
Adam looked like he was about to say something, but he didn’t. Instead he turned around. He and Scott walked down the path and out the gate, and then Richard couldn’t see them any longer.
Richard walked through the sand, feeling it shift beneath his sneakers. Beach grass sprouted here and there, several hunks of driftwood. In the harbour the ferry made for the gap to sea.
Kirsty was wearing a wrap-around skirt and a woollen cardigan. She smiled as Richard approached. He sat down next to her and they watched the tide wash in and out. ‘Thanks for calling,’ Richard said after a while.
‘I said I would.’
Richard yawned. ‘Sorry. I’m tired.’
‘Me too. Maybe we should have tried harder at that actual sleeping business.’
‘Nah, never would have worked.’
The water rushed up and then retreated. Richard’s hands stroked the sand absently, fingering a smooth palm-sized stone. He picked it up. Something about holding it was appealing.
‘I haven’t thought of anything to say,’ Kirsty admitted.
‘Neither have I.’
‘So much for my big scene this morning, huh?’
‘You were right, though.’
Kirsty drifted sand through her fingers. ‘Stupid beach. Everything I bring here I lose.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m being serious.’
‘It wasn’t because you brought me here.’
Richard had the answer but he didn’t say it. The question hung there, mingling with the sound of the sea.
Kirsty held his hand, her eyes on the water. ‘Would you do something for me?’
‘Stay here with me?’
He held the stone tight. He felt the sand envelop them, and that was all there would ever be.
‘Oh man, James, it’s getting dark already.’ Phil yawned, pleasantly bleary like you get from sleeping all day. ‘How long are these noodles going to take?’
‘Relax,’ said James. ‘It only just went in.’ They sat at the kitchen bench staring at the microwave window like it was a television screen.
‘It says they take two minutes, dude.’
‘We’re doing four packets. That’s eight minutes.’
The time ticked down and the bowl rotated. They stared.
‘What’s Sasha going to eat?’
‘I dunno,’ James said. ‘Noodles, I think.’
Several minutes passed.
‘I’m going to take a leak,’ Phil declared. On the way to the toilet he passed Paula’s door. It was still closed. That was weird, at this hour. Maybe he should check on her. She’d been pretty fucking drunk.
On his way back from the toilet he stopped at the door. He knocked twice. ‘Paula? You in there? You all right?’ There was no reply. He went back to the kitchen. ‘Hey, you seen Paula today?’
‘I thought she’d gone out. I heard her shower before.’
‘Her bedroom door’s closed.’
‘Huh. She’s probably dead.’
Phil sat down and stared at the noodles for a few revolutions. ‘Does her maybe being dead mean we should check on her?’
‘Go on then. These will be ready real soon though.’
Phil wandered back down the corridor. No answer to the knock. ‘Paula, I’m coming in.’ The room was dark, curtains pulled. It smelled of soap and perfume and drunken breath and unwashed. ‘Paula? Wake up, sleepy.’ He took a step towards the bed and crunched on a cassette tape. He picked it up and examined it, recognising the spiky writing.
Paula was curled up on the bed under the covers and her body was still. He reached down and rubbed her shoulder. ‘Paula?’
She shrunk away as if his fingers were burning her.
Phil bent down. ‘Geez, are you all right?’
The scent of rosemary curdled in the air as he saw that she was crying.