Sarah’s mate Thomas dug into the bowl of popcorn.
‘What a boring movie,’ he said.
Sarah switched off the TV. ‘We could try a round of charades.’
Thomas snorted and pelted her with a piece of popcorn. She threw him a kiss in return. Jesse frowned, then rose abruptly, snatching up his cigarettes and the black Zippo Finn had given him.
‘I’m going to read,’ he said.
Sarah and Thomas exchanged glances as Jesse stomped from the room.
‘You never did audition for the easy roles, did you?’ Thomas said. ‘And just wait till Katy gets a look at him.’
‘It’s not like that.’
Thomas did one of his famous eyebrows. He had a long ugly pockmarked face, pale eyes set very wide apart, and bushy hair that was not so much white as colourless; he was an albino. But he had a wonderful hearty laugh and a way of making fun of himself – and everyone else – that nobody could resist. And he did wicked imitations. His caricatures of politicians and pop stars always brought tears of merriment to Sarah’s eyes, though she’d seen his shtik (as he called it) many times before. A brilliant dancer, he was headed for great things. ‘Nobody notices how he looks the minute he comes onstage,’ Sarah had told Jesse before Thomas arrived. He’d just won some huge scholarship to a school in New York, and would be leaving next year. ‘We’ve been mates forever,’ she’d said. ‘I’m going to miss him something awful.’
‘Listen, there’s something I want to tell you now that we’re alone,’ Thomas said.
Sarah sat up straight. She knew that tone.
‘It’s about Jesse,’ Thomas continued. ‘I’ve been hearing things.’
‘Like he’s a total screwtop just released from a secure psych unit.’
‘That’s ridiculous! Who told you that?’
‘Ben. Aaron. Even Justine. You know how word gets round.’
Sarah’s face was flushed. ‘I’ll sort them.’
‘There’s worse.’ Thomas chewed his underlip for a moment. ‘You’ve got to promise not to do anything stupid.’
‘OK, OK. I met Mick at the Doorstop yesterday, he told me your mum’s got one of her sex offenders in the house, some sort of new pervy treatment programme.’ He hesitated, as if the words might explode upon release. ‘And that Jesse caught him in the loo and tried to bugger him.’
Thomas hadn’t ever seen quite that expression on Sarah’s face before.
Jesse was halfway across the kitchen when he noticed the glow of Finn’s pipe on the patio.
‘You ought to be in bed with that cold,’ Finn said.
‘Just making a cup of tea.’
Finn pointed his pipe at the sky. ‘It’s strange how memory works,’ he said. ‘When Peter was very small, he used to count the stars. He made up his own number for them. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember the word.’
‘Kwakabazillion,’ Jesse murmured before he realised what he was doing.
There was a long silence.
‘Say that again.’ Finn spoke in a voice Jesse hadn’t heard from him before – slow and careful and uninflected – the voice of a cracked bell, of a father opening the door to a constable at three a.m.
Jesse bit his lip and cursed his treacherous tongue. ‘It’s a common –’
‘Try that on the police or a teacher or a social worker, if you must, but not on me. Not on us.’
Jesse sighed and dug his hands into his pockets, encountering Peter’s top. What could he tell Finn? That he had no idea where the word had come from? That it had dropped into his mind without bang or whimper?
‘I just knew it.’ Jesse said. ‘I don’t know how.’
A muscle in Finn’s cheek tightened – even in the dark the movement was visible.
‘Who are you?’ he whispered. It sounded as though he were breathing through a stab wound in his chest.
Jesse rolled the top between his fingers. Who am I, he thought bitterly. Even Finn needs to ask.
Multiple-choice question for Finn. Who is Jesse? (a) a bag of memories; (b) a genetic code; (c) a skinsack filled with soon-to-be-discarded parts (some fungible); (d) an occasional thought; (e) a carbon-based computer; (f) a set of vibrating strings; (g) a murderer; (h) a fiction; (i) a fucking freak … Choose one or more of the above. Or all. Or none.
But don’t forget the feelings.
The next morning Mick answered the doorbell in nothing but cut-offs. His skin was very tanned, and despite herself Sarah couldn’t help following the golden pilgrimage into the waistband of his jeans. He noticed the direction of her gaze and smiled.
‘Sarah. What a surprise,’ he drawled. ‘What brings you out at this hour?’
Sarah ignored his tone, determined not to lose her temper before she began. ‘May I come in?’
‘May you? Allow me to consider. The butler has the day off, but the maid has finished downstairs. And I do believe the cook has already prepared a light repast. So unless you require a five-course meal, I can offer you the hospitality of my humble abode.’ He swept into a bow worthy of a royal audience, his accent perfect.
If she weren’t so angry, she would have laughed. She’d forgotten why she’d first gone out with him – though moody since Dan had left, Mick could be funny and very charming when he chose. And he played sax like a demon.
He took her hand and kissed it, holding it just a little too long. Sarah snatched it away, the joke had gone far enough. She moved past him into the entrance hall. The walls were painted, rather startlingly, a deep sumptuous blue against the polished oak of the floors and banister. His mother’s collection of antique Danish porcelain was mounted along the right wall. Again Sarah was impressed by the subtle good taste which the decor reflected. Mick’s flashy personality seemed out of place here. Sarah had never met his parents, and though he and his brother were identical in appearance, Dan had always been quieter, more self-contained – ‘dark,’ Thomas had said even before the drug stuff. ‘There’s something wrong, he’s way too secretive. And I think he manipulates Mick. Even for twins, it’s a strange relationship.’
Mick crossed his arms and leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb to the sitting room, watching her without speaking.
‘Can we sit down?’ she asked. ‘There’s something important I need to talk to you about.’
The skin around his eyes tightened at the stiffness in her voice.
‘Important,’ he repeated. ‘Yeah, OK. Maybe we’d better go upstairs where we won’t be overheard.’ He added at her frown, ‘We really do have a housekeeper, a very nosy housekeeper, you know. Who likes to spy on me and report back to my parents.’
Sarah followed him with reluctance upstairs. Mick didn’t just have a bedroom like most kids his age. His parents had converted the entire upper floor – not a loft, either – into a private suite for their sons, complete with sitting room and en suite baths. Mick had his own study where he kept his piano and saxophones – not just one, of course, but an entire collection, one of which he claimed had been used by John Coltrane. There was even a small workout room, equipped with an assortment of body-building devices. Sarah had tried the treadmill the last time she’d been here, before they had fooled around in the jacuzzi. And his entertainment centre would have been the envy of any pop star. Dan’s bedroom, however, was out of bounds.
Sarah was dismayed to find a stranger lounging in a pair of boxer shorts on the black leather sofa. He was watching TV and smoking. She looked closer, sniffed. Not tobacco.
The bloke was a few years older than Mick, perhaps even in his early twenties. He was as blond and good-looking as Mick, though in a more finished way. The streaks in his hair swaggered across his forehead. As Mick and Sarah came into the room, he clicked off the TV and stood up, oblivious to his state of near undress – no, not oblivious at all, Sarah realised. He didn’t take his eyes off her as they were introduced. Gavin’s green eyes were the colour of mouldy bread and faintly bloodshot.
‘Sarah’s an old flame,’ Mick said.
‘An old flame.’ Gavin said. His tongue curled wetly around the antiquated expression like a French kiss. There was definitely something wrong with his eyes.
‘She’s a fantastic dancer,’ Mick said. ‘It’s a real treat to disco with her.’
Sarah could tell by the way that Gavin glanced at Mick that there was a hidden message in Mick’s words, but she had no idea what it could be. She was beginning to regret her impulse. Seeing Mick on his home ground reminded her of what she disliked most about him. A golden boy who’d never think of anyone but himself. Not someone you could reason with. She turned to Mick.
‘I didn’t know you had another visitor. I’ll go.’
‘I thought you wanted to talk to me.’
‘Alone. It’s a private matter.’
‘Gavin’s a good friend. The very best, in fact. There’s nothing you can’t say in front of him. Or reveal … ’ Lazily he scratched his belly button. ‘Actually, three’s quite a comfy crowd.’
God, he really thought he was being so clever.
‘Never mind, Mick, I’ll wait in the bedroom. Call me when you’re ready.’ Gavin flashed Sarah a brief grin, then flicked his hair back ostentatiously. He gave Mick a long intent look, a look that raised the temperature in the already over-warm room. With spliff and ashtray in his hand, he sauntered into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
‘Come on, Sarah, sit down. I’ll fetch you a coke.’
Mick left before Sarah had a chance to refuse. The air stifling, she thought about opening one of the windows but decided not to bother. She’d drink her coke and go. Maybe Thomas would think of another way to deal with Mick.
‘So tell me, what’s the problem?’ Mick asked, handing her a glass. He sat down next to her, crowding her. She could smell his maleness – disturbing, familiar.
Sarah sipped her coke, both thirsty and glad to buy some time. Ice cubes clinking like hail on a glass roof. Mick lit a cigarette and watched her through the smoke, his gaze knowing. Sarah coloured faintly and shifted a bit on the sofa. Her skirt was rather short, and her thighs were sticking to the leather. Mick moved even nearer, his body pressing right up against hers. She could feel beads of perspiration gathering on her upper lip, under her arms, between her breasts. Mick was so close that it was hard for her to breathe, to think. She longed to shut her eyes. Her heart squeezed against her ribs. She needed some air. Why had Jesse ...
Abruptly she realised what was happening. No. Not again. Not with him, with Mick. She tried to push further into the corner, but there was no place to go. Mick put his hand on her leg, just under the hem of her skirt. She jumped and spilled a bit of her coke. She set her glass on the table.
‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘Please.’
Mick took another drag on his cigarette and laid it on the edge of the table. He smiled languidly but didn’t remove his hand.
‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘You liked it before.’
Sarah shook her head, pushed at his hand.
‘Oh come on, Sarah. It’s no big deal.’
‘I said no, and I meant it.’
She tried to rise. Mick propelled her back against the cushions with a casual flick of his wrist. He leaned towards her, ready to kiss her.
‘You don’t really mean no. Just relax and enjoy it.’
A tiny corner of her mind couldn’t believe he’d actually said that. How could she want to laugh when his hand was crawling up her thigh?
‘Please, Mick,’ she said. ‘Not now. My period.’
Mick hesitated, then reached for his cigarette, drew on it, and blew a smoke ring. He studied it until it dissipated. Then he grinned.
‘I like bloodsports.’
Desperately she searched for an excuse, something, anything to put him off. ‘Your friend. He’s in the next room.’
‘Gavin? Don’t worry about him. He won’t mind.’ A snigger.
‘But I thought –’
Mick drew back a fraction. ‘You thought what?’
‘That you and he … I mean, the way he looked at you … I thought …’ Her voice trailed off, some instinct warning her that she was making a mistake, that in fact she’d already made it.
Mick’s eyes narrowed and his pupils shrank to pinpricks. He extinguished his cigarette slowly in the ashtray.
‘What exactly did you think?’ His voice was soft, dangerous – a viper’s hiss.
‘Nothing,’ she said as neutrally as possible.
He leaned forward, at the same time moving his hand back up under her skirt.
‘No what? No, don’t touch you here’ – his hand slid to her knickers – ‘or no, you’re not going to tell me what you were thinking?’ His smile was suddenly friendly, teasing. As if he were just messing around.
Sarah swallowed. Maybe he’d let up if she gave him what he wanted to hear. ‘I thought the two of you might be more than just friends. I’m sorry if I got it wrong.’
‘Wrong?’ he mused, as if he were in a classroom and had been just corrected by the teacher. He removed his hand and stared at it.
‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated, feeling an immense sense of relief. ‘Not that it would matter. Nobody needs to hide being gay any more. Or bi.’
‘Gay, did you say?’ He was still staring at his hand.
‘Look, Mick, I misunderstood. Dan seemed not to mind if –’
He lunged so fast that the breath was knocked from her lungs. In an instant he was on top of her.
‘Gay,’ he spat. ‘I’ll show you gay.’
He had one hand on her left breast, and the other on her throat. His mouth ground against hers, his teeth cutting her lip. She could feel his erection. She could smell his sweat underneath the musky cologne he used. Her heart was pounding. She managed to twist her head to the side. She thought she would gag. Then she thought she would suffocate. She couldn’t seem to get any air. He tilted her neck back and moved his mouth to her throat. Drawing in a ragged breath, she tasted blood in her mouth.
‘No,’ she croaked.
‘You know you really want it.’
‘Nobody says no to me,’ he said, leaning back just enough to look at her face but no further. His eyes glittered, and his smile was cold; his groin, relentless.
Suddenly everything spiralled out of control. Mick was no longer smiling. He was spitting words like cunt and bitch at her. He slapped her across the face. She gouged him with her fingers. He clamped his hand on her wrist. She wrenched it free. He yanked at her shirt and tore it. She struggled against him. He reached under her skirt, hooked his fingers into the thin cotton. She would not let him do this. He was strong, so very strong. Why had she worn a skirt? She twisted, she flailed at him, she bit his shoulder. He grunted in pain and grabbed a fistful of her hair, pulled it hard to one side. She gasped, and tears spurted into her eyes. She was beginning to pant. To panic.
The door to the bedroom opened. ‘Hey,’ Gavin called. Mick relaxed his hold on Sarah. His eyes followed her gaze. For a moment she thought that Gavin was coming to her aid. Then she saw that he’d stripped completely. Mick stared, then looked away, then back again. He seemed to be having trouble controlling his face.
‘Man, you’ve got one hell of a boner,’ he said.
‘You two are making a lot of noise,’ Gavin said. He walked over and locked the door, picked up the remote, switched the TV back on. Pounding music filled the room. ‘Let’s bring the cunt into the bedroom.’
Sarah sagged back against the cushions and closed her eyes. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Snatches of advice ran through her head. Don’t get yourself into dangerous situations. Say no. Kick him in the balls. Scream. Always fight back. Say no. No. God no.
They half dragged, half carried her into the bedroom and dumped her on the white shag rug. Gavin kicked her.
‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Strip.’
She shook her head, knowing it was pointless. He kicked her again while Mick shed his jeans.
‘Not her face,’ said Mick.
And again, in the small of her back. Gavin wrenched off her clothes while Mick watched, breathing hard. He wiped his hand across his face and retreated a step, glancing at a poster on the wall – a photo of Dan and him on a beach, arms draped round each other, sunburnt, laughing – then back at her. In some part of herself – the part that wasn’t paralysed by terror – she suddenly understood the expression ‘time froze’. For it did. No one moved. No one spoke. Even the music seemed to recede to a distant and ghostly place. It was as if the three of them were poised together on the fulcrum of an invisible seesaw. Which way would it descend? Sarah thought she saw something flicker in Mick’s eyes, some warmth, but at that moment Gavin grunted and lurched forward. He grabbed up a leather belt lying on the bed and struck her across the belly. A red mist blossomed behind her eyes, clouding her vision.
Jesse, she thought. Jesse.
She must have spoken aloud.
‘Jesse?’ Mick sneered. Any compassion he might have been feeling vanished. ‘That fucking pervert? Tondi told me all about him. You’ll get nothing from him. He doesn’t like girls.’
Gavin smashed his fist into her breast. She screamed. He clamped a hand over her mouth. ‘Shut up,’ he snarled. The music beat against her in huge waves, threatening to drown her.
‘She said we were gay,’ Mick said.
They laughed together.
‘She likes gay. Nice. So let’s start with gay.’ Mick bowed, sweeping his arm towards Gavin in a gesture of exaggerated deference. ‘Go ahead. Show her just how gay it can be.’
Gavin rolled her over onto her stomach. Sarah let the music take her. It became a howl, then a savage roar. Jesse, she heard herself cry again as the light gave way; gave way to deep-sea black.