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An Equal and Opposite Reaction

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Law III: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.

 

“So. Isak.” 

Eskild is doing the face he does when he’s trying to look like an adult. He used it three days ago when he found Isak sheltering from the rain in the basement at midnight. It’s his ‘won’t your parents be worried?’ face, his ‘when you said you had somewhere to go is this where you meant?’ face, his ‘just take the fucking towel, Isak,’ face. It’s also the one he used yesterday to get Isak to come up to the flat, when he accompanied it with an obvious fib about having been stood up by a guy on Grindr right after having made all this pasta he now needed Isak’s help to eat. 

“What are we going to do with you?”

Isak shifts on the pallet he’s been using for a sofa. If Eskild’s throwing him out he’s not going to make it easy for him. He shrugs, like he neither knows nor cares, when in fact it’s been racing around and around his head each and every night when he slept with his back crammed against the wall. He’s decided he can’t go back, that whatever he’s doing it’s not that, and he thinks his dad will probably give him money if he asks.

He’s been putting off calling though because he already knows how it will go: a lecture about how he shouldn’t have stressed his mum out like that, questions about how she’s doing, a murmured tut of disapproval when that’s not something Isak can answer.  

A bit of him wants to tell his dad he’s shacked up with a guy he met in a gay bar just to see if he can make him crack out something that feels like a feeling. Something that looks more like caring. Honestly he’d settle for surprise as long as it was his and only his. 

“I — er — ” Isak screws his face up hoping something will come to him.

Nothing does.

“You have to go home some time, Isak.” At Isak’s eye roll, Eskild slumps against the wall. “Don’t you need some of your things? For school and so you don’t wear that t-shirt out completely?”

Squinting at him, Isak goes over what Eskild just said. “You’re not kicking me out?”

Eskild hunches one shoulder up in a half shrug. “I’m getting used to having you sneak around,” he says. He digs in his pocket. “So maybe you can take this —” He holds out a key. It has one of those tabs you get at the key cutters, Isak recognises it from when they moved. “It’ll make it easier for you to come up and have a shower and things when I’m not there.”

The fact that Eskild had one made for him, that it’s not just a spare, flips his stomach over, and he gets up to take it, turning it in his hands.

“Just — if Noora maces you because she thinks you’re a burglar don’t expect me to pour milk in your eyes. I told you to tell her,” Eskild says. He holds his hand up to arrest the protest Isak is about to make. “And you have your reasons, whatever, and I respect them. But you do smell like basement, so. More clothes and a shower and make time to meet the washing machine, Isak, is all I’m saying.” 

“Oh.” Isak chews his lip. It’s true enough that only having one set of clothes is a drag and he’s two full days away from fucking up his 10% in a way it’ll be mathematically difficult to rectify before the end of term. “I do need to get some things,” he says.

It feels like admitting something much bigger, and he hates that he can’t just walk away from one life and start a new one. But going back, the thought of the house… He stares at the wall and the bricks blur with the thump of his pulse.

“I could come with you,” Eskild says. “It’s on my way.”

“You don’t know where it is.”

Eskild avoids his eyes. “Wherever it is, it’s not too long of a detour for me to make.”

“You’d wait outside?”

Eskild nods, and it feels like they’ve decided something long before Isak’s ready.

Maybe it’s better that way.

 

 

The tram stops.

He’s hopped out here most days since the start of the school year but today everything looks like it’s been sharpened.

The neighbouring houses seem to peer in on him as he walks, hands in his pockets, with his heart battering his throat from the inside. It’s a creeping sickness that rises from his stomach, like those dreams he has where he’s about to take an exam only when he turns the paper he realises he’s studied all the wrong things for the last three years. He scrabbles, not for knowledge to get him enough to pass, but for something like courage, telling himself he’s just going to let himself in and go to his room and grab his stuff. Whatever his mother says or does, he’ll just ignore it. He lays it out like an equation: five, ten minutes of bullshit is a perfectly acceptable pay off for getting away.

It doesn’t help as much as it probably should.

At his elbow, Eskild is humming something that Isak thinks might be Beyoncé. He tries to focus on it and not the house as they get closer. He hoped it’d look smaller, less daunting, but the curtains seem like leering ghosts. Isak digs the keys in his pocket into his fingers. He rehearses it — steps keys bedroom wardrobe holdall from the cupboard steps keys bedroom wardrobe holdall from the cupboard steps keys bedroom wardrobe holdall from —

The door opens, and his mother comes out.

Isak’s brain screams that he should get behind a parked car before she sees him, but he can’t make any bit of himself move. Involuntarily he stops breathing, as if his lungs know air makes way too much noise as it flees his nose. He clocks the tensing of his muscles and the ready pounding of his heart, knows it’s just adrenaline, but that doesn’t give him any more agency over his body and what’s happening inside it.

Realising he’s stopped, Eskild looks back at him, face going through confusion to secondhand alarm. “Isak?”

He flicks his gaze between Isak and what he’s gaping at: the woman on the other side of the road in the green coat, fussing with her bag. He tenses too, draws himself up straighter and steps closer to Isak, but she walks the other way down the street, apparently having not seen them at all.

 

Inside, Isak doesn’t waste any time. He throws the holdall that his parents got him so he could go camping with a church group onto the bed. He grabs an armful of hoodies and jumpers out of his drawer and shoves them in, then the same with t-shirts, underwear, socks. After that he goes for the money he’s been hoarding in a wrapped up towel under his bed and the things he can sell like games and a special edition boxset he accidentally bought online. 

His school bag is still packed and by the door where he left it, so he picks his laptop up off the desk where he abandoned it and forces it inside, wrinkling up his physics notes. In front of his bookcase he tries to work out what he needs and what’ll be most useful but his brain is just going fuck fuck fuck and trying to calculate where she might’ve been going and how long they might have. She’s banned from the closest shop so if she’s gone out for food she’ll be at least twenty minutes, but she has a tendency to just go out and walk about talking to people about Jesus and there’s no time limit on that. Sometimes when Isak argued with her about damnation she’d shout that she was going to go and walk into traffic, make him wait all night to find out she didn’t mean it, on other occasions she’d be back so soon his relief at being alone didn’t even have time to settle. He sweeps the books he hasn’t put back properly off the shelf figuring those are the ones he’s been using and it’s as good a way to choose as anything.

“This?” Eskild says, holding up a scarf.

“I don’t care. Just — hurry.”

Eskild forces the scarf, a handful of hats from the peg on the wall, and a pair of boots into the bag and drags the zip as closed as it will go.

That Eskild thinks Isak won’t be back before winter strikes him in the chest but he doesn’t have time to think about it.

“Anything else?”

Isak stands in the middle of the room trying to think straight. Logic deserts him, insisting he trip through a list of things he knows he’s already packed. He can’t make his brain process anything so he shakes his head.

Eskild reaches for the holdall but Isak stops him, takes the handles himself. “I got it,” he says. He hoists the bag up onto his shoulder. He staggers backwards with the uneven weight of it but makes for the hall anyway, catching it on the door as he bends down to grab his school bag. He can’t manage it as well so he lets Eskild take that one and they pause just behind the front door, where there’s two pictures of Isak from school.

“You don’t want any photos or anything?”

Isak wipes his nose with his thumb, sniffing up the wetness that’s accumulated there. “Let’s just go,” he says, and on impulse, he digs his keys out of his pocket and throws them onto the table underneath the pictures of his own face.

 

The basement smells oppressively earthy and there’s black mould on one of the walls.

Being back there is terrible; it’s better than everything else.

Eskild asks him where he wants his things putting. That he’s treating it like a real home over which Isak now has domain makes the reality of it all shiver up and down Isak’s spine.

He feels like he’s shaking all over. He might actually be shaking all over. He gestures to the crate in the corner. It’ll make an ok desk. He can put his laptop on it and try and catch up on school before he ruins all his hard work.

He puts the holdall down with a thunk on the bigger pallet and unzips it. He rummages inside to pull out his favourite hoodie — a grey thing he’s had forever — and swaps the jacket he’s been living in for it. He’s still standing on the edge of a chasm and about to tip in but at least he’s himself, now. He lets the feeling sink in for a moment, then gets his phone out. He texts his dad two words:

I left. 

At the whoosh noise of the message, Eskild gives him a grim smile. “When Noora goes out, do you want to come up and watch a film? Get something to eat?”

Isak nods. He still has his phone in his hands. “Text me?” he says, like it’s a totally normal thing they’re doing, friends making plans for later.

Eskild turns for the stairs that’ll take him up to the flat.

As soon as he leaves, Isak will be alone with everything he’s done. Maybe Eskild knows that too and that’s why he’s offering him plans to cling to, tossing him a float before he drowns.

“Eskild?” Isak says, and waits until he looks back. “Thanks.”

 

 

*

 

School’s over, Christmas is over, and it’s daylight, outside.

That’s how he’s started thinking of time – there’s no hours and minutes, there’s merely daylight and not. He finds it helps, a bit, to only have two categories into which this construct called time is divided because he doesn’t have to think, then, about how long precisely they’ve been lying here. It’s just… it was daylight when Isak woke and found Even a million miles away on the next pillow and it’s still daylight and that means it hasn’t been an entire day and that’s fine.

Spending time in bed with Even was pretty much Isak’s holiday plan anyway.

He runs his fingers over Even’s sleeve – or his sleeve since it’s his hoodie – sorting the fabric into ridges and thinking about folds in time, that memory is time folding back on itself, your own private wormhole to the past.

“Sorry,” Even says.

It doesn’t seem to relate to anything – the last question Isak asked him was if he wanted breakfast and that was ages ago, at least one trip through the definition of a singularity and half a debate with himself about if he really believes the planet they’re currently lying in bed spinning merrily on is dragging the fabric of the universe behind it. Isak shakes his head to say whatever he’s apologising for, it’s not necessary, inches closer, sliding his hand down Even’s arm to touch skin. “Ok?”

Even swallows.

Isak realises it’s a complicated question, some days.

He inches the blanket up around him and folds the top back over, tucks it in under his own chin as an excuse to nestle in close. “Ok,” he says, and hopes Even believes him.

Just this. It’s ok.

Maybe Even would understand that he really means it if he knew more about some of the places Isak has been.

 

*

 

Daylight passes, starts to fade, but Even’s awake, now.

Quietly awake, thinking loudly, his eyes flickering like he wants to say something but he can’t choose a word.

Isak gets it. It’s been a long week full of the petty, unnecessary stresses of general Christmas bullshit. They’ve pinged back and forth between Even’s family obligations and here, two things becoming increasingly obvious: that they all had plans to go to Sonja’s family’s cabin for new year which Isak essentially ruined and that to Even’s family, he’s a time bomb and the only thing that matters is finding the right expert to diffuse him.

He’s watched Even pretend to be ok, learned that for every big laugh he offers someone it costs him a minute resting against the wall in a corner, and he’s starting to piece together that nothing is binary. Not the disorder, and not recovering. There are no two states he flips between, it’s more like two strings of different coloured PlayDough wound together, that where they touch they sometimes merge and become various purples, that just because one day he seems mostly blue it doesn’t mean the red isn’t also there, that purple days have red splodges as well as streaks of blue.

Even moves his mouth, like it’s stiff with lack of use.

Isak wonders what he’s thinking about.

While they opened their presents in front of a jar full of fairy lights where a fire would normally be — Even’s parents pretending not to think it was weird Isak didn’t have his own family to be with — Even’s uncle joked about Even being quiet. As a child he’d always been full of stories, apparently, and Even looked him right in the eye and said he still had plenty, but he keeps them all inside his head these days, otherwise he gets accused of needing to be sedated. It earned him an, ‘it’s not funny, Even,’ from his mother, and Isak studied the pattern on the rug so as not to leap to his defence and point out that maybe it wasn’t haha funny but it was on par for amusement with making fun of someone for how they need to be.

Since it happened, he’s been trying to find a way to say he likes it when Even tells him stories or shares what he’s thinking, even if he’s not always a fan of the thoughts in and of themselves. Maybe it’s time he stopped trying and just did it.

He rearranges his pillow. “Can I ask about it? Would you mind?”

Even’s gaze flips over. “About?”

“What it’s like for you. This.”

“You read about it, I know you did.”

“It was all about being bipolar, not about being Even. There’s no book on Even Bech Næsheim. I checked. Twice.”

The corner of Even’s mouth twitches, like he wants to smile but he can’t quite make it happen, and Isak reaches for him and touches his cheek, like his fingers can somehow say to his muscles that he knows that down there they’re trying, he can see them and appreciates their effort. “If you’re too tired, it doesn’t matter.”

Even looks at him, and for something to do, Isak fingers a strand of his hair. He’s still not quite used to it, the way it sometimes feels like Even’s playing their entire conversation in his head and working out every single way it might go before he answers. He thinks Even likes a plan – a script – that he’s always trying to create a place where everything’s a little bit better and neater and brighter than reality around both of them.

That’s the least scary option. The alternative is he just likes looking at Isak and that’s sprawlingly terrifying, like staring into the chasm of the entire universe at once.

“What do you want to know?”

“Whatever you want to tell me.”

For all his plotting of possible conversations, it doesn’t seem like Even was expecting that. Maybe he was preparing for a question from the playbook of clinical diagnostics or about medication or his management plans. Maybe he thought that was what Isak would care about, that if he hadn’t before spending time with Even’s extended family of experts, he would now.

“I wish,” Even says, “that everything would stop for a while, you know?” He thinks about it before he goes on, swallowing heavily. “If I — with a little time, I think I could… do better.”  

“You’re doing fine, though?”

He’s not expecting that to make Even’s breath catch in his throat. But it does.

“You are.” Isak kisses his shoulder. “You are.”

“I —” Even coughs. He shifts his arm out from underneath Isak, spluttering into his hand.

Isak rolls away to see if he has any water — comes back with a bottle of Fanta that evidently rolled off the bed at some point and got wedged down the side. He hands it to Even.

Even twists the cap off and makes it hiss, takes a quick swig, then nestles it between them. He looks at it for a long time, clearing his throat sporadically, evidently thinking about something other than their poor housekeeping.

“Even?”

There’s a long pause, and he thinks Even’s not going to answer, but then he seems to come to some decision and shifts.

“It’s like this,” he says, very quietly, his eyes flicking up to Isak’s, “my head.” He tilts his face until he’s almost nose level with the curved shoulder of the bottle, taps the side so inside the liquid sloshes more than it already was and the bubbles shimmy, some of them shaking free of where they were clinging to the plastic. “I think most people’s are more like water. But mine,” he says, watching the bubbles, “it’s always fizzing.” 

He’s not sure why — maybe it’s how resigned Even sounds — but Isak’s heart is racing.

“Sometimes it gets like — ” He moves the bottle about, sloshing the Fanta from side to side, making the bubbles move and pop on the surface and new, bigger bubbles appear on the top. “And sometimes — ” Even snatches the bottle up and shakes it until inside, everything is wild and frantic. He goes to undo the lid and Isak sits up to catch his hand.

“Don’t, it’ll — ”

Even smiles, a little devilish, like he really does want to spray Isak in the face, but he lets go, moves his fingers away from the cap. He meets Isak’s eye, mimes an explosion of liquid, mouthing the noise it’d make, like fsshhhhhhhhhhh, his eyes going wide. 

“Right,” Isak says.

Even swallows. He settles back down on the pillow and looks at Isak. “It’s something like that.”

“And then after? You said it’s different, you’re different,” Isak says, and immediately second-guesses it because he doesn’t want Even to feel like he’s some kind of show and tell. “Sorry, if you don’t want to talk about — ”

“I don’t mind. It’s just… I don’t always remember much? Get empty, I guess. Or emptier, like there’s something still there but — ” He frowns the frown of someone grappling with an imperfect metaphor.

“Flat?”

Even nods, takes a heavy breath.  

Isak takes the bottle and looks into it. Where everything was fizzing, it’s settling, bubbles popping themselves out of existence, energy transferring into noises so tiny and trapped he can’t hear. On the other side of the bottle Even lifts his eyebrow like he’s curious what Isak’s thinking. It’s one more thing to get used to, that Even is intrigued by the whirring of his brain, that he doesn’t think it’s silly when Isak gets lost in thinking about Brownian motion as applied to chocolate cereal or indeed bipolar as soda.

Isak runs his finger around the lid. “Does it have to come off? Once things get… shaken? Is it inevitable, like the pressure builds up and it — has to release?”

Even shakes his head. “Things can… settle? When there’s nothing to… when everything else stops. But everything else doesn’t stop very often. You just have to keep going with the fizzing. Make sense?”

Isak nods, even though it’s far less important to him that he understands than that Even has explained it the way he wants. But it does resonate, far more so than the definitions he’s pored over with their mixed affective episodes and comorbid conditions. He has questions — like how often does Even get all shaken and whether the hotel was the lid coming off or just a bit of extra fizz — but his phone buzzes. He digs it out, flips it over, and scans the screen.

It’s his dad.

Hi Isak, I thought it would be nice to have dinner one night this week. Are you free?

Isak opens his messages to see when he last replied in order to work out if he can ignore this one. Above it and a generic Christmas platitude sit a string of questions:

What happened?

Are you coming back?

Isak if you could reply and explain??

Isak wets his lip and drags it through his teeth. Right. He never did that; he just fled the church, brought Even here. They stalled outside, Even looking up at the light from the lounge. He didn’t say anything — couldn’t, Isak supposes now — but it was raining pretty hard, was desperately cold, and Isak had to guess at the cause of the panic in Even’s eyes that was obviously more important to him than the weather.

“We’ll go in the back,” he said. “It’s just Linn, she won’t want to talk or anything.”

He still doesn’t know if that was what made Even freeze outside, the thought of people, but Even went with him as he edged up the fire escape, waited while Isak went in first to make sure the coast was clear. Trusted him. Once Isak got him on the other side of the door, he took Even’s jacket off for him and pressed a warm drink into his hands, sat him on the bed. He knelt in front of him and waited to see if any of what he was doing was the right thing to do. All he can remember is the way Even stared out of his own face like he couldn’t stand to be in there, the way his own heart thunked with prayers to a god he’d forsaken years ago and just angered at a Carol service.  

He’s sure he skimmed past the messages from his dad, intending to reply to them when he’d worked out what to say.

Maybe he still doesn’t know.

He pulls his lip free of his teeth and stares at the reply box. There’s very little he wants to do less than an actual family dinner but at some point he’s going to have to offer his dad something in return for all the money and not totally losing his shit. He can get a job in the summer but he has Even to think about as well, now. He types the word ok and hits the arrow.

“Who?” Even says.

“My dad,” he says. “You don’t have to but — he’d like to have dinner.” He thinks he keeps it matter of fact but Even stops fidgeting with the bottle and looks at him.

“With me? I’m invited?”

The little dots appear that say his dad is typing and Isak can barely stand them or the way Even’s smiling. “Yeah.”

“Just your dad? Or..?”

Isak shrugs.

“You don’t want your mum to come? To meet me?”

“I don’t know if it would be a good idea.”

Even frowns. He doesn’t know she doesn’t need to be invited to show up and dance in the middle of the table. It’ll start with a casual question about if Isak went over to see his mum for Christmas, if not, if he’s planning to go over, then why isn’t he planning it when it would mean so much to her.

Isak grips his phone, takes a breath, distracts himself reading his dad’s reply:

Friday? Shall I book somewhere? Is 7pm ok?

Isak:

Fine. It’ll be me and my boyfriend for the booking.

Dad:

I thought you broke up?

Isak:

We got back together.

“She gets very easily stressed, is all,” Isak says.

“How so?” Even says.

Isak’s head flashes with a dozen different things: a towering argument out of nowhere, when she accused him of crushing her dreams because he said buying lotto tickets was illogical and a waste of money; another that managed to last more than two weeks, started by someone on television who said equal marriage was responsible for god punishing the planet with global warming; sitting behind the door crying even though he knew he was far too old for that, calling his dad and practically begging him to come back, his dad deconstructing how it had happened and pointing out the things Isak should avoid doing next time.

He’s not sure there’s a way of explaining all that. Even inside his own head it doesn’t sound like as much as it feels. 

Dad:

That’s nice. I’m looking forward to meeting him.

Isak looks up at Even from his phone. “Seven,” he says. “Friday.” That’s as far as he can go with his entire face on show so he pulls his hood up and ducks inside it, tugging the neck up over his chin so he’s nothing but nose.

“I thought things might be better now,” Even says.

Isak stares at his phone, even though it’s not doing anything. “Probably it’ll be that Indian place on Dronningens Gate,” Isak says.

“You don’t want to talk about her.”

Isak’s phone remains dark and quiet. Great, he’s on his own.

He rubs at the corner of his eye.

Really it’d be nice if it was as simple as concepts like better now. Because yeah, sure, technically things are better now, but it’s easy for things to be better when you’re living in different parts of town and have only exchanged a few dozen words in the past month. When things are abstract, it’s easy to forget all the shit and invest yourself in the idea of bonds of love that society has been telling you your entire life underpin the fabric of everything. Isak wishes there could be dinner, that there was some way to guarantee his mum would be having a good day, that she’d ask normal questions about school and Even’s plans for his life. In this version in his head he’s just made up, for some reason she has a balloon.

But he can’t trust her, can he? Not on the back of one message saying she loves him.

Even’s too important for him to inflict the worst she’s capable of upon; or maybe he’s not that selfless and he just doesn’t want to give her the chance to take back what she said.

Isak rubs his knuckles under his nose. Why the fuck is it that his emotions tend to manifest there?

“You miss her?”

“No.”

Even as he says it, Isak can’t tell if it’s the truth.

He doesn’t miss her — the actual person of her that’s edged in sharp words and righteous fire — but he misses the idea of her. He misses the version of her that he’s always known exists in another reality, the one who could look at him with nothing but softness in her eyes, the one he always imagined he could have in this universe as well if he just stopped fucking up or was a different, nicer person.

Since the message he’s thought that maybe, finally…

But he always snatches himself back from reaching for it.

Maybe that’s the thing he broke inside himself when he left: the flicker of belief that he could dismantle the disparity between the two versions of her that exist, the one in this reality and the one that’s inaccessible to him. He sat in a basement and turned himself inside out until he accepted that the version of her he was trying to make happen wasn’t going to; that the version of him she wanted wasn’t the one he actually was, either.

That’s the way he thinks of it: in some other universe, stranded, is her actual son, all god-fearing with a nice bland girlfriend he’s planning to wed before they have sex, that they somehow switched places. That’s why he and his mother can never mesh. They’re just from different versions of the universe. Having decided that, he can’t go back to trying to squash himself into what she wants him to be. An expression of love doesn’t paper over all the cracks in the brimstone, pretending it does is nothing more than childish wishful thinking.  

Whichever way he looks at it, though, that he doesn’t miss her seems like a terrible thing to actually say out loud to someone.

“Or — ” It comes out croaky, like Isak’s throat wants to close around the word. “It’s not like that.”

Even looks at him, encouraging him to go on. “How is it?”

Isak switches his mouth from side to side.

He wants it to be easy to explain.

He wants to lay it all out, so Even can see that leaving was a rational decision he made for the sake of his own sanity and safety.

He wants to forget the part where he came home one day and instead of ignoring each other as they did most days, she rounded on him immediately, asking about the boy he’d been with at the tram stop. He doesn’t want to admit that in shock — because he had been kind of flirting with that guy just to see how it felt, how on earth did she know? — Isak told the truth: no, not a friend, just someone from school he was talking to, what the hell was the big deal? Was she spying on him, now? Maybe if he leaves that part out he can pretend the hours of her detailing exactly what the problem was didn’t happen, that even though he hasn’t believed in god for a very long time, it picked at him all over until he felt like his skin was crawling with the oozing of a hundred tiny wounds, some of which still haven’t healed.

He wants to say that he didn’t totally blank the guy the next time he saw him at a party and then find the first girl who’d have him, that he didn’t kiss her until he was half convinced he was wrong about himself, even as he held both her hands just to stop her touching him anywhere else.

He wants to say that he knew the litany of bible verses and demands he confess couldn’t actually hurt him and that was enough to ensure that they didn’t.

He wants to say that he didn’t spend every night for weeks getting high with Jonas just to stop thinking about it, that it was something else which made her think he was actually sleeping with that guy from the tram, that when she challenged him he calmed her down with the truth instead of just shouting, ‘So what if I fucking am?’

He wants to just take whatever sympathy might be coming his way instead of admitting that the thing that kicked him out wasn’t her, it was his own stupidity and temper. He wants to say no, he never wakes up in the middle of the night thinking that she’s standing over him, that his entire body doesn’t jolt until he remembers where he is. He wants to say he knows it’s just shadows and that’s enough to make it stop, that the shit in his head doesn’t make him glad he can’t sleep, that however fucked up his thoughts are while he’s awake, at least they’re not as twisted as his dreams.

What he wants, actually, is not to be thinking about it or talking about it at all, because it nibbles away at him sometimes, the idea of forgiveness and whose it really is to grant.

He knows what Even wants to hear though, what his dad wants to hear, fuck, what everyone wants to hear, and sometimes he just has no idea how to say anything but that.

“I could try not to do anything she thinks is stressful,” Even says, and he does this cautious smile, leans in to get in Isak’s eye line, stroking his hair back behind his ear, “like, er — ”

He’s trying to be winning. He thinks it’s him, that Isak’s afraid he’ll flip out, and Isak can’t stand it.

“It’s not something you’d do,” he says. “It’s everything. Mostly me.”  At Even’s frown, Isak averts his eyes. “But if you really want to meet her,” Isak says, “maybe it’d be fine. I don’t know. I could ask.”

 

 

*

 

The restaurant has gaudy yellow and teal cushions and so many mirrors Isak can’t avoid catching glimpses of how nervous he looks. He turns his back on himself and slides into the booth, taking the menu from the waiter with a smile he has to really force.

His dad’s reply to his message thumps behind his retinas:

She’ll be so pleased you asked her to come.

In his head, Isak is still quibbling that he didn’t. He said it’d be ok if his dad wanted to bring her, which is obviously completely, distinctly different, and he’s regretted it approximately once a second since he said it. So at least 172,801 times.

Even orders them two beers and Isak studies the menu, reading the names of all the dishes even though he always gets the same thing and they’re not going to order until his parents get here anyway. He hasn’t eaten all day but the smell of the food makes him want to puke. He tugs at the collar of his nice jumper and wonders why the fuck the heating is on so high. He thought it’d be a gesture or something to wear this, but it’s actually just making him want to die.

“Nice,” Even says, looking around at the decor. He waits, but when Isak doesn’t supply the requisite small talk, he just carries on. “I’ve never been here before.”

In another universe, a less truculent version of Isak is probably putting a hand on Even’s knee and telling him not to be nervous, that his parents aren’t ogres and they’re sure to adore him, and in one universe along from that, Isak is telling him to get the lamb because they do it really well here, spawning a conversation about if this is a family favourite and a funny story about the time they came here when Isak was nine and made a hat out of poppadoms.

Isak doesn’t have any funny restaurant stories, though. At least not funny haha. Plenty of funny wtf or how even is that your life? but nothing he could use to crack the apprehension and make Even stop compulsively wiping his hands on his jeans.

“So, er,” Even says. “I don’t think you told me what your dad does? For a living? If he has a job, I mean.”

“He’s — ” Isak’s voice sounds weird, so he clears his throat and pulls the paper napkin out from under his knife and fork. “ — he’s a financial controller at this huge software company.”

“Cool.”

Isak has to clear his throat again. “Not really,” he says. He unfolds the napkin, flips it back again along the fold that’s put a dent in the paper. “He hates it — it’s a lot of stress — but — er — ” He rubs at his forehead with the heel of his hand to try and stop it from pounding. “ — the money is ok… and with mum, he didn’t have a lot of choice.”

“And she — she works, or…?”

“Not since I was born.”  

The waiter brings their beer over, sets them down on the table. “Are you ready to order?”

“We’re waiting for my boyfriend’s parents,” Even says. He smiles at Isak and then the waiter, and they have a conversation about poppadoms and pickles Isak zones completely out of.

Isak unfolds then refolds his napkin to make the crease deeper, then tears it down the middle, slowly becoming aware that the waiter’s gone again and Even’s watching him.

After a moment, Even takes his own napkin out, drums his fingers on it. “Shall I make you a swan? Or a flower?” He leans in with a smile and Isak hates himself a bit for not being able to relax. “Or — I know — I could make you a crane?”

This is technically the first time they’ve ever been out for dinner, because a kebab on a bench in almost total silence doesn’t count. Even’s put on a real shirt and he did something to his hair to make it stand up extra high — Isak’s not sure quite what, only that it took him almost forty minutes and two frantic exchanges with Eskild about product, and he checked it hadn’t wilted at least five times in various different windows on the way here.

Isak should at least try to enjoy it all. He peers up at Even, giving it all the flirtation he can muster. “A crane?” he says. “You know how?”

Even nods, starts folding his napkin into a box, and even though paper napkin is probably way down the list of suitable papers to do origami with, his fingers don’t seem to notice. “I, er, I read a book on it, one time,” he says. “There was something about a legend where if you make a thousand cranes, the gods will grant you a wish. So I… made one to learn. And then I decided to make nine hundred and ninety-nine more.”

Isak looks up from the napkin he’s been tearing into strips. “Fuck, really? You made —? How long did that take?”

“I got pretty fast at it after a couple of days. And I stayed up for… a few nights,” Even says, with a cautious wince.

It clicks in Isak’s head what he means. “What happened? I mean, what did you do with them after?”

“I don’t really remember,” Even says. He ducks down between his shoulders, focuses on the folds he’s making. “I think my mother got rid of them. They were taking up a lot of space. Sometimes I still find one when I move the furniture in my room.” He sets the crane on the table in front of Isak, tilting his head to squint at it. “I’m a little out of practice,” he says.

“What did you wish for?”

Even spreads his hands on the table, presses his lips together like he’s debating whether to say. “It… didn’t come true.”

“Not yet,” Isak says. “Maybe it still will. Or maybe you miss-counted and this is actually the final one.”

Even looks away, letting out a short breath of amusement, and sometimes it still catches Isak off guard how beautiful he is when he smiles. It’s like a thousand cranes are flapping their paper wings in his stomach.  

Isak reaches for his beer.

“What time is it?” Even says.

Isak checks the clock on his phone, clicking the screen to dark again before he says, “Half seven.”

“You think he got held up at work? Your dad?”

Shrugging, Isak thumbs open his messages to check there’s not some innocuous words lurking there about traffic or a flat tire or some low-key emergency that’s distracting enough to cause them to be tardy but not enough to actually worry about. There’s nothing and no typing bubble and Isak’s heart starts its familiar rapid thunk thunk thunk in all the tiny bones of his ears at once.

They let another ten, fifteen minutes pass. Even fingers the crane, turning it from side to side on the shiny table top as if it’s dancing. He looks around the restaurant like Isak’s parents might have been erroneously seated at another table and they just haven’t noticed. “You think everything’s ok?”

In some families, Isak’s sure that if this happened, the assumption based on past evidence would be that they got chatting to a neighbour who’d been into hospital for something intricate but non-life threatening, or that they’d parked the car and decided it was such a nice evening they’d take the longer walk, or that they’d stopped outside the window of an estate agent to gawp at a house that they used to live in, once. But he didn’t grow up in some families; he grew up in his.

“No,” Isak says. “I think it’s probably not.”

“Should you call, then?”

Isak runs his fingers over the edges of his phone. His thoughts are still but opaque like frozen fog.

“Text at least?” Even says.

Isak opens his phone and stares at the window. A tiny voice in his head wants to write how could you do this to me? but instead he starts typing:

we’re here, where are you?

He deletes it, starts again.

We’re at the restaurant. Did you get the day wrong?

It’s unlikely but has happened before — just after he moved out, his dad was supposed to pick Lea up from school to take her to the dentist, but he confused Tuesday and Thursday and Isak had to go and collect her from a friend’s house, where she’d soaked half the sofa with snot and tears.

He imagines how it’d go if that was actually the case, his dad showing up cast in soft focus, like he’s pleasingly and lovably shambolic, laughing at himself for being so scatty. But it’s harder to forget Friday plans you initiated than a dentist appointment in the middle of the afternoon that you only had to care about because the person who usually did that sort of thing wasn’t fit to leave the house.

Isak can’t settle on a message, so he decides to call instead, presses his phone to his cheek. He’s not even sure what he’s hoping for, an answer or not, and he waits for it to ring itself out and the automated voice to tell him he can leave a message if he wants.

He doesn’t.

The waiter comes back to see if they’re still waiting on the rest of their party and Even looks to Isak, then when he doesn’t answer, says yes and asks if they could get poppadoms and some pickles and another beer each.

Soon enough it’s 8 o’clock.

Then quarter past.

Then half.

Then almost nine.

In moments like this, Isak knows it’s possible to think a lot of things at once and nothing at all, that a brain can flit through infinite scenarios that could all be happening because it doesn’t know which one actually is right in front of it until the key details reveal themselves. Maybe that’s what this montage of rows by the front door and fighting in the car and hospitals running on a loop across the inside of his eyelids is, all these things are happening in other universes and his head has somehow tuned in.

“We could go,” Even says, “to where they live?”

Isak puts a neat tear down the centre of the napkin the waiter brought with the pickles, then runs his thumbnail down the centre of each piece to create another crease. He might not be able to make a crane but he can do a boat — he folds one half into a triangle but the flap he’s expecting to have created to fold back on itself isn’t where he expects and damn, he used to know this.

When he was a kid, they’d sometimes come to a restaurant like this. He doesn’t remember names or what he ate, nothing but the way the seeping pity of the waitresses would turn to agitation when his mother fled to the toilets and barricaded herself in. His dad would assure them everything was fine but they’d whisper about the police and Isak would sit, pretending he couldn’t hear them, and turn a stack of napkins into a fleet.

A familiar voice rises above the general chatter and Isak looks to the door. His dad’s giving his name and asking if they came, if they’re still here, looking up to scan the room.

He’s alone.

Isak avoids his eyes and the smile he knows is incipient to give himself the space to figure out how to handle this. His head dissolves into nothing but fuck fuck fuck, though, and he tries to push through it to picture a series of events that might make a banal kind of sense. Maybe she got a cold or slipped on ice and twisted an ankle. Maybe she’s on a date.

He frowns at the feebleness of his own efforts, lifts his gaze back to where his dad picks his way between the tables, shrugging off his overcoat, then lifting it above people and leaving a smattering of apologies in his wake. As he reaches their booth, he starts to say hello, and his gaze is pleading with Isak not to make things difficult before he’s even finished the word.

Isak’s already half way out of his seat, his head clamouring with images of hospital beds and soft restraints and bridges and a green coat floating on the water while sirens dance across the ripples on the shore.

“Sorry I’m late,” his dad says, and he curls Isak into him in half a hug.

Realising Isak’s like a board, he lets him go, and fixes his expression into that face he’s made all Isak’s life, where he’s about to deliver a sermon of explanation, exult on how everything is actually fine, like a version of that dog in the meme where everything is on fire.

“Your mother sends her apologies — she was so keen on coming, she was so excited about seeing you and meeting — ” His dad stops, pushes his hair back off his face. “ — er — ” He glances down at Even, where he’s hovering with his hand half extended and creases of worry on his forehead.

“Even,” Isak says. 

“Even, how nice to meet — ” He quickly shakes Even’s hand, then folds his coat into quarters and stashes it on the booth’s cushioned seat as he slides in on the opposite side. “Did you eat yet?”

Even looks to Isak, curious, as he sits down again.

“No,” Isak says. “We were waiting for you.”

“Ah, well, we should order — are you hungry? Do you like spicy food — er — Even, it was Even?” He pushes his hair back again, even though inevitably it’s going to flop into his eyes, the same way Isak’s does when he washes it if he forgets to part it properly.

Even swallows and looks a bit like Isak imagines he would if he woke up with a spotlight in his face to find he was filming a quiz show. “Yes,” he says. “I’m a big fan of… spices.” He shoots a quick look at Isak like he can tell the remark really needs a totally different context but that the abrupt leap into a small talk topic caught him off guard.

Satisfied, his dad hails a waiter, orders a beer for himself and another two for them, and flips open his menu. “I think the lamb, that’s good here, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Isak says, “but — ”

“Isn’t it a lovely evening? So mild for this time of year. How did you get here? Did you find it all right?”

“The tram is like right there.” Isak waves vaguely to outside. “And we’ve had dinner here lots of times..?” 

“I meant Even.” His dad turns to look at him over the top of his menu. “Did Isak give you directions? Because he’s usually not very good at it.”

“We came together,” Isak says, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. “He was at mine? He’s — staying there?” His dad’s face goes through a few expressions more fitting for if Isak had just announced with a megaphone that Even popped over for a blow job. “Well, not like officially — but — a lot — he’s just — he was — there. So. He didn’t need directions.”

“Oh.”

Isak breathes out at his place setting but decides he can’t actually make things worse. “Er… so… what happened with mum?”

“You know how she gets, Isak.”

“I do, just — ” Isak’s actually shredded his napkin into something a hamster could nest in. He gathers it up into a pile and tries to discreetly sweep it off the table and into his pocket. “I was wondering which how she gets is how she… got.”

His dad looks quickly from Even to Isak in warning.

“He knows, all right?” Isak says. “You can just say.”

“It was just a lot for her — new people — you know?”

Even nods. “Of course. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.” His dad’s gaze bores a question into him, but Even looks right back and says, “Isak said she has stress?”

“Exactly.” The way his dad’s smiles is like Even’s the first person to ever suggest it, like he’s cracked some big, elaborate puzzle, and he wants to give him a prize. “She’ll be back to herself in a day or so and then maybe you could come over.”

“We — could?” Even hedges. “If she’s up to it?”

“Maybe just — ” His dad meets Isak’s eye, his meaning crystal clear that he only means Isak. “ — er — until she really gets used to… things. We don’t want to take any chances. But she would love to see you, since you couldn’t stay for very long at church.”

Isak ducks his head so he doesn’t have to see what happens to Even’s face.

“You went to church?” Even says.

“For all of five minutes.” Isak’s dad laughs in a way that makes it clear the last thing he thinks it is is funny.

Next to a strip of shredded paper he missed, Isak’s phone brrrrps on the table top.

With a kind of sickening predictability, it’s a bible verse. It’s nothing bad — no damnation or sin — one she’s sent before that he thinks is part of a parable. He clicks it away without more than skimming it. At his shoulder, he senses Even move back from where he was surreptitiously reading.

“Are we ready to order?” the waiter says.

They all get the lamb.

 

 

If conversation normally ebbs and flows then this one is more like the stuttering progress of a stream through a tangle of shopping trolleys.

Even tries his best. He asks about Isak’s dad’s work and if it’s interesting, pays attention and nods in all the right places, but even though no one’s talking about his mother, she’s in every pause, spinning like a ballerina on the table top.

Isak sips his beer, washing down half a forkful of rice that’s wedged in his throat when his dad’s phone blares to life. It’s a tinny version of an old song his parents had at their wedding; Isak programmed it in for him years ago.

His dad makes a meal of fishing it out from the inner pocket of his overcoat, looking at the front, like the display might say something other than what it obviously does. He lifts it to his ear with an urgent, “Hello?” excusing himself with a gesture as he gets to his feet.

He doesn’t say anything further until he’s out of hearing range, cups his hand over his mouth and the microphone and turns away so Isak can’t see his face.

Even starts to say something about learning a lot this evening, but Isak sets his fork down, folds his napkin, tucks it under his plate, and follows.

It seems to take him ages to cross the restaurant in his dad’s wake, and he’s not sure if Even’s watching him or if it just feels like literally everybody is. He waits just behind his dad’s shoulder — he’s turned into the corner behind a screen where a trolley stacked with fresh plates is, as if that means no one can see or hear him — and he’s saying that he’s sure something isn’t true and if she really thinks about it, she’ll be able to see it too. He says he has to go and that he’ll call her back in an hour, that she should get ready for bed and everything will be fine in the morning.

He hangs up, startles when he turns and sees Isak standing there.

“Mum?” Isak says, even though he knows it was.

“Wanted to make sure I wasn’t interrogating Even too much.” His dad rubs a hand over his face and lets out a chuckle that sort of falls off the end of itself.

Isak’s not sure if he wants to know what really happened. Or if it really matters. In reality it’s unlikely to be anything he hasn’t seen a dozen times before, the only reason it feels new is it’s happening here, with Even watching.

His own phone starts a staccato buzzing in his pocket, message after message ricocheting off the lining of his jeans.

In the past — fuck, even a few weeks ago — Isak would’ve pretended he couldn’t feel it, eventually would open the messages just long enough to make them disappear off his screen. He slides his phone out of his pocket just as a new one appears, holds it out to his dad.

“Genesis?” he says.

His dad shifts his weight and doesn’t read it. “She’s tired.”

“Tired? She seems pretty awake to me.”

“She’ll be fine in a few days. It just — it was a lot to ask of her.” His eyes dart over Isak’s shoulder, back towards the table. “It’s been a big adjustment and really she’s doing very well, considering everything.”

Isak presses his tongue to the back of his teeth to keep from rolling his eyes. “Right.”

“A little credit where it’s due please, Isak. I was thinking,” his dad says, “I might move back in — ”

“What?”

“Temporary, it would be temporary — just until things have smoothed over — but wouldn’t you like to come home as well rather than staying with those strangers? Then everything can get back to normal.”

Isak boggles at him.

“What’s so wrong with wanting that?”

It’s like a bomb of thought goes off inside Isak. He starts a dozen different objections at once, each of them gambolling over the next to get out of his mouth. “Nothing, but—they’re not stran—I don’t want—when were things ever norm—”

“Things would’ve been fine tonight if she’d had more time, she just couldn’t face the drive — and really what they said on the news was irresponsible — ”

“What are you talking about?”

“ — I should write. Or someone should. Because until that, everything was — ”   

“Don’t say fine,” Isak says.

It comes out faster and angrier than he anticipated but his head’s whizzing like he’s on a fairground ride. He tries to work out what the problem was — time, the car, the news, him, Even, what — but his dad’s still talking, the story changing again to one where she couldn’t find the scarf she wanted and Isak knows, doesn’t he, how important it would’ve been for her to look nice?

“Can you just stop?”

“Stop what? I’m only trying to explain, I thought that’s what you wanted?”

Isak half rolls his eyes and half glares at him. “Just — you said she needed time but you were two hours late. She had more time. And if you didn’t think she could handle it why did you agree to bring her? If she was freaking out about getting in the car why didn’t you let me know? We could’ve cancelled instead of sitting here — instead of sitting here with me imagining she’d jumped off a bridge or — and a scarf? She’s fixating on scarves now? How is that fine? How is any of it — ”

“Isak, calm down.”

“ — you keep saying she’s just stressed but she’s not — at least not the way you mean — like for fuck’s sake, when will you stop pretend— ”

Isak.”

Isak breathes out short and fast.

The way his dad looks at him has so much thunder and lightning in it, it always takes him aback. “Is it any wonder mum didn’t feel up to dinner when this is what she could expect?”

Isak daren’t breathe in again. His chest feels like it’s shaking. It might actually be shaking. Fuck, his hands are. “Sorry.”

“You’re embarrassing me and Even.” His dad pushes his hair up off his eyebrows, which are raised into imperious arches. “I’m just trying to do what’s best for everyone. If you want, we can talk about it — civilly — later.”

He always says that, or some version of it.

“Why don’t you stay here for a moment and pull yourself together?” his dad says. “You can come and join us to finish your dinner when you’ve remembered how to behave.”

He walks away, leaves Isak’s entire body humming with embarrassment and anger.

A waitress with a stack of plates jostles him and Isak staggers. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry, I’m — ”

He’s always very sorry.

Later has the habit of being nothing but him apologising and getting a pat on the head for it, swiftly followed by a reassurance that everything will be fine now he can see where he was at fault and has admitted it like a grown up. And civil? As far as he can tell, being civil means ignoring things even when it doesn’t make them go away. Even when it makes them ten times worse. He rolls his eyes up towards the ceiling, tipping his head back. He thinks he might be really done with everything. 

The rumble of Even’s voice in the background asks if everything’s ok. Isak’s dad replies he got overwhelmed and just needs a minute as if he’s a toddler having a tantrum next to the cornflakes. Isak should go over to prove it’s not true, but instead, he starts down the bar, bumping off the cold, brass edge of it because he misjudges where it turns, heads towards the toilets. He means to go in, slam a stall closed, maybe splash some cliché on his face, and watch the fight drain out of himself in the mirror.

He walks out the front door of the restaurant instead.

 

 

*

 

It’s a weirdly specific kind of lost to be alone in the city at night when you’re supposed to be somewhere else. Faces turn ugly with laughter and smiles become sneering and kicking things along the gutter starts to seem like a reasonable thing to do.

His music’s turned up as loud as it will go, earbuds forced in as far as they will, but even Wu-Tang at a level that’s already making his head buzz isn’t cutting it when it comes to adequately matching what he’s feeling.

He turns onto yet another street, walking quickly, the chill night air starting to make his lungs burn and his fingers numb. The cloying warmth of the restaurant is still with him, though, like it’s filtered through his pores and under his skin, and every time he thinks of his dad saying his name his fist clenches. 

The word normal beats against the inside of his skull in time with the slap of his trainers on the pavement. Come home so everything can get back to normal. Why do people put it on such a pedestal? Why is maintaining the appearance of normality elevated above everything else? It’s not hey Isak do what makes you happy, it’s never been that, it’s always been hey Isak, look normal, act normal, be normal, and when everything starts falling apart just pretend.

He kicks out at the corner of the bus stop he’s just passed, misses, and doubles back to take another go at it, not realising until it’s clanged that a woman was sitting inside.

She shoots a dirty look at him and pulls her handbag tighter into her side.

“Sorry,” Isak says. He ducks inside and scrunches up so he doesn’t look threatening, pretends to be reading the timetable that’s lilted to one side on the display, like his irritation was with public transport all along.

Almost immediately a bus hisses to a stop and the woman gets on. Isak keeps staring at the timetable, even though the driver waits for him and he’s pretty sure only one route calls here.

Just fuck off just fuck off just fuck off.

Eventually the driver gets annoyed enough to leave, and as soon as they pull away, Isak collapses against the plastic front of the advertising display and thumps it with both fists. There’s a heart with someone’s name across it scratched on the plastic and he stares at it. Julia. Maybe it’s her which points out to his brain it’s just ingrained in him to revert to his factory settings of apology and pretending, that he’ll spend his entire life stuck in the same groove.

He really thought he was done with all this. Leaving home, meeting Even, telling his parents… it was supposed to be stepping out of one universe in favour of a new one. But what if there’s no escape? What if, whatever he does, he’ll always end up here?

It’s his own fault — he knows it is — he never explains what he means properly and he always causes so much stress for everybody. Like tonight, he couldn’t just be worried — he couldn’t just say he was worried and ask, ‘how is she, does she need anything?’ — Even even had to prompt him to get in touch. Maybe he shouldn’t have said it was ok for her to come when he didn’t really think it would be — or he should’ve texted her this afternoon to see how she was feeling about it — if he cared that’s what he’d have done, right, or he’d have double-checked with his dad she was up to it — called as soon as they didn’t arrive to say it didn’t matter. If he’d done any of that, none of this would even be happening. Why does he never do the easy, obvious thing to stop all this shit from spiralling? Isn’t he supposed to be clever? 

He closes his eyes and tells himself to stop thinking, but it all sneaks through the gaps in his mental wall anyway, questions about what kind of person he is and how he can ever expect to have any kind of relationship which isn’t just a total fucking car crash.

He tells himself he’s not the kind of person who cries in a bus stop.

He turns into a poster about cat food and tells it to that, too.

 

*

 

 

There’s a drip in the basement he can’t find the source of. It doesn’t happen when it rains or when the shower’s in use or when the washing machine is spinning, it relates to nothing. It just drip-drip-drops when it feels like it and the fact that it won’t settle into a pattern really fucks with Isak’s head. 

He curls his knees tighter into his chest and lights them up with his phone.

Where are u???

Seriously where

?

??

??????????

????????????????????????????????????

He only has 2% battery left and he stares at the display, daring his phone to just die and plunge him into darkness. Maybe when he can’t see any part of himself he won’t feel so much like he needs to disappear. 

There’s a noise at the top of the stairs and he clicks the screen off, pushes the bottom of his spine against the brickwork, bracing for the argument he rehearsed last summer for if the caretaker ever found him.

Footsteps, coming downwards, and before he can make out more than the shape of someone’s jeans, Eskild says, “So. Dinner with your folks went well, then.”

Isak rolls his eyes, sags a little with relief. “How’d you know?”

“Even. He got back a little while ago.”

Isak pulls his lip between his teeth. “Is he mad at me?” 

“Mad at you? Isak, he’s worried.”

“Did you tell him where I am?”

“No,” Eskild says. “I like him and that thing he did to his hair makes him look extra cute, but no.” He drops off the last step and sits down. He pulls his knees up, wrapping his arms around them against the cold, looks at Isak through the gloom. “This is a secret I will keep as long as you want me to.”

Isak didn’t think this was a secret, but he hasn’t told Even he lived down here and he doesn’t ever plan to, so he supposes it must be.

The drip intensifies. Isak pokes at a bit of loose brickwork and wonders if he could get some kind of blueprint for all the pipes in the area from the city council.

“I didn’t know you were trying to patch things up with your parents.” Eskild’s voice is quiet but Isak can tell he’s doing that face, the one where he’s trying to be sensitive and initiate a sensible conversation. 

“I’m not,” Isak says, shaking his head. “Not really.”

“Having dinner, though. With Even, no less. That’s — er — ”

Isak wets his lips, “You can say it. You can say it was a really fucking stupid idea.”

Eskild shifts against the step he’s sitting on. “Not stupid,” Eskild says. “But a bit… surprising? That you would give them another chance.”

“Me? Give them — ”

“Yes, you. Why? Are they trying to make out it’s them doing you a favour, letting you be in their life? Because that’s bullshit.”

“No, but — ”

Isak meets the glint of his eye across the basement. Everyone – from his friends, to greeting cards, to Christmas adverts – has been telling him family is of paramount importance, making him feel like he should be trying to fit back in. Or wanting to, at least.

“Sorry. You didn’t ask for my advice.”

It occurs to Isak all at once that Eskild has never once mentioned his family in the entire time Isak has been living here. There are no pictures, no knickknacks left by a batty grandma in a will, no funny growing up stories he always tells when he’s drunk. There are no birthday or Christmas cards with unfamiliar handwriting and money inside that makes him smile. There are no calls to the house phone for him, but hugs for Noora every time she gets one from that clipped voice that sounds put out she’s there to talk to. There’s no when I came out to my parents anecdote, just Eskild meeting him in a bar and extending him gentle but unavoidable care.

“Eskild?”

Eskild sighs. “Just — I wish someone had told me, so I’m telling you — you don’t have to have people in your life just because it’s expected that they will be there. Walking away from anyone who makes you feel worthless or scared or like you’re less than you really are, it’s never the wrong thing to do, even when you’re related to them.”

“It’s not as simple as that, though.”

“Actually it’s very simple, Isak,” Eskild says, very quietly. “If people want you to be around them, they should probably try being nice to you, rather than… trying to make you feel guilty or like you have to earn their kindness or their tolerance, or whatever it is your parents did that made you want to come and sit in the basement tonight. ”

Isak drops his gaze to the ground and swallows against the thing forming jagged and huge in his throat. A shiver runs through him, comes to rest mostly in his chin.

“It’s not their fault,” he says. He pulls his sleeves over his hands and scrunches the material up against his palms, digging his nails into it like he might be able to get right through and draw blood if he just tries hard enough.

“Ok, let’s say it’s not,” Eskild says. “But just because it’s not theirs, that doesn’t make it yours, ok?”

“But what if — ”

“Look, Isak, I know you can come up with a hundred different arguments for why you think you deserve whatever happened between you — but I think maybe you should just consider for a moment why you want to prove me wrong when all I’m saying is that the people in your life should be nice to you.” 

Isak swallows.

He doesn’t have an answer for that.

His phone lights up.

From Even:

can u just let me know ur ok?

Isak runs his fingers over the cold, flat surface of his phone, and he presses to reply but it shows him the spinning wheel of impending death.

“I know you’ll find this hard to hear,” Eskild says, “but you’re actually a pretty decent kid.”

“What?” Isak says, stuttering a laugh.

“You wash up when it’s your turn and sometimes even when it’s not. You do your homework and I’ve seen you read things I believe may be extracurricular. You threw a great party for the nerdiest theatre nerds, and with Even — ” Isak looks at him. “Well, you know. I don’t know what more anyone would want.”

“You left out the part where I threw up in a bus stop — or when I — ”

“Do your parents know about that? Do they know about any of the things you’re about to say?”

Reluctantly, Isak says, “No.”

“Then don’t argue with me,” Eskild says.

Isak could. Already they’re circling, the vulture thoughts about all the things Eskild doesn’t know which would surely change his opinion. But for the first time there are others too, like eagles or something who’ll fight for the carrion of his brain.  

Just because it’s not their fault doesn’t mean it’s yours.

It seems like a very small thing to feel like such a grand revelation. 

Isak just sits with it.

“Now,” Eskild says. “Aren’t you cold? I feel like my balls are turning into novelty ice cubes.”

Isak laughs and his teeth turn it into chattering. He clamps them shut.

Eskild gives him a moment to stare at his feet, and then he beckons to him. “Come on,” Eskild says. “I’ll sneak you in, we can even make cocoa, just like old times.”

 

 

Isak creaks a floorboard as he pushes the door open, grimaces at the noise in case Even’s asleep.

But Even’s not asleep, he’s sat against the wall with the violet of his phone lighting up his face and the lamp on. At the sound, he looks over and his eyes roll closed briefly. “Thank fuck,” he says.

Isak opens his mouth but no sound seems to be in there. He shuffles in, clutching his mug, and then he doesn’t know quite what to do.

It feels like the first time he came in here after Eskild said Noora was paid up until the end of the month so he could have the room. He stood, staring at the little yellow dresser, thinking about how quickly his life had disintegrated and reformed into something he could never have imagined, contemplating how small enormous things can shrink to, that he left home, slept in a basement, and now he’s just going to put his phone charger on that dresser and unpack his things.

He holds the mug out. “You want some?”

Even takes it cautiously, pats the bed next to him like he can see Isak’s unsure. He did that before, when they both came in here laughing and soaking wet, eyes stinging with cold and chlorine, after Isak told him to help himself to whatever clothes would fit and snuck to the bathroom to change, stood in there for ages pretending he was running the tap to get some of the chemicals out of his hair. When he gathered enough courage to do the thing he thought he wanted to do, he stood about where he is now, thinking to himself, if you kiss him in your bedroom, that’s it, everything has changed.

But everything actually changed long before that; that was just the moment it caught up with him.

Maybe that’s the way it always is.

He kneels on the bed facing Even, watching him from under his lashes as he takes a sip of cocoa.

“Interesting time with your dad,” Even says.

The worrying thing is that he sounds as if he actually means it. “Ok?”

Even pokes a blob of powder on the top of the drink. “Did you know he believes in aliens?”

“What?”

“See, er, your jacket was the problem.”

“My jacket?”

“Because he said you’re too sensible to leave without it and I agreed with him — usually you are very — er — attentive to things like wearing the right type of clothing for the conditions. So he reasoned that you were just in the bathroom, and I went to check and you weren’t, but he said there must be another one upstairs or that maybe you knew someone who worked in the kitchen and you got distracted talking to them.” His t-shirt neck stretches as he leans past Isak to set the mug on the dresser, lingering with his face closer to Isak’s and for longer than is probably strictly necessary. “But after an hour it didn’t really seem… very likely… that’s where you still were? So then he said that maybe you’d gone outside to smoke, and I said that was probably right because we met smoking — ”

“Fuck you didn’t — you didn’t tell — ”

“ — but we went outside, right round the back of the restaurant, we even looked behind the bins — and, well, smoking or not, there you weren’t. And that’s when he realised it was alien abduction.”

“Aliens? He thinks aliens — ”

Even looks at him again. “You want me to text him and tell him you’re ok? That they brought you back?”

Isak leans away in the — as it turns out — entirely false belief that if he can see more of Even it’ll be more obvious whether he’s joking or not. His eyes are that hard kind of playful they get sometimes, but he doesn’t crack and laugh.

“Because obviously the space ship fucked up your phone,” Even says. 

Isak screws his eyes shut.

Really he should’ve seen that coming slightly sooner than he did but fuck, what kind of circuitous way to call him a dick for not texting? He slumps down onto the bed and looks at Even’s thigh instead of his face, wishing it didn’t also seem like it was pissed off with him. “My battery died?”

“Like fuck it did.”

Isak scoots closer to his leg, slips his phone out of his pocket, and presses the home button. He looks up at Even to make sure he’s looking and presses it another couple of times. “It did.” He remembers the question marks in increasingly frantic amounts and catches the inside of his cheek between his teeth. “I mean I saw some of them earlier, but it did.” He gently tosses his phone over Even and onto the pile of clothes on the floor that used to be the nice shirt Even was wearing. “Are you really mad?”

“Yes, shit.”

Even fists his hair, scrunching up handfuls of it, holding it for a moment. He sighs, then he slides down the wall, rucking up the pillow. He fishes it out from underneath himself and rearranges it under his arm and head with a punch. “I’m done,” he says.

For a horrible second Isak thinks Even means with him, with them, with all of it, but Even smiles and scuffs Isak’s cheek with his thumb. “I was just worried.”

“Sorry,” Isak says.

Even strokes his hair back from his face. “Ok?” he says.

It’s a very earnest question. Maybe that’s why Isak feels compelled to dodge it. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just — I wasn’t in the mood for him.”

Even looks at him for ages, like he’s plotting every word on some kind of graph, and then he just sort of gives in. “Seriously though,” he says, “do you want me to text your dad and let him know you’re home?”

“You weren’t joking? You have his number now?”

“Only so we can share our stories about seeing lights in the sky and knowing you’re trying to make your way back to us.”

Isak smiles against the express wishes of his own brain.

Even gently pulls him in until Isak settles on his shoulder with his nose against his neck. He wraps his arms around Isak and rests his lips against his forehead. “Take me with you next time though, yeah?” he murmurs. “I can’t handle this strange planet alone, and you shouldn’t have to, either.”  

 

 

*

 

If pressed — and he has been, his entire life, by people who think being interested in your own education is the height of dorkiness — Isak would deny it, but he likes school. He likes the rhythm of it, the smell of corridors that are no one and everyone all at once, that he only has to raise his hand for things he knows the answer to.

How can anyone not realise what escapism all that can be?

The voice in his head provides the answer: maybe they don’t have things they want to escape from. He runs his finger down the middle of his textbook, where the pages splay open displaying info he already knows about cell division. That’s comforting too; he can relax when he gets ahead, knowing that if something happens he can take a day off without stressing about it. The something used to be his mother and now he supposes it’s Even, but all the same, he likes being prepared, knowing he has a buffer for disruption.

The bell goes for lunch. He walks to the cafeteria knowing Jonas will tell him about some party he’s been to, that Mahdi will laugh more than his jokes deserve, and Magnus will fill any space with nonsense about something he saw on TV. It’s the ultimate in comfort eating.

He’s halfway through a cheese sandwich and mocking Magnus for not knowing where to take Vilde on a date he hasn’t even asked her on yet when Even strolls in. He’s with his friends — who Isak still doesn’t know — and he doesn’t see them because their usual table has been relocated to make room for something to do with the revue. He looks a little perturbed, or maybe just concentrating on what the blond guy is saying, and picks up some fruit from the counter before putting it back. 

“Hey it’s Even,” Magnus says, as if Isak isn’t practically staring anyway. He jostles Isak’s elbow. “You’re not going to say hi?”

Isak rolls his eyes. “I saw him this morning.”

“Even!” Magnus is already waving — both arms like he’s signalling hidden rocks to an approaching ship — and honestly it’s a bit embarrassing how many people turn to look.

What makes it worse is all the head turning attracts the attention of Even’s friends. They look over in a manner that’s less hey look it’s your boyfriend and more what are those second year twats doing? but when he sees Isak, Even smiles, anyway.

He waves back at Magnus, finishes his conversation, and lopes over. “Hi,” he says, leaning on the table.

Magnus pulls out a seat and switches into it to make room for him to sit next to Isak. Even says thank you because he has choir boy manners and steals half of Isak’s sandwich because he’s not a saint, asks how everyone is while using his non-sandwich stealing hand to squeeze Isak’s leg under the table because he’s actually the devil in disguise. 

“So, man, did I tell you about this thing Vilde texted me?” Magnus says.

Predictably it’s deeply but possibly unintentionally pornographic, and Isak leans back in his chair while Jonas and Mahdi ask questions Isak really could stand not to hear the answers to if he ever wants to look Vilde in the face again.

“So, hey,” Even says, turning into him, lowering his voice.

“Hey.”

Even finishes the last crust of Isak’s sandwich, leans in, resting his arm on the back of Isak’s chair. “I, er, I need a favour.” His foot’s bouncing and he notices Isak noticing but doesn’t stop. “I have an appointment at the clinic later,” he says. “Meet me?”

“Er — ”

“Are you not free?”

Isak avoids his eyes. His head fills with Even’s mum, if she’s somehow brought up that Isak will take him for coffee after as a reward. Of course, there’s no guarantee he’ll even get that far. His thoughts skip to the building itself, which is one of those stout concrete things with recessed windows that look like hollowed out eyes and a gaping door that looks like a mouth stretched open by its own infinite sadness. It makes his breath go raw in his throat.

“It’s fine,” Even says, dropping his gaze. “I’ll — er — ”  

Biting his lip, Isak runs his options. He can’t say he is free but he’s scared, because firstly being scared of a building is ridiculous, and secondly, it’s Even who’s going to be holding his brain out for inspection and literally the least Isak can do is sit outside on a wall and scroll through his phone while he endures it.

“No, I can do that,” he says. “Just text me when? I’ll be there.”

“Ok,” Even says, and he smiles in such relief it makes Isak go jittery. “It’s just — I spent all morning thinking of excuses not to go.”

Isak smiles at him, aiming for reassuring, but from his other side, Magnus throws out, “You making sex plans over there?”

“Sex plans?” Jonas says. He gestures to Mahdi, spreading his hands as if to say where did you find this guy?

“You don’t plan for sex?”

“No bro,” Mahdi says. “Spontaneity is how you got to roll.”

“Unless you’re just talking,” Jonas says, “what you’d like to do to her, what she’d like to do to you — ”

“That can be sexy,” Mahdi says.

“Sets the mood.”

They both nod and Magnus goes a bit glazed, like he’s writing texts to Vilde in his head.

“You think we’d do that in the cafeteria?” Even says. He leans across Isak and steals his can of Coke, meeting his eye.

“Maybe cheese makes straight people horny,” Isak says, with a shrug. It still feels weird to say it, to exclude himself, but it’s easier when Even’s there, a laugh bubbling under the surface of his eyes. “I heard they even have sex with cheese when no one’s looking.”

“What sort of things do you think they do with it?” Even says, resting the can against his lip. “Something kinky?”

“They probably think it is but it’s not really. Like Fifty Shades of Gruyère,” Isak mutters, and Even tips back and laughs so hard he almost bails off his chair.

 

 

*

 

To say Isak drags his feet on his way to the clinic would be inaccurate. To say he takes the most efficient route possible and keeps to his usual pace would also be off the mark. Google Maps said it was an eight-minute walk and he’s stretched it to fifteen so far, but he needs to make turning this last corner take another ten at least to arrive just as Even is leaving, which is his optimum scenario.

It doesn’t take ten minutes to turn onto the street, and the building is actually closer to the corner than Isak remembered. He considers making the blob that represents him go around the building in circles, but he doesn’t need his app to tell him he’s in a part of town he’s not exactly wild about being in, and on top of everything it’s raining. He sighs.  

He ignores the gaping, sad mouth of the entrance and walks over to the map on a plinth right outside. There’s a star saying you are here and he considers it as if he doesn’t know which street is which. He places all the other buildings which have been rendered in a cartoon style where they are in actuality around him. He stays there until a couple of American tourists come over and start jabbing at the street names and arguing about which way their hotel is, slinking off before they can draw him into it, because he really is shit at directions and it’s kept him up at night before, the idea that he said left to someone when he should’ve said right and they might still be walking around lost somewhere. 

He checks his phone for the time, shoves it away again as droplets cover the screen. He inches back inside his hood but the rain’s that annoying slanting kind so it’s really not much use. He squints at the mouth of the building. There’s a little foyer. He wouldn’t even have to go in inside, he could just loiter in there with the posters and the leaflet stand. He hesitates a moment longer, then decides fuck it. The door senses him approaching and flies open faster than he’s expecting. Isak lies to himself that it’s responsible for the quickening of his heartbeat and the twist behind his bellybutton.

Like he planned, he makes for the leaflet stand, but what he couldn’t tell from outside is there aren’t any actual leaflets in its racks, just photos of what the leaflets look like stuck on the back. A sticker at the bottom says pamphlets removed due to wind and ask about me at reception

“Fuck,” he mutters.

Looking around for a reason to be in there, he shifts his weight, moving down the wall so he can pretend he actually came in to read a poster on… laughing yoga? He leans in for a closer look and the door beyond the leaflet stand Star Treks open with a dramatic shrrummmmmmm.

Isak rocks back on his heels as if he can make the door take it back. It stays open, though, making it clear he either has to come all the way in or stand there very obviously not coming in where everyone can see. After a moment’s deliberation, he tugs his hat down and goes with the former.

The reception desk where you can ask about the leaflets is fake wood and currently empty of everything except a small, plastic Christmas tree someone has forgotten to take down. There are two rows of seats on opposite sides of a long plastic coffee table, all three covered with magazines and pamphlets and bits of a colourful toy train made of blocks that someone has gleefully dismantled.

It looks just like a doctor’s waiting room and as soon as he thinks it, Isak rolls his eyes at himself because what did he think it would be like in here? He takes a seat opposite a girl all in purple who’s got the symbol for infinity tattooed on both wrists and just down from a severe looking guy with a fretful mother. He wonders what they’re here for, curious but trying not to look at anyone for too long in case he makes them uncomfortable. What does he look like to them? Anxiety or not coping with divorce or fucking insomnia?

He ducks down inside his jacket, gets his phone out and flips through Instagram. After he sees the same photo for at least the third time he realises he’s not paying attention to anything, just basically playing the role of young person obsessed with social media. He opens a game instead but he’s so distracted by trying to look like he’s not bothered about being in here, he runs out of lives almost immediately. He opens the browser and wastes three minutes flicking through all the tabs he had open and deciding which ones to close before closing them, clicks on an article he was reading about how to cope when someone you love is bipolar. He gets halfway through before he remembers why he stopped reading it before: the jovial yellow call out bubble that was nothing but a series of suicide statistics. He closes it and tries to read about a film Even mentioned wanting to see instead, but the numbers stir through all his thoughts anyway.  

When Even finally appears from a door down one of the corridors, Isak has given up his pretence of busy-ness and is just trying not to look like he’s freaking out. Even’s with a woman who has neatly bobbed hair and a fuzzy purple cardigan that doesn’t seem to go with it, and she says something to him which makes him tighten his grip on his bag, but he spots Isak and smiles as he comes over.

“Are you ready to go?” Isak says, and practically leaps to his feet.

Of course he chooses to do that at the same time as Even leans down to kiss him and almost head butts him.

They both step back, but Isak’s too close to the seat to really have anywhere to go so he tips, flails a bit, but manages to grab the back of the chair and recover it.

Even frowns, considering him, then says, “Yes, I’m done. Let’s go.”

The rain has eased off a bit at least, and Isak falls into step beside him as Even strides past the map and down the road. As soon as they’re out of the shadow of the building Isak feels better — at least technically — but he can’t help feeling he’s fallen short of the meet me favour’s bar, that he might’ve been there in body but practically running out of the door at the first opportunity wasn’t really that supportive.

They’re approaching a little cafe with Edison bulbs and succulents in the window, and in an effort to redeem himself, Isak says, “Drink?”

Even looks surprised by the suggestion, but pleased too, and Isak holds the door for him because it seems like a thing to do. They haven’t done a lot of this, being out together, and he can tell it’s the kind of place Even likes, the kind he’d choose for a date maybe, if they ever did do that. He looks around like he’s trying to purposefully save the details in his head, smiling at the chalkboard with its seasonal specials and the mostly gone homemade cakes suitable for a range of dietary requirements. It’s not busy — a few girls their age huddled in the corner looking at their phones and a guy in very expensive-looking glasses on a computer, so Isak asks Even what he wants and tells him to choose them a table.

He waits at the counter, poking at the display of after-coffee mints. He used to come here sometimes when Eva and Jonas wanted to be alone to talk. He used to tease them that if they wanted him to leave so they could fuck they should just say so, trying to eke out of their embarrassment another ten minutes of company, even if it was made of protracted goodbyes and cushion throwing. After he left, he’d sit in the corner here and pretend he was waiting for someone of his own, no one particular in his head, just this composite of characteristics. It started out as someone interesting and funny who smiled a lot, morphed one day when he wasn’t paying attention into a companion who’d notice when he was quiet and coax out of him something that would require them to be very good at listening. 

When it’s his turn, he sneak orders cake as well as Even’s hot chocolate, and he’s not sure who the doubting Thomas is that he’s talking to in his head, but he sends them a mental: look, see, I can boyfriend. He makes his way across the cafe with the tray and sets it down on a low table where Even’s procured them armchairs with a view out onto the street. He watches Even’s gaze skip over the cake and two forks, and it’s cheesy as hell maybe, but the way he lights up makes it worth it.

Shrugging off his jacket, Isak sits down opposite him, and it does feel very date-like, as if at the same time as reaching for his chai latte he should be saying something that’ll make Even think he’s a decent prospect.

Even picks up his fork to dive right in. “Carrot?” Even says.

“It’s all right?”

He scoops up another piece. “It’s good.” 

Isak nods and takes the other fork, positions it as if he’s going to fight him for the extra large blob of frosting. A couple of months ago he’d have been terrified of this. He looks out of the window, scanning faces as they rush past through the drizzle, almost wishing someone would see them to prove to himself how far he’s come.

It’s not the biggest piece of cake so between them they finish it quickly, and once there’s no eating to be getting on with, that they’re not talking seems very obvious. Isak knows he should say something, sifts topics for appropriateness, eschews some for seeming too cheerful or like he’s specifically trying to be cheerful and others because they’re too deep; he’s not sure it should be this hard.

Isak rearranges his fork on the crumb-strewn plate but it doesn’t take as much time as he was hoping it would, and neither does stirring the cinnamon into his latte. Why did he waste so much time in the waiting room not Googling should I ask about my boyfriend’s therapy? There was probably a leaflet, even, if he’d gone and asked for one. Fuck.

“So — er — you went,” Isak says, and waves in the general direction of the clinic.

“I did.” Even lifts one leg up onto the seat, hooking the fingers of one hand under his thigh. “And you waited for me.” He takes a sip from his mug before resting his cocoa on his knee. The quiet definitely stretches. “You don’t know, do you, what to say about it.”

Isak screws one eye up. “Isn’t it supposed to be confidential?”

“Confidential like I can say whatever I want and they don’t tell anyone without my permission, not confidential like if I talk about it someone bursts in from the toilets and kills me."

Isak tilts his head at him to tell him he’s not funny, that it’s not his fault small talk over coffee about therapy is new. He’s not sure where the boundaries are is all, has no idea what’s ok to ask about and what would be intruding. He doesn’t want to ask about something that’s not his business or something Even might find upsetting. It doesn’t leave much to talk about, unless he’s going to start asking about the colour of the walls. “Are they nice?” he says. “The person you speak to?”

“Not really,” Even says. “They’re… neutral. That’s the point, really.”

“Right.”

If he’s honest, Isak was hoping Even would launch into a monologue about how they’ve got awful hair but distractingly perfect teeth, how they’ve one of those laughs that grates on all your vertebrae at once, or rant about how annoyed he gets with the way they phrase a question.

Instead, Even leans back and says, “You could talk to them, if you wanted. About me.” He watches Isak carefully. “I mean my mother probably already gave you their number, right? Walked you through it, her version of how to deal with me.”

Isak shifts on his seat. There’s very little he wants to do less than go back to that building and talk to someone with a fuzzy purple cardigan about Even, at the behest of his mother or not.

When Isak doesn’t answer, Even lifts an eyebrow, scoops up some cream from the top of his cocoa. “It’s killing her, by the way, that you won’t spy on me.” He turns his spoon backwards and fits his tongue to it. The look on his face says he thinks it’s genuinely funny.

Isak rolls his eyes. “Spy on you,” he says. “That’s not what she asked me to do.”

“What would you call it?” His eyes are playful with just a glimmer of something harder as he pokes his spoon back into his drink.

“I don’t know.” Isak sighs, nudging the table with his foot. “But it’s not like she wanted to know what we’re doing or anything? She just wanted to make sure you’re ok, I guess?”

“But if I wanted her to know, I would tell her myself.”

“I know that, that’s why I said no, but — ” Isak looks at him. “It’s not easy being the person who gets the phone calls, Even.” As soon as the words are out, Isak regrets them. “I’m not saying it’s easier being the one they’re about, but — ”

Even shrugs. “It probably is.”

He pokes at what remains of the cream on his hot chocolate, narrows his eyes as he stares into it, like he can see something playing out in its folds.

Isak braces for the barrage of: how dare you think you know anything about it, why the fuck do you think you can say that when you can’t even manage dinner with your own mother?

Instead, Even goes very quiet and says, “Sonja went. Therapy.”

Isak swallows.

“I think it helped her,” Even says. “Was good for her to have someone to talk to about how much she hated me.”

“She didn’t hate you.”

“Didn’t she?” He looks up slowly to meet Isak’s eye. “She had plenty of reason to.”

Isak can’t argue with that, really, so he just winces in recognition of the part he played in it. “She was nice to me,” he says, “when you were depressed.” He skips over the word as quick as he can, hopes Even doesn’t notice. “And she doesn’t even know me, so it wasn’t for me. Maybe you’re not her favourite person anymore, but I don’t think you’re her least favourite, either.”

He leaves it as more of a statement than something he wants to discuss and sips his chai. The cinnamon makes his lips tingle.

“Maybe,” Even says. “Or maybe she and my mother both got addicted to being concerned about me, and it was harder to give up than she thought.”

“Maybe.”

They’re agreeing but Isak’s stomach clenches like they’re having an argument. Or not quite; it’s a feeling he’s experienced before when Even says something that’s all edge just to get a reaction, which he then smoothes over when he realises it’s half an inch too far. Isak’s not sure he likes it, but not sure he entirely hates it, either.

“You’d make a good therapist,” Even says, and he does smile, in that way he does when he’s trying to make amends.

Isak gestures to himself. “Me?”

“Yes.”

Even finishes his drink without elaborating, sets his mug back on the tray with his spoon inside it. “You’ll come again next week?” he says, not looking up from where he’s folding his unused napkin into a triangle. He must be able to tell Isak’s surprised at what he’s asking though because he shrugs in a way that’s not entirely convincing and adds, “It’s fine if you don’t want to. It’s just easier to make myself go when there’s someone waiting for me.”

“Ok,” Isak says. “But you can buy the cake next time.”

 

 

It’s dark when they leave the cafe, dark enough that Isak walks with his shoulder pressed right into Even’s arm and his fingers occasionally brushing his wrist. It’s a suggestion of the hand-holding he might do one day, in fact he might not object if Even tried to do it now, but he’s not even sure if Even has noticed; he’s looking away into the distance where something’s happening on the other side of the road. As they get closer, quiet commotion rolls down towards them over the commuters straining to see what others are tutting at.

Isak blanks it at first, because it makes him feel tight all over when people try to stick their noses into something which doesn’t concern them, as if their right to know what’s going on and use it for entertainment is more important than someone else’s privacy. He can’t ignore it, though, once they’re opposite, and it tugs at him, this ghost of a memory he can’t quite grasp.

The shop everyone’s looking at is that one that sells newspapers from every imaginable country, cigarettes, and cheap, tacky pornography — that’s it, he went in there once when he was eleven and when his mother found out, she —

Peering across the road, Isak catches a flash of green coat and the swing of a bag. The person they belong to barrels out of the door with enough flailing to suggest it’s not entirely voluntary. She topples a display of paperbacks, cursing them as they fall, and the woman in uniform who’s following waves her arms and shouts about the police.

“Oh shit.”

Even turns to look at him.

Isak’s heart is racing — probably running away like the rest of him wants to — and he takes a step back.

Even’s face is all questions.

Over the road, the woman is gathering her bag to herself even though it’s already tucked into her side. She wavers between a mutter and a shout and Isak doesn’t catch all of the words over the thumping of his own pulse but it’s something about the media colluding to cover up that there’s a plot to detonate all the atomic bombs at once and how the people who sell the papers aren’t any better than the person with their finger on the trigger.

A guy in a suit who fled when she started yelling hops up onto the pavement next to them. Seeing them watching, he mutters, “Should be locked up, crazy bitch.”

Even glowers at him.

It should be him saying something to the guy, but Isak scratches the back of his neck and frowns at the pavement. “Fuck.”

Deep inside his head is a voice saying she’ll be fine, don’t get involved. What it’s saying is true — she’s done this or a variant of it before — has been doing this daily for months for all he knows. But he’s not usually there to see this part, would only usually get the tail end, when she’d come home re-jigging it as the woman in the shop throwing her out for telling the truth . Normally he’d have to piece this bit together from the way she’d take her anger out on the cupboard doors or her own boots as she hurled them at the wall, screaming about unfairness and judgement day. He’d usually be shrinking into a corner trying to look sympathetic or huddled in his room pretending he wasn’t home yet, not standing there watching with his boyfriend, who he recently followed into the city carrying an armful of his clothes and whom he just picked up from therapy.

He slides his phone out of his pocket and scrolls to Lea’s number, eyes flickering between the screen and the way the green coat is flapping as the woman lurches down the road, bouncing between clusters of people who alternately dodge out of her way and turn around for a better look. His sister’s laughing voicemail message grates on him like it always does and he hangs up without leaving anything and calls his dad. He glances at the sky, murmuring, “come on come on,” just as his dad answers.

“Hello Isak, this is — ”

“It’s mum.” At the word, Even’s head snaps back, but Isak can’t look at him. “She’s — er — I don’t know but — where are you?”

“At work.”

“Can you come, can you — ”

“Isak you know I would but — I have a very important report to finish, is it really necessary? Is it not something you can take care of?”

Isak runs his tongue over the back of his teeth. “I — er — ”

“I can come if it’s too much for you to handle,” he says, and then his voice drops, “but with your rent on top of everything I can’t afford to just drop something important when there’s a deadline and everyone else is — ”

“Fine, all right,” Isak says, throat closing around the words, around what they really mean. “I’ll make sure she gets home, but that’s all, ok?”

He decides not to leave any room for argument and hangs up. He presses his phone to his forehead, trying to see a way through it all, but before he has chance, Even’s dipping down to make looking at him unavoidable. “Isak?”

Isak pulls the threads of various scattered thoughts together — or not even thoughts, they’re half drawn pictures — the bang of a cupboard door, the feel of the corner of the table against his hip, suggesting a cup of tea and having her go off in his face. There’s other stuff too, like what if she gets arrested? and the trouble he could get in for standing by and not helping, the image of a hospital gown falling off her fragile frame and the words sorry you’re too late.

“Er — I just need to — do something,” he says. He starts walking across the road. His mother’s stopped to stare in the window of what memory tells him is a Vinmonopolet. She has an on/off relationship with booze — sometimes very enthusiastically on, other times, often right after a period of great enthusiasm, very vehemently and violently opposed. He looks back over his shoulder, missing Even’s face on purpose. “Go home if you like — I’ll see you later.”

She’s still in front of the window when Isak catches up with her, and he slows to almost a stop, hoping she’ll see him reflected in the glass and not be scared. He hovers there, not knowing quite what word to use. He has a lot of experience half-heartedly trying to attract someone’s attention when he doesn’t really want them to notice him, but apparently not enough of actually following through.

Reflected in the glass, Even halts just behind him. He looks at Isak and waits.

She hasn’t noticed them but she’s mouthing something to herself, nods sharply, and starts for the crossing.

“Wait — wait up — mum?”

She gathers her bag to her and turns, and for just a second Isak’s terrified she won’t recognise him. Her eyes catch his though and it’s not a smile, more like he’s disappointed her by throwing her a surprise party. “What are you doing here?” she says. Her eyes look an empty kind of scared in the dark and she hasn’t brushed her hair in at least a week. “Did he send you?”

“No, no one sent me. I was — we were — me and Even — this is Even,” he says, glancing up at him, “the — er — the guy I told you about? We were on a date and I saw you and — he wanted to meet you — he’s wanted to meet you for ages, so — ”

“A date?”

“At that cafe,” Isak says, pointing over his shoulder, even though they’re streets away and it’s not at all obvious where he means.

“Hi,” Even says, holding out his hand. “Have you tried the carrot cake there?”

She considers him, and his hand, with a hint of suspicion, shaking her head.

Even retracts his handshake, but undeterred, he smiles. “It’s true, I wanted to meet — I was sad when you couldn’t make dinner.”

“Dinner?” she says.

“With — er — dad,” Isak says. He shivers, even though it’s not even that cold. “We could come with you now, though? If you’re going home, I mean? Only if you’re — if you don’t mind?”

“Everything is a mess,” she says.

It doesn’t feel like she means the house.

Even looks up at the light on the crossing, where it’s changing. “Shall we?” he says.

As if it’s been agreed, they cross the road, walk together down the short street that leads to the tram stop. People are milling there — including those Isak would’ve recognised at one time from staring out of his window and imagining swapping lives — and they turn down the hill towards the house. The trees have become wizened fingers and the curtains in all the windows are closed up like a shroud.

She digs her keys out of her pocket, muttering about tea and if they want some she can probably make it but they shouldn’t have too much because did they see the thing on the news about mercury in all the water? It’s not natural, something must’ve caused it, something that god’s not happy with. It’s not much of anything but Isak tries not to listen, because if he listens he’ll reply, and if he replies he’ll say something sarcastic, and if he’s sarcastic she’ll ask what he means, and he’ll say something factual but antagonistic which he’ll later regret. He focuses on the peeling paint on the doorframe that his dad promised he’d see to months ago.

Once they’re inside, Even rearranges his bag on his shoulder and smiles at the pictures of Isak behind the door. “Cute,” he says.

Isak kneels down to deal with the avalanche of post. His heart is panicking but there’s no time to think about it, how little he ever pictured himself here again. There are letters marked important with multiple boot prints on and at least seven catalogues for scarves and towels and discount blenders. He gathers them together and takes them into the kitchen, biting half of his lip because even in the gloom he can tell there’s nowhere to put them. The table is buried under newspapers, some of which have circles of red daubed across them, and the sink is hidden by an explosion of saucepans on top of which plates and bowls and mugs are balanced like a circus act. Everything smells like margarine. He whacks the light switch with his elbow and goes to put the post on top of the newspapers.

“Don’t,” his mother says, glaring up at him from her handbag. “Those are in order.”

Resisting the impulse to roll his eyes, Isak moves to stack them on top of the fridge. “If I put them here, will you open them?”

She ignores him in favour of tucking her handbag on the highest shelf of the tallest cupboard and carefully shutting that door, before opening the others one by one, like she’s in someone else’s house and doesn’t know where anything is.

It’s like Isak never left. “Or shall I just throw the junk away?”

“It’s not junk, Aunt Anette sends them.” His mother turns to Even and stage whispers, “She likes me to know what she’s doing, I was the one who spotted she’s so photogenic.”

“Your aunt’s a model?” Even says.

Keeping it small in the hope she won’t see, Isak shakes his head. He reaches for the kettle, filling it from the tap and almost displacing a frying pan that’s got blue furry mould clinging to it.

“Make sure you boil it properly,” his mother says, “because you need to get rid of the mercury.”

Isak looks at the ceiling. “You can’t — ” It’s probably not worth it. He puts the kettle on and starts picking apart the stack of plates wedged into pans on the sink. “ — boiling wouldn’t work — a kettle’s not — mercury doesn’t — you’d need a coagulant — or at the very least — ”

“Says who?”

“Science. Scientists.”

“What do they know? They’re probably the ones who put it in there in the first place to poison us all. They want us to think it’s not easy to keep ourselves safe so they can sell us a cure.”

Isak sighs and starts washing the mugs, biting through the words biomagnification in tuna and that’s what you should worry about and into his tongue.

 

 

They have tea that tastes a little soapy and a conversation that passes for normal, if Isak ignores the way his mother keeps talking about mercury and picking at the ends of her hair and looking to the door of the tallest cupboard rather than at either of them. He puts away the things he washed and throws everything in the fridge that’s rotted into the bin while Even does an admirable job at nodding at what she’s saying and smiling in what he thinks are the right places, even though twice she takes it for him agreeing with something she really doesn’t think anyone should agree with and tells him off. Isak rescues him by sitting back down and asking how she liked the Christmas concert, making vague noises about coming to an Easter service if she really wants him to, pretending to care about something that happened with the choir. 

When his sister comes home, she halts in the doorway and stares at Isak like he might’ve broken in. Quickly it transpires no one’s bothered to tell her about Even because when Isak says the word boyfriend she eyes them both like she’s expecting the table to catch fire just because their knees are touching beneath it.

“Knew you were bent,” she says, and a moment later she’s upstairs, filling the air with some kind of Christian rock music that would be quaint were it not for the slurs which permeate the verse. And the chorus. And the bit that sits between the chorus and the verse.

It’s the most uncomfortable Isak has ever seen Even look.

Isak makes excuses about homework and hugs his mother goodbye, thanking her for the tea and letting him and Even come by. It flits through his head that he should pick up some of the stuff he left behind while he’s here; he leaves it, though, not sure if it’s a promise he’s not done or if he just wants to get out.

While they walk, he texts his dad to say Lea’s there so they’re… not anymore, adds that his mother is fine. He’s not sure what scale he’s grading by.

On the tram, they stand with their hands together on the pole but look out of different windows. Isak can tell Even’s watching him in the reflection but can’t face thinking about what he’s thinking about.

When they get home, there’s a note on the fridge from Eskild to say they’ve taken Linn out for pizza and to ring if they want to join them. Even touches it and lifts his eyebrow in question, but Isak shakes his head and gestures to the bathroom.

While he’s washing his hands, he stares at himself in the mirror. It feels like he’s been gone for a year.

He thinks about what Eskild said about it not being wrong to walk away from anyone who makes you feel worthless or scared or diminished; he needs to ask him what the next move is when you do, but they won’t let you go, or when you try, but there’s someone else in your life who might see it as a glimpse of what you might do to them in the future.

He dries his hands and tries to leave the thought in the bathroom.

He expects to find Even waiting for him on the sofa so they can make the most of having the lounge to themselves, maybe watch a film on the proper television for once. He’s not there, though, he’s in Isak’s bedroom, on the bed, sprawled out and staring at the ceiling. He hasn’t even bothered to turn the lamp on.

Isak drops next to him on his knees. “She has that effect,” he says, then flops down when Even doesn’t answer.

Somehow he still feels like he needs to be more down — or lower — but there’s nowhere to go but the floor, which he knows from his days sleeping on Eskild’s smells funny and makes no account for the fact that people have knees and elbows.

He wriggles across and nudges his head under Even’s arm. The extra darkness there is better. He breathes at Even’s side, where his hoodie is rucked up into waves and pools of dark dark dark, white fabric of his t-shirt underneath it like the swirl of another galaxy. It’s better but still not enough, so he inches in, lifting the hem of Even’s t-shirt.

“Hey, wh—?” Even squirms in surprise, his hand going for the waistband of his jeans.

Isak burrows under his t-shirt to rest his head on his stomach, not kissing or anything, just using it as a pillow, and apparently realising Isak’s not trying to instigate sex, Even settles back down.

After a moment, his hand skims Isak’s head under the thin material of his shirt. “Ok?” he says.

Isak presses his ear to Even’s stomach and listens to him gurgle. He focuses on the warmth of his skin and the smell of fabric softener and the last faint strain of his deodorant.

It’s a really complicated question, some days.

He breathes at Even’s bellybutton. He knows he’s being ridiculous, that today could have been a million times worse, that nothing really happened that should be making him feel as if all the colour has drained out of him.

He curls in a little tighter, wrapping his arm around Even’s leg. The soft warmth of it helps a little, and he closes his eyes and tries to hear Even’s heartbeat, to separate it from the one he can hear in his own ear. He thinks about a theory he read once — an unnecessarily romanticised one, he thought at the time — that said that since energy can neither be created nor destroyed we’re all breathing in stars and Shakespeare, taking particles of them inside us for a time. He couldn’t believe it about himself; he could believe it about Even, maybe.  

“You don’t need to worry about your mother,” Even says. “Everyone has bad days.”

“Are you kidding?” Isak says. He twists onto his front, digging his chin into Even’s stomach and peering up at him through the tunnel he’s created in his shirt. At the other end, Even peers down at him, mostly chin and confusion. “That wasn’t a bad day — that was good, very good. That was excellent compared to — ”

Even scans his face, fingers tightening on the back of Isak’s head where it’s stretching his t-shirt out of shape.

Isak swallows. “Or — it was fine. She was fine. I’m fine.”

Even lifts an eyebrow.

Isak puts his head back down and traces the jut of Even’s hipbone with his eyes until he feels like Even’s got bored of looking at him. Not that he can see much of him anyway, probably, just the top of his hair and then whatever he can make out that’s happening below his shoulders.

They stay like that until Isak’s phone goes. With immense reluctance, he draws it out of his pocket and shuffles out of the warm pocket he’s been creating under Even’s shirt, hoping it’s one of those spam messages he gets from time to time telling him he can have a prize in exchange for his bank details.

Dad:

Hi Isak. Thanks for bringing mum home. She says you brought Even too?

Isak rubs at his head, waiting for a typing bubble but none appears, so it’s a genuine question. He replies:

Yes? He was with me when I saw her.

Dad:

Ok it’s nice that she got to meet him but I hope it wasn’t too much for her. 

Isak pins his phone to his forehead and growls into the duvet as he buries his face in it.

“Who?” Even says. He turns onto his side and shifts down the bed, so when Isak emerges from the cave of duvet and his own arm he’s right there, all big eyed and impossible to ignore.

“My dad. He’s annoyed with me for stressing mum out.” Even looks at him like what he’s just said is impossibly confusing and Isak rolls his eyes. “Because I took you with me. I don’t know, actually, what his problem is.”

Even presses his lips together. “Do you think she was stressed?”

“Not about that. Not about you, I don’t think.” He wets his lip, second guessing it. Maybe he missed something — he’s not exactly as attuned to the minute shifts in her mood as he used to be — but she cared much less about the boyfriend thing than he thought she might. “I mean I don’t think she’s going to be putting rainbow flags up, but… what did you think?”

“That she liked me,” Even says, glancing at the ceiling, “a little bit?” Even’s eyeballs roll back over to see if he agrees. “Your dad knows I get it, right? That I’m the last person who would do anything to upset her?”

Isak bites his lip.

“You didn’t tell him about me? About me being bipolar?”

“I — wasn’t sure if you’d want — anyway, it’s not any of his business.”

“You didn’t want to talk to him about it?”

“No,” Isak says. “Why would I?”

Even goes through several expressions, each one saying that he thought it would be obvious and now he’s not sure quite how to explain it. “Because he has — he also — has been with..?”

Isak twigs what he means before he gets there. And yeah, he can see that if Even were in Isak’s position, being in a relationship with someone with a mental illness and having a dad who’d been through the same, he’d talk to him, but Even’s dad is a professor with giant hands who starts conversations about Star Wars . He’s probably a good deal easier and more useful to talk to than Isak’s is, and as far as Isak knows, has zero history of directly fucking Even over. “Even,” Isak says, “he’s literally the last person I’d want to talk to about you.”

“Why?”

“Because he left.” Isak balls his fist against the sheet. “He left when things got bad and made them even worse and now he —  ”

He stops. His breath’s too hot and fast and he hates it, hates that just thinking about this makes him such a mess.

“He what?”

“You met him,” Isak says, takes an exasperated swipe across the stripes of his duvet. “How he was in the restaurant, that’s how he always is. He pretends that nothing’s wrong and it — and it’s — it’s just bullshit.” The word makes his throat go hot and damp, like an oncoming tropical storm is brewing there. “He doesn’t know how to do anything except make things worse and leave other people to fix things.”

“You think your mum needs fixing?”

Isak pulls at a loose thread on the duvet, puckering up the fabric.

“You think I need fixing?”

“I didn’t mean — her,” Isak says. “I meant things, like if that shop had called the police, someone would’ve had to fix it.”

“Ok.”

“It’s different, anyway, with you,” Isak says.

“How so?”

Every cell in Isak’s body wants to retreat from the question, from the conversation, maybe from the room.

“Isak, how so?”

Fuck. The hardness in his tone makes Isak’s heart race. He glances up as quickly as he can manage. He tries to see some thing he could say to fob Even off, but his mind goes blank. Blank of everything but the truth.

So not blank, then.

“In the hotel,” Isak says, “I was scared. But I was scared you’d be hurt, I was scared for you, I wasn’t — ” That’s as far as he can go for the moment and he wants to bury himself in something but he also can’t move.

“She’s scary?” Even says, and it should sound like he’s making fun of Isak but his tone’s serious.

Isak nods. “Or — not her, just — ” He tries not to think too long about any of the things flashing through his head, but that just makes all of them flash through again, bigger and brighter and more unavoidable. “ — sometimes it was. And then — ”

He tries to think of a way to say that being scared sometimes bled into everything, that it was the unpredictability of it, of not knowing quite what would make her flip no matter how many times his dad explained afterward what he did wrong. He wants to say that he could never relax, that he didn’t sleep, that one of the reasons he didn’t mind being in the basement all night was at least he was free from that, and from wishing he could just do better at everything, but it sounds really pathetic and small in his head. He knows to Even it’ll sound practically minuscule.

“It was fine. Sometimes. For a few days, or a week or two.”

Even inches in.

Isak risks a look at him. He doesn’t think he’s angry anymore but he’s not sure what he did to dismantle it, so it must still be there under the surface somewhere.

“I can be scary too,” Even says. “When people don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, they get scared.”

“Then maybe if you have a child,” Isak says, and he gets a swell of emotion rising in his throat, has to chew on his lip to distract himself from it, “you shouldn’t leave them alone to deal with it without explaining.” He swallows. “You don’t have to talk about it, but you should at least give them a name for it so they can look it up themselves.”

Even looks at him for ages — and Isak really expects him to get angry this time — but he says, “Good advice.”

“Sorry. I don’t think you’d be like that.” Isak lets his eyes flutter down, fatigue with talking and thinking about it all setting in. “I don’t think that’s what you did. Sorry if I made you mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you, of course I’m not.” Isak must look unconvinced because Even’s face crumples, all earnest with genuine concern. “Isak, I’m not. If I was, I would say so, so we could talk about it.” Even’s arm flops to the side and he tilts his head at it in invitation.

Isak crawls in and rests his head on Even’s shoulder. He wants to believe it; doesn’t quite until Even curls his fingers up into Isak’s hair, rests his lips against his forehead and breathes him in. Sometimes when they’re like this he feels as if he’s precious to Even, though he can’t understand at all why he would be.

“Was it always like that?” Even says. “At home?”

Isak moves his head in a nod. He likes the way his hair sounds, moving across Even’s body.

“It must’ve been very… difficult.”

“I didn’t know any different.”

“When did you realise?” Even says. “That things were… not the same for you as other people?”

Isak closes his eyes, hoping he’ll fall asleep so he doesn’t have to talk about it. He doesn’t, and Even doesn’t let him off the hook, so he finds a fold in Even’s hoodie to stare at. “I don’t remember. Was probably something to do with her bag.”

“Her bag?”

“She has a bag,” Isak says, and he pictures its raggedy canvas and the worn out fake leather of its handles, the way it’s started to decompose from being clutched and sweated on. “She takes it everywhere with her and no one’s allowed to touch it. And if she thinks you have — or that someone’s broken in and been through it, she has to empty it all and check nothing has been taken or changed. It’s big — er — about this big — ” He holds his hand out away from them so Even understands, even though he saw her with it. “ — and it’s full of all these papers that she thinks prove this — conspiracy? So going through it takes a long time and — a few times — she didn’t come to pick me up from school because she was busy with it.” 

Even sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, tilting his head down to look at Isak, like to follow he needs to see what his eyebrows are doing.

“She’s always adding to it. Things she hears — or reads.” He switches his lip to the side, goes to roll his eyes but he gets halfway through it and doesn’t have the energy anymore. “People — she connects people to it. So… she might say she thinks you’re after it and that’s why you’re interested in me or… stuff like that? I don’t know when I realised, but it was things like that.”

“So I would be… a spy?”

“She thought Jonas was, once.”

Jonas?

“He’s not, if you’re wondering. I checked.” He glances up and Even smiles. He radiates warm understanding and Isak’s really not used to it, feeling safe, but he nestles into it in case it goes away again. “When I was little, she seemed to know so much about things.”

He toys with a fold on Even’s t-shirt, pulling it just to watch it move against his chest. “She’d tell me these things and I didn’t know they weren’t true — I thought she worked for the government or something — and dad would say she got stressed and it made sense that she would be, if she had all these secrets to keep that people were constantly trying to steal?” He swallows, throat going rough on the memory. “It was stupid things. Like one day, I told the entire class that moths were butterflies that had been part of an experiment in camouflage, that it was a military secret they were the same thing, that they were trying to work on a way to make soldiers blend into trees. The teacher thought I was joking and I got really angry — and I went to the library thinking I’d find something to prove I was right.” Isak swipes at his nose. “But I didn’t, obviously, because it’s not true. Butterflies and moths are just… different things.” He glances at Even and he’s smiling, but a bit sadly, and Isak’s glad he doesn’t have to tell him it’s not really funny, even if it sounds it. “It didn’t matter — I learnt about differences in resting postures — and afterwards I knew what crepuscular meant — so the teacher let me join the science club, even though I wasn’t old enough.” 

Even rubs at his arm. “Doctors?

Isak shakes his head. “Or — ”  He drags in a breath, trying to think enough about it to remember but not so much he won’t be able to stop. “ — a few years ago she — did — or — not so much — it wasn’t really her choice — ” He ducks down into Even’s chest. “I was too young to understand it. I just remember I stayed with a neighbour, then dad took me to visit and I — ” He grimaces, irritated at himself in the memory. “ — I — freaked out in the car park — ” His throat’s closing up again and he clears it. “ — but we went in anyway and… like I said I don’t remember.”

Even digs his fingers into Isak’s shoulder, like he’s trying to help him keep the lie down.

Isak screws his mouth up to try and stop the feeling in his lungs, like they’re caving in. He’s doing the thing he didn’t want to do, actually welling up with angry tears for a small scared kid being dragged down a hallway. “Sorry,” he says, and wipes his nose on the back of his hand. 

The front door lock clicks undone and the others fall in, all of them half-telling a story at the same time.

Even Linn is laughing.

Isak just sort of breaks. He stuffs Even’s t-shirt into his face to muffle the noise of something perilously close to a sob. 

The arm that already was around him tightens and the other one comes up to join it, so all Isak can do is cling on where he’s crushed against Even’s chest. He normally retreats to somewhere he can be alone to cry, but he cried on Jonas once in similar — yet vastly different — circumstances.

He waits for Even to do what Jonas did, to tell him it’s ok, that surely his dad will do something, that everything will be all right, for the way it’ll make him to want to burst with arguments about how demonstrably, obviously it won’t be. He wants that, to be angry instead of feeling like he’s fracturing in two, to trade barbs and storm off, to kick a wall until he’s exhausted, for one kind of pain to take the place of another, one that’ll flare and then be done with.

But Even just kisses his head and rocks him back and forth.

And Isak resists it as long as he can but there is no resisting it anymore. In cracking himself open to let Even in, he allowed all this to see daylight and now it’s escaping, and all he can do is cling to Even’s t-shirt and hope there’s something left when it’s done pouring out of him.

 

 

*

 

Isak crawls above the parapet of consciousness. He’s not sure how you’re supposed to do it, how you’re supposed to face someone who’s seen you doubled over with old memories, how you apologise for being inconsolable and turning their t-shirt see-through with tears you should’ve sniffed back years ago. But he has school, and his life is littered with nights he cried himself to sleep against the back of his bedroom door, when he still got to maths on time and no one knew.

He lifts one eyelid, expecting to have to stare into the reflection of his own embarrassment in Even’s eyes.

There’s only pillow, though.

He sits up to rub at his sore head, catches sight of a note that was probably intended to be propped up on Even’s pillow but has drifted off and is lying on its side. Isak unfolds it, picturing Even on the tram, halfway home on a mission to salvage the relationship with his parents Isak ruined for him, not the same way he did with his own but no less comprehensively.

It’s a drawing of the vacated pillow and a string of music notes leading from it to the bedroom door and down the hall. It says:

I’m in the kitchen making you pancakes <3

He flips it over but there’s no alternate universe, so he turns his head to listen, then shuffles to the foot of his bed to pull on a hoodie. It’s the grey one Even’s been wearing and it smells like him – or not him, because he’s been using Isak’s things – like both of them. He folds the sleeves over his hands and edges into the hall.

Even lopes around the corner with a plate, humming to himself. “Oh, you’re up,” Even says. He looks a little bit too chipper for what time they finally went to sleep and he shoves the plate at Isak, leaning in with it to kiss him. “You want to eat these in bed?”

“What?” Isak takes a step back. In the face of Even’s encouraging smile, he takes another one, essentially retreating into his room, feeling like he imagines sheep do when they’re being herded, like he can bleat a protest if he wants but he’s still going to end up in the pen. “I have school — and — I’m not going to be responsible for you fucking up your ten percent.”

“We’ve got ages.” Even presses a fork into his hand. “Yours is the one with extra chocolate.”

Seeing no alternative way out, Isak leans against the wall and hews off a strip of pancake with the edge of his fork.

Even seems to accept the wall leaning as a compromise and hacks at the pancake on the other side of the plate. He’s smiling, small and cautious, and his eyes are all over Isak’s face like he’s counting his pores and his eyelashes.

Isak knows he should think this is wonderful, that he’s lucked out and landed the man of everyone’s dreams.

But there was no man in his dreams. There was just a faceless, sad cafe fantasy.

“You didn’t have to do this,” Isak says. He slides the bit of pancake he severed around the plate. He can’t really face eating it, convinced it’ll turn to flour and egg in his throat and make him choke, but he manages to spear it well enough to lift. He gets it mostly into his mouth.

Even thumbs at his chin.

Isak has a suspicion it’s stray chocolate related and he’s sure this is all about a million percent less romantic than it was in Even’s head. He sets his fork down on the plate, swallowing with difficulty.

“Aren’t they nice?”

“No, they’re fine — just — you — last night, I know I was — ”

He can’t think of a word.

A wreck. A mess. A disaster. A drain. A blithering annoyance who should get a fucking grip.

Ok he can think of plenty of words, just none he wants to say out loud. He shakes his head. “I was — tired,” Isak says. “That’s all.”

Even tilts his head, like Isak is a puzzle he thought he had figured out but he just realised he started it in the wrong place and now the last bit won’t fit.

Isak sighs. “You’ve got — stuff.”

Even touches his own face.

“Not — stuff. Serious stuff of your own to — deal with. Live with. My shit is ridiculous and — I don’t expect you to care about it. And I don’t really need pancakes, not when you could’ve been sleeping. I read how – ”

“Hey.” Even takes the plate and sets it on the little yellow dresser. He sucks a smear of chocolate off his thumb and Isak wishes they were having an entirely different conversation so he could focus on it and think about it the way he wants to. But Even’s considering what he’s about to say carefully, takes Isak’s neck in his hands to tilt his face up. “I — appreciate you trying to protect me, but you don’t have to. I don’t want you to.”

“That’s not what I’m trying to do.”

He’s pretty sure it’s not, anyway, because he’s not that selfless. 

“You didn’t stop being important when you found out I’m bipolar, Isak.”

Isak swallows.

Even rests his forehead against Isak’s and looks at him, slightly cross-eyed, before he kisses him.

Isak tries to not get distracted by the softness of his bottom lip so he can cling to the retort about how of course he’s less important: he’s not the one who could end up a statistic in the call-out bubble of a waiting room magazine. His tongue helps itself to the chocolate on Even’s, though, and when Even tilts his head, it makes everything slide to the back of his skull.

When they break apart, Even’s smiling. “I can also do waffles,” he says, “if you just don’t like pancakes.”

Isak rolls his eyes and shoves him off, tells him they’re going to be late.

 

School seems to happen all at once. He’s pretty sure he’s in the yard with Even and his friends and then it’s lunchtime, and he has new notes in his pad but he doesn’t really remember taking them or know what any of them mean, and then the bell’s ringing and everyone is jostling him in the hall to get home.

There, he finishes an essay on non-Newtonian fluid. It’s late by the time he gets the last sentence to behave the way he wants it to, and Even’s asleep. Isak’s bones hurt with how tired he is, but still, he genuinely considers deleting the entire file just so he can start again, because he knows what’ll happen when he lies down.

He can’t sleep. Every time he closes his eyes there are spectres on the ceiling and he has to wake all the way back up again to check there’s nothing there.

He doesn’t want to wake Even with his tossing and his turning, so he gets up to lie on the sofa and stare at the wall in there instead. He thinks about Even and his brain fizzes. If it’s anything like this, he deserves a medal for not spending all day every day screaming fuck off to the contents of his own mind.

He crawls back just after six, closes his eyes so when Even wakes up he won’t know Isak hasn’t slept.

 

 

*

 

A week passes, then another one, that way they do sometimes when nothing is happening except the shifting of memories into each other inside your head. He’s a jumble of vagueness and disconnection, and every time he says he’s fine, he knows Even can tell something’s wrong, if not what it is.

Isak doesn’t really know either, only that it’s familiar, something he thought he’d left in his old bedroom on one of the shelves he couldn’t reach. But maybe it was never going to be as easy to walk away from as a text book he pinched from the library in middle school. He was stupid to ever think it would be.

The tram rattles beneath them.

Even looks out of the window as they draw towards their stop. “Maybe I’ll just – er – ” He avoids Isak’s eyes but doesn’t move with everyone else preparing to get off. “ – my parents – I should see them – is that all right? You’ll be all right?”

Isak means to say yeah sure I’ll see you tomorrow, but he’s panicking that this, this is how everything starts disintegrating, so it comes out as: “Whatever. I don’t care.”

“Isak, I – ”

“I said I don’t care. Do what you want.”

Isak turns for the door and stares at the sign above while he waits for it to ping open. He steps off. A bit of him expects Even to follow him, to catch his sleeve and say something dramatic about love and eternity.

That he’s not at his elbow or at the corner or somehow in Isak’s bedroom having manifested there and rendered the conversation on the tram a dream makes Isak feel like he jumped off a cliff, not knowing it would result in falling.

Isak kicks his shoes off and into the wall.

“Where’s Even?” Eskild says.

“He doesn’t fucking live here, he can go wherever he wants.”

Eskild retreats with both palms up and ignores him for the rest of the evening, whispering advice to Noora and Linn to do the same.

It’s a different kind of not sleeping Isak does that night.

There aren’t spectres on the ceiling, or if there are, they’re all calling him an idiot for letting the past fuck with his now, for not seeing it coming and stepping out of its way with time to spare.

 

 

*

 

 

Isak hates waiting rooms. He hates the torn, discarded faces of celebrities in the magazines that litter the tables, the idea that anyone can be distracted from impending bad news by scandal and hypocrisy. He hates the leaflets, with their cheerful colours and simplified outlook on how to solve a problem. He hates the way the receptionists discuss whoever was in that morning, as if they’ll be thumbing through his file for gossip as soon as he’s left. Most of all he hates the way he feels in waiting rooms, like he’s robbing someone else who’d be less of a dick about it all of their place in the queue. 

Having eschewed 80% of his normal procrastination process for this sort of thing, he’s really not at all ready when the doctor leans out of her room and says, “Isak Valtersen?”

Isak gets up, trying to wipe the irritation off his face, and follows her in. He closes the door behind himself and takes the seat opposite where she’s sitting, white coat bunched up around her like it’s both too big and too small.

“What can I do for you?” she says.

Her hair is in a bun on one side of her head and the lack of symmetry makes him feel a bit queasy. Or maybe it’s the giant plastic dick next to her elbow on the desk. Or the fact he hasn’t really slept since… whenever it was. Or it could be the smell of antiseptic and vomit.

Actually, it could be a lot of things.

“You — er — remember — or you probably don’t,” Isak says, “I came before to ask about sleeping pills?”

She stares at him, lifts her eyebrows as if that’s not nearly enough information to go on.

He shifts on the chair. It probably isn’t. “And you wanted to refer me to the clinic to sort out the thoughts in my head? Do you remember?”

“No but it sounds like something a doctor would say, doesn’t it?” she says.

Isak frowns and looks at the floor, then wishes he hadn’t because there’s some kind of stain on it. “I didn’t want to go,” he says, “and you said I should just talk to someone?”

“How did that work out for you?”

“Er — fine.” Isak swallows. “But I wondered — if there was something I wanted to talk about — something else – something I didn’t want to say to a friend?”

“You want me to refer you?”

“Can I not just talk to you?”

“I’m not really qualified for that, Isak.”

“I don’t need someone who’s qualified,” he says. He scoffs on the last word and sounds more judgemental than he meant it, but he only managed to persuade himself to come by telling himself that the conversation would be contained within a situation he already knew he could handle. He thought he’d just say he can’t sleep because he keeps going over things from the past to the poster of reproductive organs on the wall, give her just enough so she’d prescribe something to knock him out for a few nights so his head could reset itself. “I mean — I don’t know. Maybe I do.”

The doctor takes a deep breath. “You remember the islands?”

You remember the islands?”

She glances at her computer. “I made a note of it so as to never bring up that metaphor again.”

“But you just — asked about them?”

“Yes, because you already heard it,” she says. “Some people are islands and they like being islands. They’re happy on their own.” She makes a fist and bobs it, like it’s floating, untethered. “And others, they benefit from being near the mainland, so they can enjoy being independent at the same time as benefiting from things like centralised facilities.” She flattens her other hand and holds it out near to the bobbing one but not quite touching it. “And to benefit maybe they have to put up with things like fishing quotas but when they look at the overall picture, it’s worth it.”

He thinks the hand is supposed to maybe represent a landmass of some kind. Or maybe a seagull? Maybe it would make more sense if he’d slept.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” she says.

“Not… really?”

She sighs and turns back to her computer, typing erratically, her tongue caught between her teeth as she backspaces through her note about metaphors. “Do you want me to make you an appointment?” she says.

Isak barely hesitates. “Yes.”

 

 

*

 

 

Isak sits on the railings and stares at his phone while he waits for his tram.

There are three new things in there: an appointment in his diary, a missive from his mother – a sample of Deuteronomy about the soul-related perils of cross-dressing – and a message from Even. He’s not sure which one is really responsible for the swirling in his stomach or if it’s all of them combining like they were always part of the same thing. He opens the one from Even to look at it again:

Up late, laughing about hard times we faced

The galaxy is so enchanting, beyond Galileo’s understanding

Past the Milky Way and all the planets

There’s something out there greater, but only God knows

He skims it, rubbing at his neck. His shoulders feel different than when he got it last night. Less scrunched, like now there’s space between them and his ears. It takes him a moment to realise it’s relief. He texts him back:

Do you want to come over?

He should probably say something else but he can’t think of anything, so he adds a heart and the bamboo emoji, wincing about how obvious it’ll be it’s supposed to be an olive branch.

He doesn’t get a reply, but Even’s waiting on his doorstep when Isak gets home.

“Hi,” he says.

Isak wants to say I hope I didn’t make you sad but he knows that he did, so he just unlocks the door and leads Even inside.

They make it most of the way through ditching their things in the hall and then Even gathers him in like he’s trying to touch all of him at once and presses him into the wall. His mouth’s warm but his hair’s cool under Isak’s fingers, and Isak can’t get enough of the way when he whispers apologies, Even just swallows them down.

The thing about being with Even is, it’s like crashing into a teddy bear.

Yes, it’s a teddy bear, but you’re still crashing into it, and sometimes it’s his softness that makes Isak so aware of how ragged and frayed his own edges are. He kicks the door to his room shut behind them, backs Even up against it, trying to unbutton Even’s jeans at the same time as take off his own shirt. He abandons the latter and just sinks to his knees, trying to feel like he’s being put back together and not like he’s still coming apart at the seams.

 

 

*

 

They’re sitting on the sofa with the clothes they were both wearing split between them, rearranged, eating something they found in the freezer. Isak’s halfway through it, but he’s still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. “Is it chilli?” he says, flexing his foot in Even’s lap.

It’s weird to be talking about normal things. Weird to be talking at all, really. It feels like they haven’t talked in forever.

Even considers another mouthful, his hair flopping into both of his eyes. “I don’t think so? I don’t think there are any spices.”

“Maybe it’s just not a very good one?”

“If it’s not good why would someone keep the leftovers?”

“Eskild,” Isak says, and reaches for his water to wash lumps of whatever it is down, “he was really into tackling food waste for a few weeks.”

“Eskild was?”

“He thought it might get him laid.” Isak rolls his eyes. “There was this guy on Grindr who worked at a food bank or something so he started posting pictures of himself freezing herbs and making heart eyes at chickpeas.”

Even laughs, the kind you do when something’s not really funny but you like the person who said it.

It makes Isak feel like a super mega dick for snapping at him, even though he’s already apologised for it at least five times, including with a blow job that really killed his knees.

It’d be the perfect moment, probably, to tell Even he has this thing in his diary which feels like an explosion he knows he can’t avoid being in the blast zone of, but before he can figure out how to say it, Even says:

“My parents want to throw me a birthday party. Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“It’s not a bad one?” Isak says. 

“So you’ll come?” Even looks over like Isak’s answer counts for more than just a number for RSVPs, as if he’s the thing on which the entire thing hinges. “I know things have been weird.”

Isak nods, but the caution on Even’s face doesn’t disappear.

“Will you invite your friends?”

“My friends?” Isak says. He settles his bowl of not-chilli on the back of the sofa so he can properly gesture his surprise. “You want my friends to meet your parents?”

“You don’t think they’d want to?”

Isak makes a wide-eyed face that he’s still not sure adequately conveys the level of astonishment rolling through his head. “I think — the last time you saw Magnus he was crowdsourcing his sexts to Vilde, then translating it into a cat language they made up — you saw that he did that — I don’t know why you’d want to inflict these people on your parents?”

Even smiles at the memory because they talked about it literally the entire way home, but it fades. “I just — I want them to know I’m ok. It’d be reassuring for them for me to invite people who know.”

“But your friends know.”

Even lifts an eyebrow and pokes at his dinner.

“They — they don’t?”

Even shrugs. “They heard the rumours if that counts.”

“Oh.” Something inside Isak shifts. He picks his fork up and pushes a bean around his plate. “Do they know about me?”

“Yes,” Even says. “They know I’m dating you. But — I don’t really talk about my life with them. I haven’t known them long. We’re not that close.”

Isak looks at him. Something about the way he’s sitting makes him look smaller, and more uncertain. He didn’t know, he didn’t know at all that Even was this alone.

“Ok,” Isak says. “Jonas will come if I ask him. Magnus definitely. Mahdi too, probably, and Eskild and Linn — your mum will really love Linn.”

“My mum will give leaflets to Linn.”

“You know she has to go to reception to get those?” Isak says and Even smiles, grudgingly, goes back to his dinner, eating it with more enthusiasm than he was before.

Isak scratches at his head and stares down at his food. “While we’re talking favours,” he says, “when’s your appointment at the clinic? Monday after school, like it usually is?”

“Why? You can’t make it?”

“I’ll be there. But I might need you to wait — I think mine finishes after yours.”

Even looks at him for ages, like he plotted a hundred conversations with Isak and this was most certainly not on the graph. “I can do that,” he says.

A little voice in Isak’s head goes fuck fuck fuck now you really have to do it. And now he gets it, what Even really said when he said it was easier when someone was waiting for him: he didn’t mean easier, he meant more terrifying, more real, more unavoidable.

“At first,” Even says, very quietly, like he’s giving Isak permission to pretend not to hear it, “it feels really weird. Like — you think because you’ve seen it in films you know what it’s going to be like. And some of it is familiar, and — it’s hard sometimes not to just — think of it like a script? To give the answers you think you’re supposed to? But if you manage it, to be real, it’s simultaneously more banal and more excruciating than you’re prepared for.”

Isak’s heart is pounding.

“Great,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

He’s not expecting Even to laugh but he does, running his hand over Isak’s foot and squeezing his toes, pulling it into him. “Seriously,” Even says. “You’ll be fine.”

 

 

*

 

From inside, the windows look less like hollowed out eyes. There are plants on the windowsills and the walls are a colour he suspects was chosen specifically to be soothing. It’s all so orchestrated it makes him feel like he’s drowning in other people’s desire for him to be calm.

He’s not sure how anyone can really keep their cool in the face of a question like, “So what brought you here today?” though, how anyone bites down the impulse to say the bus or my feet, I walked, but he’s read enough psychology to know what defensive humour says to therapists, knows it’ll just take him on a much longer route to where he wants to go.

“I guess I want to talk about my family,” he says, and then he does.

 

 

*

 

Isak rolls over, ineffectually stuffing the pillow over his head, trying to battle the daylight which was already tickling over his eyeballs and the music blaring from the kitchen at the same time. “Oh god what — ”

Even burrows under to join him, but instead of groaning like Isak is, he’s laughing light and quick, his hand finding Isak’s waist and pulling him closer. His eyes are big and sparkling and he’s close enough to kiss.

Apparently.

Isak mumbles a protest against his mouth, but it doesn’t really take, and he gets into it, pushing his fingers into Even’s hair, even though he doesn’t really understand it, the way Even sucks grumpiness out of him every time he kisses him awake.

Very awake.

They’re both very very awake.

The bunk beneath them creaks as Even rolls on top of him, hard against Isak’s thigh. “Good morning.”

He shoves the pillow aside and grinds down, giving Isak’s nose a suggestive nudge with his.

Isak lifts an eyebrow. Like he’s going to do anything about that with Even’s family in the next room singing along to a Katy Perry song about birthdays.

Or… probably he’s not.

He might change his mind if Even keeps looking at him the way he is, kissing him the way he is, long and slow and insistent with his hands on either side of his face, his knee worming its way between Isak’s legs. Working on Isak’s evident lack of resolve, he makes his way down Isak’s neck to press his tongue to the spot he knows makes Isak lose all sense of objective reality. He shifts against him in that way he does which makes Isak’s eyelids flutter unavoidably closed and stupid little noises sneak out of his mouth.

Maybe if they’re quiet no one will hear them over Katy Perry.

Isak reaches for the hem of Even’s t-shirt, drags it up over his head, smiling at the way it makes Even’s hair flop forward into his eyes.

Even ducks down to get at his, working it up Isak’s torso, following the path it exposes with kisses which make soft heat flare on his skin, settling back against him, dulling it and making it crackle all the harder at once.

They move together, lips and hips searching and pressing, remitting, persuading, and they know each other so well now, every bit of them seems to understand the desires of its corresponding bit. His fingers know when to meander down to the dip of Even’s back from his hair, same way Even’s know when to slip up from his hip to tease at the corner of his mouth. 

His head rushes with the memory of the first time they did this, but it’s not like a memory, more like it’s happening all at the same time. It was the first time he knew that the feel of skin on skin had the power to render him incoherent, the first time he knew what it actually meant to want somebody. It was the gasp of Even breaking away, no breath left in his mouth, asking him, “Do you want to stop? Slow down a bit?”

It was looking down at himself, his head full of if you go further with him than you ever went with a girl you can’t take it back, the shake of his own head, and his hands, the way he pushed them into Even’s hair to keep everything steady. It was letting go of the bit of himself he’d been holding back, the quiet acknowledgement that he’d been scared but being scared didn’t make it go away, coming to realise he was far more scared of losing whatever this might be than what anyone — even god or his mother — would say.

Logic says there are realities where the window to the pool wouldn’t open, where Even went to make amends with Sonja in his bathroom instead, where Isak said yes, stop, and Even did. But just for a second, he lets himself believe there is no universe where this isn’t happening, that all across everything forever it’s this, this, always this.

 

 

When they emerge, Isak’s pretty sure the Katy Perry is louder than it was before. Maybe being quiet isn’t really Even’s forte. It’s very possibly not his.

Even does a round of hugs for everybody, collecting birthday kisses on the cheek and comments about how grown up he is, as if the turning of the page on the calendar has somehow had an effect on every aspect of him.

His mum makes them waffles and tries to give Even a leaflet on singing and its benefits for easing depression; Isak takes it for him and says they’ll look into it, before he files it in his pocket, carelessly, so he might lose it down the back of the sofa later.

“How is the universe, these days?” Even’s dad says, like that’s a normal way to open a conversation as he hands Isak the blueberries.

“Expanding,” Isak says. “And – er – like all of us I guess, it has an increasing need to confront its potential to collapse under the weight of its own dark matter.”

He has no idea if Even’s dad has any idea what he means, but Even’s smile makes it worth it, anyway.

 

 

By the end of the morning, Even’s sister — who is apparently in charge of everything — is ticking things off a list. Very seriously she announces that the cake will be ready in ten minutes and hands Isak a stack of plates to take into the lounge. Guests — relatives and Isak’s friends, if any of them have thrown off their hangovers — are apparently imminent, and so she gives Even a balloon on a string, then decides she should tie it around his wrist so it doesn’t float away from him. He smiles down while she makes a knot and the shiny heart-shape bobs just above his head. His hair clings to it with static.

No one says that last year they didn’t do this, that they’re making up for something. Or maybe it’s just relief, relief that this year there is something to celebrate, even if it’s just that last year didn’t get stuck on repeat.

Isak puts the plates on the table, next to the buns. When he looks back, Even’s in front of the window, where it’s snowing. The hard winter light’s catching his cheekbones and making him look as if he’s been displaced from a movie about an errant elven prince. He wants to take a billion pictures, even though none of them will capture it.

He takes his phone out to try anyway and there’s a message he didn’t notice getting:

As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.

“How did she fucking know?” Isak mutters.

He’s about to slide his phone back into his pocket and ignore it when Even beckons for him, for it. When Isak frowns at him he lifts an eyebrow, fingers more insistent.

Isak catches his lip between his teeth, hands his phone over, watches Even read the message.  

“Did she send anything else? Stuff that’s not from the bible?”

Isak shakes his head. “Not for weeks. Months, probably.”

Even considers the screen, but whatever conclusion he was looking to reach he does it quickly, hands Isak his phone back. “You going to reply?”

“What with?”

“You think it would matter?”

Isak’s not sure he’s ever considered that before. He doesn’t generally, even though sometimes he wants to type: for the love of everything will you please just knock it off with this shit. He probably has typed that — and worse besides — he’s just never got to the part where he sends it. He could, though. It might make him feel better, at least temporarily, but he supposes he’s still waiting for her to realise for herself that whatever she’s trying to achieve isn’t working.

Isak stares at the word dust.

“I don’t get it,” he says, more to himself than to Even. “Why would she pity me? Or is she actually talking about my dad?”

Even breathes in, slow and loud, like a backwards sigh.

“I’m sorry, this is a shitty thing to talk about on your birthday.” Isak shoves his phone back into his pocket, tries to push the message down behind a smile, but Even steps closer, shaking his head, pulling Isak into him.

“I don’t think what she means is something you can guess at, is all.”

Isak doesn’t want to guess. All he really wants is for her to ask him how school is, for her to care, maybe, that he doesn’t live with her anymore and ask how his life and his heart and his head are rather than confusing him. He runs his fingers up over Even’s arm. He’s wearing the hoodie Isak bought him, the one he saw in a shop which made him think sentimental things about how he wanted to give Even something that would envelop him, make him feel safe and warm when Isak’s not with him. “You think I should just ask her what she means?”

“You never have?”

“I feel like it’s — like – if I loved her, I would get it?”

“What?”

“Like when you send me lyrics, you think I just get them, right? And it means something. Is that not..?”

“When I do it,” Even says, hand brushing against his own chest, “it’s not a test.”

His gaze is all over Isak’s face, like it hadn’t occurred to him Isak would think of it like that. “It’s just – sometimes, how I feel is really… big? The words I know don’t seem to match it.” His hand migrates to Isak’s chest and he scuffs Isak’s nice jumper, watching his fingers. “It’s… terrifying, feeling something you can’t express, but I can hear it in music, and… it lets me know I’m not the only one who ever felt that way, and I just want to share that. With you.” 

Isak sweeps his hair back from his face, lets his gaze meander up to Even’s eyes. “Oh.”

“Music,” Even says, “it’s a connection to something… sprawling. And human. It’s the values, the scope of humanity, the inexplicable, irrationality of love, all of it turned into something you don’t understand, you just feel.” He looks at Isak very quickly. “I think for some people that’s what religion is. It’s a connection to these things that are too gigantic for them to explain on their own.”

“You think she wants me to listen to god the way you want me to listen to Nas?”

“Maybe,” Even says, smiling at the sceptical wrinkles on Isak’s forehead. “But just because she wants you to, it doesn’t mean you have to. Or you can, but you can take something else from it, if it’s what you need."

It takes Isak back to a conversation they had ages ago, where Isak ranted about arbitrary divisions between good and evil, that god is a man-made creation for cowards and children who can’t handle the fact that everything is chaos and there’s no planning or scheming to any of it.

Even just looked at him and said, “You have to admit the Ark is a cool story, though.”

He didn’t get why any of it made Isak angry, why he couldn’t just accept a cool story as nothing more than that, why people’s belief in things he didn’t believe in got under his skin.

He thinks of all the lyrics Even has sent him, how they all stood for something too big for Even to put into his own words. Where he was looking at a puzzle, Even was showing him a map.

Even eases him in so they bump together, and up close Isak can see him rearranging his thoughts, becoming a different kind of thoughtful as he thumbs Isak’s chin. “Would it help,” he says, “if you stop trying to work out what she means and just… feel it? Feel that she’s thinking about you? Because that’s the only thing you can be certain of when someone sends you a message.”

Unavoidably Isak thinks of the neon crosses in the church, because sometimes he visits the alternate universes where he never got Even’s text, where he did but didn’t read it, where he did but was too awkward or afraid of what his dad would say to get up and run. He still hasn’t asked about it, what Even would’ve done if he hadn’t been there. He knows it doesn’t matter, that whatever would’ve happened didn’t, that he’s in this universe and whatever happened in the others is for other Isaks to deal with. But he hasn’t asked not because it doesn’t matter but because he’s not sure he’s ready for the truth Even might feel compelled to tell him.  

He nods.

Even brushes Isak’s hand where it’s toying with the track of his hoodie’s zip. “I didn’t really understand how bad things were for you, before.”

“They’re not bad for me. Besides – ” Isak stalls, mouth open on the thing he was going to say.

“Besides what?”

Isak wants to stop talking about it. He wants to remind Even where they are, that any minute, their friends are going to start arriving and they’re going to have to shrug this off and sing happy birthday. But the question and Even’s gaze are equally unavoidable.

“Before she had me she was fine. So. It’s my fault.”

“Did she tell you that?”

Isak only manages a tiny, micro nod, but he knows Even catches it.

“Was she angry when she said it?”

Isak can’t actually remember. He doesn’t recall a time before he knew it. It just pervaded everything, always there, haunting every house and every room and every stilted, taut conversation that he had to prevent flipping into a screaming row.

“You know,” Even says, “just because she said it, it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Isak bites the inside of his lip.

“Why do you think it’s more real than the moths or Jonas being a spy?”

The moths took him a day or two until he was certain. Jonas being involved in espionage was easy enough to dismantle, too — he researched sleeper agents and child programmes and thought maybe he fit the profile, until Jonas got stuck on level 11 of Candy Crush. His frustration with Isak’s refusal to help him was genuine, and he didn’t see how anyone who’d been programmed for ingenuity under pressure wouldn’t think to Google a cheat.

He never thought to investigate some of his mother’s other claims.

Maybe he was too scared to. Or maybe he was too eager to believe.

“Do you think something happened to me to make me the way I am? That it would be fair of me to blame someone?” Even says. “Because I wish – I wish I could. I’ve done things that hurt people and I wish I could say that it wasn’t my fault, but I have to take responsibility for it, I have to, because it’s only when I do that I can make amends.” He’s very gentle but firm about it. “It’s not anyone’s fault, Isak. It’s not yours – it’s not your dad’s – ”

Isak rolls his eyes. “Just because you bonded over aliens.”

“You’re the one who said it’s not easy being the person who gets the phone calls.”

“Fuck,” Isak says. He gives Even a shove to say he’s not supposed to store up things Isak says and use them against him, and Even laughs.

It makes the tension dissipate, anyway, and Isak skims his fingers over the ridges of fabric on the inside of Even’s elbow, thinking about how a shift in your reality can be at once tiny and seismic, that you can feel its first ripple and know it’ll carry on rippling for a while yet before it reaches its true magnitude.

“You didn’t invite him, right? My dad?”

“No,” Even says, and scrubs his fingers along Isak’s cheek and into his hair. “I would never do that. Not without checking with you first.” He draws Isak to him, bumps their noses together before he kisses him. “There are some things I’d maybe like to say to him about some of the things he does, though, if that would be ok?” Isak looks up at him, not quite nodding, not quite not, either. “Maybe we should swap for a bit.” 

“Parents? You want to swap parents?”

Even nods. “You like mine, right?”

“Getting used to them.”

“You can talk to my dad about the universe. Maybe show my mum how to live in the moment when everything’s ok. It’d be like a holiday. Or – we could swap lives?” He widens his eyes at the idea. “Mine is very interesting sometimes, you should consider it.”

“My boyfriend is pretty hot, though.” 

Even wrinkles his nose. “Mine’s hotter,” he says.

The balloon is still floating above his head and Isak bats it, makes it ricochet off the curtains. He hasn’t said it yet, that there are hearts floating around here that aren’t shiny and taut and made out of foil. He’s been saving it for a time where Even won’t see it coming, one of those moments – these moments – devoid of grandiosity but that still turn reality on its head.

The doorbell goes.

“Well, here we go,” Even says. He takes a deep breath, fixes a different kind of smile on his face, eyes on the hallway to see who he needs to greet, bouncing slightly on his toes.

“If you need to leave, I’ll meet you — ”

“At the park. I didn’t forget.”

It’s Even’s uncle who makes bad jokes but Even says hello like he threw a party just to see him. Even does the same with a cousin Isak hasn’t met before, introducing him, a hand at the base of Isak’s spine that stays there long after the words my boyfriend Isak and the surprise in the cousin’s eyes have dwindled.

Isak’s friends all arrive together, piling through the door like a rambunctious spider made of puffy coats and scarves and laughter. Magnus has brought Vilde, and Isak thinks they might be wearing matching jumpers, but he only catches a flash of them as Magnus spots Even.

“Even, buddy,” Magnus says, and even though Even’s getting accustomed to the way being hugged by Magnus is more like being tackled to the ground, he still makes an audible gurgle for assistance as it happens.

Isak gets intercepted by Eskild on his way to help.

“Isak,” he says, “I can’t believe you would risk wearing a cursed jumper on Even’s birthday.”

“I am — breaking it?” Isak says, peering around him to where Even is accepting a gift from Vilde that looks like all the wrapping paper in the world at once. Isak frowns. “Hopefully.”

Eskild does his serious face. “Everything ok?”  

Isak didn’t tell Eskild he was nervous about this — about staying over, being here, being a part of this — that he knew Even wanted him here but he knows Even’s parents have questions about him. He’s not sure to what extent Even has, or will, answer them, feared the sharp relief a birthday party would throw on things like Isak’s family, or lack thereof. “It’s fine,” he says.   

Eskild leans in close. “So, which one is his mother? I don’t want to waste my charm on the wrong person.”

Scanning the room, Isak spots Helene heading into the kitchen. He tips his head in her direction.

“Introduce me?”

Isak rolls his eyes, but he edges through the room anyway with Eskild in tow.

There’s no one else in the kitchen, and it comes out awkwardly under the weight of its own unexpected importance when he says, “Er — Helene — this is Eskild, who I — live with.”

“Thank you for inviting us,” Eskild says, and presents Helene with a box of chocolates with great flourish. “What a lovely house.”  

They talk about the wreath on the door — which apparently at some point since they arrived last night has been replaced by felt balls and mini presents when Isak wasn’t looking — and Eskild snags some cucumber she’s slicing, so casually at ease as he leans on the counter to ask what recipe she’s using for the dip.

“Did Isak tell you he made Even a card?” Eskild says. “I know, it’s hard to believe that beneath this grumpy exterior lies the heart of a romantic but he’s really very sweet when he thinks no one is looking.”

Isak leans on the doorframe. He can tell Helene is quietly bowled over by Eskild, so he just looks at the floor and lets them talk — including about him — until the stereo spits out Astrid and Eskild excuses himself by saying, “I have to dance to this.”

Isak sighs in his wake, not knowing quite how to explain him, how he met him, if he should even try. Fleetingly he thinks about his own parents and Lea, an alternate universe version of them that would fit. He looks out into the lounge where Eskild is dancing with Even’s dad.

At first, he doesn’t see Even, flashes with panic that he fled to the park and Isak was just in here not knowing he was needed, but he’s just sitting in the corner, his sister in his lap, both of them talking with Linn. 

He wonders if anyone will take a picture of them all together that will end up on the fridge.

Maybe it should be him.

“He looks happy,” Helene says, at his elbow.

Isak thinks Even hates it, actually. Not the thing he’s doing right now so much perhaps, but being at the centre of a party in general. But it’s not really for him, he realises. It’s amends.

“He’s fine,” Isak says, adds more quietly, as if it’ll make Even more likely to hear him, “you’re doing fine.”

Maybe tomorrow will be a day where it’s just daylight and then not again, but perhaps he could do with one of those too.

He has a lot to think about, some days.

He’s aware they’re both watching Even so he looks down at the dip Helene’s carrying, back at the vegetables in neat rows on a plate. “I’ll take them?” he says.

And she lets him.

Isak doesn’t say it, but he likes it; it means he’s no longer a guest.

 

 

*

 

Even’s waiting for him on his usual chair, his leg jiggling as he flips through a magazine without pausing to read anything on the pages. 

“Hey,” Isak says.

“Hey,” Even says, and gets to his feet, hugging Isak to him before he’s really all the way up.

He smells like the snow from earlier that’s dried on his coat, presumably when he hung it over the back of the chair he sat in to talk about… whatever it is he talks about.

Even keeps saying he doesn’t mind if Isak talks about him, jokes that he’ll be offended not to come up at all, but Isak doesn’t; he’s literally the only thing in Isak’s life that makes any kind of sense.

The door greets them with a shrrummmmmm, but because it’s letting him out, Isak thinks of it with something approaching fondness rather than the internal shriek he does on the way in.

“Ok?” Even says, as soon as they get outside.

It’s an infinitely complex question, some days.

He just spent an hour talking about how there’s a version of his mother in another universe with someone who refused to tell him thinking that didn’t make him crazy. He has a sense that talking about it might at some point in the future make him feel more at ease with things; he also feels a bit like a walnut that just whacked itself with a hammer.

He’s not sure he can really break that down to fit the ok/not ok binary of Even’s question.

“You want cake?” he says, and pulls his hood up against the snow.

 

 

*

 

 

The cafe’s busier than the last few times they’ve been. Their usual spot in the window is occupied, so they take a smaller one in the corner that has wooden chairs and a tea light in a coffee jar on the table. Isak tucks himself around his latte and knocks Even’s leg with one of his knees, trying to say that his brain feels very heavy, like there’s more of it than usual, and he’d like it quite a lot if, when they get home, Even wrapped him in a blanket and hugged him for approximately the rest of forever.

Even divides the hubcap-size chocolate chip cookie he bought them into two, doesn’t comment when it takes Isak ten minutes to break a chunk off and try to eat it. “You want to watch a film when we get in?” he says.

Isak nods and feeds another scrap of cookie into his mouth.

“You going to talk all the way through it?”

Isak meets his gaze specifically so Even will see when he rolls his eyes.

“Seriously,” Even says, leaning on the table, “are you all right?”

“Yep,” Isak says, pushing some stray sugar across the wooden table top to make a pile. “Or — no — not right now so much — but yeah — I am. I will be, I think.” Even smiles when Isak looks at him. “You?”

“Getting there.”

“I don’t know if I’m going back next week.”

“You don’t have to decide now,” Even says, like he says every time. “You can wait and see.” Even stirs his cocoa, keeping to the middle as if he knows Isak couldn’t bear the clink of the spoon off the side of the mug. “You’re being very brave though – you just… go.”

Isak rolls a granule back and forth. The word brave doesn’t seem to fit him.

“You would not believe what it took to get me there.”

Isak presses a dip into the middle of his pile of sugar, glances up at him. “You going to tell me that story?”

“I’m saving it,” Even says, hides coyly behind his mug. “It’s a good one. Has everything. Drama – peril – love story.”

“Love story?”

“Lust story.”

Isak raises an eyebrow at him. “Happy ending?”

Even shrugs. “Eventually.”

Isak rolls it all back and forth, like his sugar.

He might go and see his mother on their way home.

At least, he might call in for five minutes, just so he can tick it off his list of things to worry about.

At the very least, he’ll walk past, and check whether the curtains are still spectres in the window.

When he looks back at the table, Even’s made his napkin into a crane.