Sarah flew through a corner of Jesse's vision, arms outstretched and midriff gaping. As bright as the kite overhead, her hair streamed gaily behind her. Sunlight brought out its reds and golds and coppers, which seemed to gleam just for him. He lifted his head to watch her. She plunged across the uneven ground, leaving behind the memories that lay each night in ambush. He still slept in her room despite finding it ever more difficult to remain. Just last night she’d woken around two, only slipping back to sleep once he sat down at her side. There was no persuading her to talk to Meg, or at least one of those hotlines, and he noticed that she seemed to be getting thinner. Now that he thought about it, she’d only taken a slice of cucumber and a cube of cheese from their picnic. He looked at her plastic plate: the cheese nibbled on by a beetle, not a person. He frowned. Had she eaten any breakfast this morning? He could only remember a cup of coffee. And she still showered more often than she ate.
‘Sarah,’ he called out, ‘come and have some lunch before the ants get it.’
‘Not hungry,’ she threw back over her shoulder. She sped on towards a stand of beech trees to her right.
Seeing her run, hearing her laugh made Jesse want to jump up and chase her; quickened his pulse like a rush of dazzling words. But his belly was too full.
The afternoon sky was splotched with thick white clouds harried by an invisible border collie. They scudded above the trees in anticipation of fresh pastures. Summer had peaked; Jesse could feel the descent into autumn beginning – his favourite season. He hadn’t decided whether to visit the school Matthew had suggested, even whether to stay.
Jesse lay back and closed his eyes, listening half to the sounds that Sarah and Nubi were making, half to the soothing buzz of insects, and the rustle of the leaves, and the murmur of the stream in the near distance.
Sarah flopped down next to him.
‘Hey,’ she said.
‘Hey back,’ he said with a slow lazy grin, cracking only one eye. Nubi was nowhere in sight. He’d probably caught scent of a rabbit or badger.
‘The kite’s tangled in a tree,’ Sarah said.
‘Come on, help me get it down.’
‘I want to fly it some more,’ Sarah said.
Jesse squinted up at her. ‘Then you’d better keep away from the trees.’
‘It wasn’t my fault. The wind’s quite strong.’
‘That’s right. Blame it on something that can’t argue back.’
Sarah hugged her knees. ‘Odd that you say that. I could swear the wind was singing to me.’
‘Oh yeah? Well, I hope it was a lullaby. Now let me sleep a bit.’
‘You’ve already slept. I heard you snoring.’
‘I don’t snore!’ Jesse protested indignantly.
Sarah raised his T-shirt and began to tickle his belly.
‘Stop that,’ he said.
She ignored him. Jesse wasn’t very ticklish, but he felt uncomfortable at her touch. He grasped her fingers and held them tight in his left hand, almost too tight.
‘Don’t,’ he said.
Sarah bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
Jesse continued to hold her hand but said nothing.
He shook his head but still didn’t release her hand. A cloud slid across the sun. Sarah shivered. Slowly Jesse sat up and stared at her. Her eyes were troubled. Jesse felt a great wave of sadness. In another life, he thought.
‘Don’t fall in love with me, Sarah. I’m nothing like you imagine.’
‘You were a young boy.’
‘That’s not what I mean.’
She tried to pull her hand away. He could see the shame that darkened her eyes before she turned her head aside. He’d spoiled the carefree mood of the afternoon.
‘It has nothing to do with those scum,’ he said. ‘I don’t even think about them, and neither should you.’
‘Every night I feel their hands on me, their –’ She stopped.
Chisel-scarred hands clamped his head like the unyielding jaws of a vice. For all he strained and twisted, there was no release – no escape. There never had been. The screw tightened relentlessly. He felt the pressure deep within himself, and sucked in a hoarse gulp of air. A whiff of woodsmoke scratched the back of his throat; his spit would burn if swallowed.
‘That’s how he wins,’ Jesse said, his voice strangled. ‘By claiming your mind as well as your body. By forcing you to accept his terms.’
A small brown spider, lightly speckled, had wandered onto their blanket. Sarah let it clamber onto a finger and set it down on the grass, where it scuttled off.
‘You’ve done something, haven’t you? About Mick and Gavin?’ she asked.
‘Why haven’t you told me what happened?’
‘I’m not proud of it.’
Sarah looked down at her lap, their hands still entwined. For a long time she was still. Then, ‘Was Mick right about you?’
‘I don’t follow you,’ he said, stretching the truth.
She took an even longer time to speak. Once voiced, words couldn’t be unsaid: a golem of her own making.
‘You prefer boys.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
She was angry then. With a sharp tug she pulled her hand from his. He’d forgotten how quick-tempered, how impulsive she could be. She rose to a crouch, and he thought that she’d spring up and storm away. She thought she would storm off. Then she changed her mind and bent forward, seizing his hair with both hands, and pulled him close.
The usual hint of mockery – or too often, self-mockery – had disappeared from his eyes, replaced by a depth of colour at once simple and subtle and profound, a secret given, which would stay with her forever, which would redefine for her the essence of blue. In that moment she saw the man he would become. Could become, if he’d stop tormenting himself.
‘No,’ she whispered. ‘Not this time.’ Her lips spoke to the corner of his mouth.
He wanted to tell her about Liam; he wanted to tell her about the computer; and most of all, he wanted to tell her that he was afraid. Instead, he kissed her with all the despair, all the longing that his father had carved into his flesh. Her mouth tasted of strawberries and cream, his grandmother’s favourite. And Emmy’s.