It all started—unsurprisingly, given everything I learned later—with a house. It wasn’t anything special to look at: an ordinary terraced house in Stranmillis with chalk-stained steps leading up to the front door and a wee front garden that nobody had bothered to do anything with in an age. I loved it right from the start, though, with its four sturdy brick walls, its fresh coat of dark blue paint on its front door, and rooms that were spacious, surprisingly bright, and best of all, mine and Justin’s. My mam likes to joke that she should have had me christened Paul Practical Malone, so it’s no surprise I figured financial entanglement was the most powerful symbol of commitment in today’s world.
As it turns out, though, a house represents so many more powerful things than just money. It’s shelter in the times when you need a space that’s there just for the two of you. It’s your anchor whenever the future feels uncertain. It’s the place you know you can always return to, no matter how long you’ve been away. So if I could go back, would I trade away that house to spare us everything that came next? Not in a million lifetimes.
We moved in on a cold but unexpectedly sunny Thursday in January, both of us having taken the day off to make sure everything kept running smoothly. I remember feeling that it was a good omen that we’d defied the awful weather forecast, and that fed my excitement that this was finally happening. There were a few things from each of our old flats that we’d wanted to move ourselves—Justin in his car, me in mine—and I had a plant tucked under each arm as I brought the last load into the house. I set them on top of a pile of boxes in the sitting room and headed back outside.
I met one of the two movers in the hallway. “So that’s the last of it,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. He’d long since taken off his jacket. There was enough of a chill that our breath was fogging into the air, but in direct sunlight it still felt warm.
“Thanks so much,” I said, following him outside. “Looks like the snow’s going to hold off.” From over the man’s shoulder I tracked Justin as he lifted two bags of groceries out of the boot of his car, let it fall shut.
“Aye.” The mover scanned the sky, gave the back of his neck an absent scratch. “Good thing, too. Nobody wants to move house when there’s heaps of white stuff on the ground.”
“Can we get you something before you go? Cup of tea?” Justin walked between us on his way inside, and I reached out to touch his arm.
“Wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“It’s really no trouble.”
The mover shook his head, gave me a hint of a smirk. “It’ll take you half an hour to find the box with the kettle in it, so it will. And we’re to deliver the rest of this load to another address down Lisburn Road way.”
“All right, then.”
He nudged the edge of the bottom step with the toe of his shoe, right in the place where the concrete was crumbling. “Yous’ll be wanting to do something about this. Wouldn’t want to trip your visitors, now.”
“It’s on the list. Thanks again.” I waved as he headed off, and then turned toward the house. I could hear the purr of the lorry starting up as I pulled the front door shut.
Justin was standing in the sitting room, and he’d just taken off his coat. He was about to toss it over the arm of the sofa when I held up a hand. “Wait.”
He shot me a puzzled look, but held onto the coat.
I retrieved my granddad’s coat rack from over by the entrance to the kitchen and carried it ceremonially into the hallway, planting it into its spot in the corner. “We’ve a proper place to hang that up,” I said, leaning against the edge of one of the French doors. I took my coat off then, too, hung it up with a flourish. Justin hung his on the hook next to mine.
“So.” I was grinning by then, looking around. I pulled the French doors shut, held my arms out. “Welcome home.”
Justin gave the whole room a once-over: across the sitting room to the back door, back again. His mouth pinched. He looked overwhelmed.
My grin dimmed. I’d originally assumed that Justin would be nothing more than eager to get away from his perpetually transient-looking studio flat, but there really was a lot of work left to do. I’d been inside so many times by this point that the flaws had just become a part of the backdrop, but Justin had only seen it once before now.
“Just look at this hardwood,” I said, trying to play up some of the good points. It really was in great shape: some wear in the high-traffic areas, but no major scratches or chips. “They don’t make floors like this anymore.”
“It’s lovely,” he said, but his voice was flat. He inspected it with a critical eye, walked into the dining area.
“And look how bright it is in here at mid-day, even without a light on. That’s because the biggest renovation’s already been done.” I ran a finger along the wallpaper, let it linger on the rough patch. It would be a good spot for that watercolour of the French Riviera my parents had bought me on their last holiday. “Look, there was a wall here once.”
Justin was still looking around, but his face hadn’t budged. His hands went into the pockets of his trousers, then back out.
The door to the garden only stuck a bit as I opened it. The chill was sharper in the shadow of the house, and I pulled down my sleeves. Justin followed me outside, and I traced his gaze as it travelled over the space. It was paved over in places it shouldn’t have been, and neglected everywhere else. If we wanted to turn it into a garden, it was going to take some work. I heard him sigh.
“I know,” I said with a shrug. “But we’re so close to the Botanic Gardens that this isn’t so bad for now. All you have to do is walk a couple hundred yards if you want to see some green.”
I walked over to the fence and brushed away its stray bits of ice. A few of the planks were rotting toward the bottom where they’d been damp for too long. “We’ll want to replace at least some of these boards at some point,” I said, checking the one across the bottom for sturdiness and then climbing up. The top of the fence was flat, and more than wide enough for a foot. “But see, you’ve a really good look at the Gardens from here,” I said, hoisting myself onto it. I stood up all the way, shielding my eyes from the sun. “That’ll be a brilliant view when it all starts blooming again.”
Justin’s forehead creased. “You’re going to fall.”
I held out my arms for balance and took a couple of steps, pretending to trip. He wrapped his arms around himself.
I lowered myself into a squat and sat down. I patted the fence next to me. “There’s plenty of room up here for two.”
“I really wish you’d come down.”
I stopped smiling. Justin actually had a whimsical streak a mile wide and just as deep, but there were times you couldn’t reach it through all the layers of seriousness. It had been particularly hard to find lately. I climbed back down.
The door leading back into the house was a sturdy hardwood, stained a cherry colour. I tilted my head at it as we walked back in. “This is a good door. I’d guess somebody bought it just within the past year or so. Somebody with some taste, thank God.”
It banged shut behind us. Justin jumped, sucked in a quick breath.
“That’s a simple fix,” I said, kicking off my shoes.
Justin started smoothing non-existent wrinkles out of his shirt, turned away from me. He pulled up a chair to take off his own shoes.
“Of course, the kitchen is what needs the most work,” I said, stopping in the doorway. I kicked at the cracks in the lino. “We’ll want to do something about this floor straight away. “Do you like flagstones?”
“That would be fine.” His voice was thin, reedy.
I swallowed. I could feel myself starting to tense up by this point: my shoulders lifting, a line between my eyebrows. This was not the joyful first-afternoon-in-the-new-house mood I was trying to cultivate.
Justin was a lot more of a cook than I was, so I grasped at that. “The appliances are all pretty new, at least.” I ran a finger along a discoloured square of wall below one of the cabinets and turned, grabbed hold of his gaze. “Look, the previous owners must have had a spice rack here. We could pick one up, if you wanted.”
“All right.” He shoved both hands into his pockets.
The cabinet door stuck a bit as I opened it. The paint was tacky and mint-green and probably still left over from the seventies. “New cabinets, too. What do you think of cherrywood?”
“Isn’t it awfully dear?”
I turned all the way toward him, threw my arms out to both sides. “Or birch?”
“Honestly, whatever you want is fine,” he said, but there was a frown threatening at his mouth.
That was when I really started to feel hurt, I think. I’d been so sure this attitude would pass once we’d finally moved in, but if anything, it had got worse. “What I want is for you to be excited about this, too,” I said quietly.
Justin flinched. His frown deepened.
There was no sense in continuing with the tour if he wasn’t in the mood. I headed into the sitting room, ripped open a box of my old CDs with more force than was strictly necessary. After a long moment I heard the fridge door open, followed by metal clanking against the countertop.
We’d first met three years before—down in the Sainsbury’s in the Forestside Shopping Centre, of all places. Right outside the freezer full of vegetables, Justin had said something flirty and surprisingly clever about the ice cream I’d picked out—Ben and Jerry’s Karamel Sutra, it was—and I’d said something just as flirty and not nearly as clever back. The rest had gone pretty much as you’d imagine. By the time we got to my flat, well, let’s just say his poor bag of frozen peas ended up being left to melt on my counter. Afterward, he’d stared up at the ceiling with a delighted smile and said: Right, then. That was surprising. I was thoroughly charmed.
From the start, Justin was so different from the long stretch of inappropriate men I’d traditionally gone for, who’d always turned out to be hooked on bad whiskey or pretty waiters, or both. He was seven years younger than me, but he was Trinity-educated, he hardly drank, and he preferred to stay in on Saturday nights. My parents loved him from their very first meeting, too. And you could chalk that up in part to their sheer relief that he was from a respectable middle-class Catholic background—much as we like to pretend we’re past all that in 2014, those sorts of things do still matter—but more of it was because of his immediately obvious desire to be a part of their lives.
The problems were there from the start, though, too. Justin would only ever stay the night if he accidentally fell asleep, and in the morning he always seemed inexplicably flustered by it, as if he wasn’t sure what I might read into that. When it came time for that talk about exes that you always have in the first few weeks of what’s eventually going to be a long-term relationship, he clammed up completely and changed the subject. I found out from a glance at the top page of a stack of paperwork lying on his kitchen counter that his father and stepmother were living right here in Belfast—in the southern part of the city on one of those cul-de-sacs with the Victorian red-brick villas and old trees—but he never once offered to introduce them to me. And when I finally crunched the numbers and showed him how much money we could each save if we bought a house, he saw my point, but as our moving-in date drew closer I could feel him dragging his feet.
Now, there was an amorphous group of gay men I’d been friends with for going on twenty years—Justin always referred to them as the Gaggle and claimed that we acted as a Greek chorus on each other’s lives. Eventually I’d finally taken The Justin Issue to them. They’d immediately diagnosed it as a classic fear of intimacy and slagged me mercilessly for well over an hour: face it, Paul, this is just the kind of man you attract, they’d said. I’d known they were baiting me, but I’d still jumped at every dangled hook. It just really didn’t feel that simple to me. Their matching frowns said it all, though: they were just that convinced Justin would turn out to be no better than any of the others.
I still wasn’t sure. I mean, for one thing, he was still around. And so many things about Justin read to me not as fear of intimacy but as a hunger for intimacy. In the first few weeks after we’d met, he’d seemed to crave constant physical contact, as if he’d been reassuring himself that I was actually there. One day after we’d walked past my old primary school, he’d suddenly had a million questions about what I’d been like as a child. When Granddad had had his heart attack, Justin had visited him in the hospital even when I couldn’t be there myself, and after the man had died, Justin had stood at the funeral alongside the rest of the family without any sort of prompting. That wasn’t the way your typical fear of intimacy worked, not as I’d seen it in action before.
It was another quarter of an hour before Justin came to join me in the sitting room. In one hand he was clutching the bottle of sparkling wine I’d bought for a toast, and in the other he was juggling two glasses that he must have dug out of one of the boxes in the kitchen.
We exchanged a look. I went back to my unpacking: shoving the CDs onto their rack, not even bothering to sort them.
The bottle and the two glasses clinked onto the coffee table, and it groaned against the floor as he shoved it over to line it up with the sofa. Then he moved the two boxes on the sofa to the floor, making room.
I stood, hoisted a box onto my hip. “This one’s actually books,” I said, keeping my voice even. “I’ll take it upstairs.”
“Leave it.” He sat down and patted the sofa next to him. “Come over here.”
I set the box back down. I walked over, sat next to him.
“I want this,” he said, meeting my eyes. “I really do.”
I would have been only too eager to believe that, if he’d looked even the slightest bit happier than fifteen minutes earlier. “I’m glad,” I said with a stiff shrug.
He swallowed. “It’s just—”
I left a silence. Justin matched it.
“Just what?” I prompted, after a long pause.
He didn’t respond.
My shoulders were tensing up again. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think when you get your first glimpse of our new house with all our stuff in it, and you make a face like you’re being led off to the slaughterhouse.”
“You did.” I narrowed my eyes.
“Especially after I did all of the house-hunting alone while you claimed to be busy with work.”
That got to him. Justin had always had a thing for fairness. “I had a whole stack of marking,” he said in a voice too weak to sound like any sort of serious protest. “The boys had just finished their Christmas essays—”
“And it took you three weeks to make the time to look at this one after I found it. And when you did finally look at it, you tossed one look around and said all right, if it’s what you want.” I folded my arms across my chest. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of that, either.”
Justin gave his forehead a rub. “Is that really what I said?”
“You know it is.”
He took in a long breath, let it out through his nose. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
There was a snip of silence. An apology wasn’t what I was angling for.
Justin inched the cork out of the bottle with both thumbs, poured a splash of sparkling wine into each glass. He stretched one out to me. I took it.
He lifted the other glass. “To our first house,” he said.
“Our first house?” I pointed an eyebrow at him. “Are you already planning for a second one, then?”
“To our house,” he corrected. “This house. The house where I get to live with the man I love.”
I admit it: that melted me a wee bit. It was a line—of course it was—but somehow from Justin it still managed to sound totally sincere. Another tick in the ‘this isn’t actually a man who’s afraid of commitment’ column. “Even if I’m too old to climb bockety fences?” I asked, keeping my voice light.
Justin pursed his lips: a parody of a frown. “You’d be too old to climb bockety fences if you were fifteen,” he scolded. Then he reached out a hand, let it come to rest on my knee. “But you’re not too old for me, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
That was when I started smiling for real. We clinked glasses, took a drink.
Justin set his glass down on the table. He tilted his head to one side. “Isn’t there a tradition when it comes to moving house with a partner? About the way you’re supposed to christen it on the first day?”
I gave him my best wide-eyed innocent look. “I don’t know what you’re going on about.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” He moved his hand up my leg, past my hip and under my shirt. “Well, I suppose if it doesn’t actually exist, we could invent it.” He gave me a lopsided smile. “I’m assuming we’re allowed to make our own traditions?”
The tension in my shoulders was starting to ease. “You know, that’s probably more excitement than this house has seen in some time. The couple who lived here last were apparently in their eighties.”
“Well.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “We’d best start adjusting it to the change, then.”
I put my glass down on the coffee table and leaned back over to kiss him.
On one hand, this was only Justin’s first lecture, so there hadn’t been time to get accustomed to what the hall was supposed to sound like. On the other, he was pretty sure the horrid weather was giving everyone extra fodder for conversation, making those last few before-minutes louder and more restless than they should have been. Daniel wasn’t playing along, of course—after a week Justin was already figuring out that he only spoke when he had something to say—but the resulting silence was still more companionable than uncomfortable. Justin smiled at him, leaned in toward the front, scanned the doors for Abby.
All at once she was standing beside him, as if he’d summoned her. “Hey, you two,” she said brightly. She had on a dark purple raincoat, the sleeves rolled up so far that it looked like it should have belonged to someone a few sizes bigger. Her eyes landed on Justin’s bag, lying on the chair between Justin and Daniel. “Is that for me?”
“It is,” Justin said with a smile. They’d all of them been sitting together every chance they could get in every other place, but it was still a thrill to have it confirmed that they were going to be sitting together in lectures too. He reached over, moved his bag to the floor.
“Ugh, this rain.” Abby threw her coat off, hung it limply against the back of the chair. “And a umbrella’s no use, either, not with the wind.” She kicked off her wet shoes and slid lower, right into her seat. Abby was such a wee thing that she could practically disappear just by huddling down. That ability would have come in useful for Justin back home.
There was an enormous exhale of breath from the doorway just behind them, and the three of them turned in unison to look. It was a guy, tall, wearing a thin brown jacket that clearly wasn’t meant for this sort of weather. It was soaked right through to his skin, and his hair was plastered to his head like a helmet. There was a giggle from across the aisle—two identical-looking blonde girls of the sort who were always called Aoife or Ciara or somesuch—and the guy shot them both a death-ray glare, clenching fists at his sides. He stepped into the lecture hall.
“Check it out, it’s King Lear,” Abby said, with a thumb over her shoulder.
The guy was a step below her as she said it. He froze, whipped around to face her. “How did you get here, then—in Daddy’s limo?” he said with a snarl. His accent was English, and posh. “Or on your broomstick?”
Justin shrank away from the guy, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Daniel’s eyes widen. But Abby just laughed. “By hot-air balloon,” she said, and reached into the row in front of Justin for an empty chair. She pulled it up to their table, right on the aisle. Right next to Justin.
The guy stared at the chair for a moment, then tossed a quick glance at their table. Then he looked at Abby, sizing her up, and then briefly at Justin and Daniel. He jerked his head away. Then he sat down.
Justin’s spine seized up. The whole thing had only taken a few seconds.
“Sorry,” the guy mumbled, his eyes on the front of the room.
The lecturer came in just then, but Justin’s eyes wouldn’t pin to him. The tall guy peeled off his jacket like he was shedding an outer layer of skin: first the one sleeve, then the back, then the second sleeve. Underneath, his shirt was pale purple and just as soaked. Justin could see the outline of his upper arm underneath it. A pool of water was forming on the floor at his feet.
Abby gave Justin a nudge, and when he looked over, her bag was open on her lap and she was holding out a packet of tissues. She tilted her head at Justin. He took the packet, passed it on.
The guy narrowed his eyes at it, as if he thought it was masquerading as some sort of secret weapon. Abby leaned forward, tilted her head toward the guy this time: go on.
The suspicious look didn’t budge from the guy’s face, but he took a few of the tissues and wiped his hair with them, smoothing down the cowlicks that were starting to threaten. His arm was bent, his elbow extended. His arms were long, but not too thin. Not at all.
Then the guy set the packet of tissues down, right in front of Justin. His fingers were just as long and lean as his arms, and there were tiny sandy hairs all along the backs of them. He left a few stray droplets of water on the front of Justin’s notebook. Justin stared at them, watched them grow and spread against the cardboard.
At the front of the room the lights dimmed, and the lecturer slid a transparency onto the projector. From beside him, the guy was still dripping. He leaned back and stretched his long legs out in front of him, unbuttoning an extra button on his shirt and giving it a few tugs to air it out.
Justin wasn’t breathing. He opened his mouth, made himself take in air.
And for that matter, he still didn’t even have his notebook open. He flipped it to a blank page, clicked his pen. The lecturer was saying something about Edward Said now, but no, Justin’s mind still wouldn’t absorb it—it was as if the whole room had become subtly tilted toward this guy sitting next to him, and everything around them had started a slow descent in his general direction. He was rolling his sleeves up now. The hair on his forearms matched the hair on his hands.
Justin’s shoulders tensed, and he pressed his mouth into a line. Really, there was no justification for this. The guy wasn’t even friendly. He shifted so that his knees were pointed toward Abby, his defiantly hunched shoulder blocking his view of the guy. He trained his eyes on the front of the room and copied the words from the screen into his notebook: Frantz Fanon, overlapping territories, and ruler and ruled.
The minutes stacked up one by one. Finally, the lecturer flicked the projector off, and Justin didn’t see the guy stand, but there was a rush of air beside him. He knew that the guy had shot to his feet the first chance he could, as if someone had been holding a match under his bum.
Justin turned toward him, let himself look. Okay, yes, this guy was a stunner. He was just as tall as Justin but without even a hint of gawkiness: slender but broad-shouldered, and now that he wasn’t scowling, Justin could see that he had a sculpted face as dazzling as any of the surrealistically beautiful boys from Caravaggio’s paintings. His hair was a dark blond, still damp, and just unruly enough to make him look wild around the edges. The nearness of him felt paralysing, as if Justin was being held immobile by a sunbeam.
The guy shot the three of them a look, but then his eyes skittered awkwardly away again. He bent down, retrieved his jacket from the back of his chair. “So, thanks for the—” He drew his arms in toward his chest. “Thanks.” He hitched his bag onto his shoulder, started to walk away.
Justin realised with a shock that this guy was shy too. It had never occurred to Justin that there were so many different ways of being shy. “So, ah. Wait?” he found himself saying. There was a squeak in his voice, but nobody seemed to notice.
The guy stopped, looked back at Justin.
“The three of us were talking about going over to the Buttery,” Justin blurted out.
“We were?” Daniel said, bewildered.
“Great idea,” Abby said. “I’m starving.”
The guy hadn’t moved. Justin steeled himself, went for broke. “Did you want to join us?”
The guy narrowed his eyes at them like he was wondering what the catch was, and something about the insecurity beneath all the anger made Justin’s knees go wobbly. The guy’s shirt was unbuttoned far enough that he could see the start of the sandy hair at his neck.
His face pinched into a scowl. “Have I got something on my shirt?”
Caught. Caught caught caught.
Sheer horror slithered through Justin, and his face burned like scraped skin. If he just wished hard enough, maybe he actually could dissolve into the air this time, molecule by molecule.
“He’s just shocked that any self-respecting college student would wear a shirt like that voluntarily,” Abby quipped.
The guy’s shoulders went up, and his scowl deepened. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You don’t see anybody else here dressed like that, do you? What are you, some kind of toffee-nosed English tosser?” Her voice was sharp, but underneath it there was a soft underlay of teasing.
The teasing was lost on the guy, though. He threw his arms into the sleeves of his wet jacket, glared at her. “And what are you, some kind of Dublin twat?” He zipped his jacket up to his neck, hugged his bag to his chest, and stalked out the door.
None of the three of them spoke, but they all exchanged a look. Then, before Justin was even completely sure what they were doing, they were following this guy. Just a few steps behind him.
At the top of the stairs that led down to the ground floor, the guy glanced back and saw them. He twisted around again immediately, but some of the tension went out of his shoulders.
And then Justin was falling into line beside him, following him down the stairs. “She didn’t mean that the way it sounded, Abby didn’t.”
The guy shot Justin a glance and kept walking. He threw the front door open with an angry shove, but on the other side he held it to let Justin pass through too. The rain had stopped, and a sliver of sun was shining through the clouds.
The both of them headed straight for the path that would take them to the Buttery. “I’m Justin. Justin Mannering,” he said. He couldn’t believe he was actually walking next to this guy, talking with him, as if it was nothing at all.
The guy gave Justin a once-over: head to toe and back up again. “Rafe,” he said quickly. He looked back at Abby and Daniel. “So those two are your friends?”
“Well.” Justin wasn’t sure whether it was right to call them that after only a week. It had been a pretty remarkable week, but still just one week. He glanced at them. They were still there, just coming out of the building, deep in their own conversation.
They were just so magnificent, the both of them were. Abby was a mass of contradictions: a voice that still had a shading of working-class Dublin but could quote entire passages of Tennyson from memory, and she always managed to be brave enough to stand up to just about anybody despite so clearly feeling out of place much of the time. Daniel, on the other hand, spoke like he’d never bothered to string more than two sentences together before, but it sounded like he was giving a voice to thoughts that had been building up for years whenever he’d hold forth like Socrates out of nowhere. Abby would come find Justin after they were done for the day and then the three of them would sit in one of the pubs until it closed, every single night. Justin had learned that he didn’t mind beer quite so much after all, at least not when it went along with conversations about everything from medieval English sheep husbandry to the poetry of John Donne.
Even Justin found plenty to say whenever they were around, and whenever he had more than two seconds to think, that fact fixed his feet to the ground with shock. It was as if they were his muses: his Clio and his Calliope. They took him seriously, these two did, and even if the words came out of his mouth all wrong once in a while, it didn’t seem to matter to them at all.
The guy—Rafe—shot another look back at them, then turned away, scowled at the air. He picked up the pace, stomping his feet against the path: one, two.
They were passing by the tennis courts now, and one of the players served the ball with a swift thwack. “Do you know the Canterbury Tales?” Justin asked finally.
A curious look folded across Rafe’s face, as if he’d expected Justin to say pretty much anything but that. He nodded.
“We’re a wee bit like that.”
“Like which? Like the pilgrims?” Rafe’s eyebrows flew up.
Justin shrugged. “A bit.”
Rafe’s curious look deepened.
Justin’s step was suddenly lighter. He let himself elaborate. “We’re a colourful troupe of characters—I think even you can tell that. We’ve all sorts of conversations—that fits too. Even the travelling. We’re from all over, so we are.”
Rafe still looked intrigued, but now there was a spark in his eyes too. “So you tell bawdy stories. Sleep on the ground.”
“Speak Middle English.”
Rafe’s mouth turned up at one corner: a smile, guarded.
A boy and a girl passed them going the opposite way on the path, holding hands. Justin glanced back at Abby and Daniel. Abby grinned at him.
“So which one are you?” Rafe asked.
Justin turned around to face him. “Sorry?”
He raked a hand through his hair, gave it a shake. “The pilgrims. Which one of them are you?”
It was a playful question, a creative question. One that said a lot about how Rafe thought. A nervy excitement hummed through Justin. He tilted his head, thought for a moment. “I suppose I’m a cross between and the Clerk and the Pardoner?”
Rafe’s mouth went tight with amusement. He threw a look back at the others, gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “And which one is she? Not the Prioress.”
“Not the Wife of Bath, either,” Justin said. And then he was picturing it: freckled, spindle-legged Abby in scarlet stockings, flirting with everyone. He started to laugh, cupping a hand over his mouth. Rafe really was smiling now: all perfect white teeth and a dimple in his chin. That smile might just have been the most beautiful thing Justin had ever seen.
Abby and Daniel caught up to them just outside the Buttery. “What are you two on about?” Abby asked.
They looked at each other and said, as if they’d rehearsed it: “Chaucer.”
And then they were the both of them laughing. Justin’s laugh was a stifled giggle and Rafe’s a breathy, startled snort, but their eyes were locked, and the joke was all theirs. Daniel tilted his head at them, his forehead a mass of intrigued creases.
“Oh, good,” Abby said brightly. “Well, I’ve got to head off to the jacks, but I figure if the rest of you lot go in straight away, there’s a chance we can still lay claim to a table for four before the lunch rush.” She lifted her chin, met Rafe’s eyes straight on. “You’re coming?”
Rafe looked at all three of them in turn. He shrugged. “All right.”
As Justin followed Abby inside, it struck him that the corners of his mouth actually felt stretched out from so much smiling. Trinity was clearly the sort of perfect, shining place where magical things could happen, and he never wanted to have to go back home again. Not ever.
The reprieve of Justin’s house-initiation was pretty short-lived. Sometime in the middle of the following night I woke with a start, the bed shaking beneath me. At that point we didn’t have any curtains for the bedroom yet, and a huge moon was shining in through the window like a spotlight, making the whole scene look like some old black-and-white horror film. At first I couldn’t fathom what was shaking, but as sleep slowly fell away from me, I realised it had to be Justin.
I rolled toward him. He’d pushed his end of the extra quilt down to the foot of the bed, and his arms were twisted up around the corner of the duvet. His back was glistening with sweat, but he was trembling so hard he looked as if he’d just come in from the cold without a coat. I scooted up to him and started to wrap an arm around him, but he let out a strangled sob and pushed me away. He buried his face in his pillow and said something I couldn’t make out. The pain in it cut straight through me.
“What was that?” I asked. I tried to touch him again: a tentative hand on his bare shoulder, tacky with sweat. Justin pulled away, huddled up against the very edge of the bed.
And then he was on his feet, belting out the bedroom door. I pushed myself up against the mattress, watched him go. From down the hall, I heard the door to the toilet slam.
I was fully awake by then, my body flushed with adrenalin, and it was a long time before I lay back down against the pillow. Everybody has a bad dream now and then—you’re back in year eight English and you’re standing at the front of the room to recite when everyone starts laughing—but this was something else entirely. I started sifting through the evidence, and eventually latched onto the thought that there had to have been some sort of abuse in Justin’s past, whether by his parents—that would have explained why I’d never met them—or maybe by a previous partner. The latter seemed more likely, at this point: one of the Gaggle had a sister who’d been through that particular brand of hell, and I wasn’t under any illusions that it couldn’t happen to a man.
Whatever it was, though, he didn’t want to talk about it. At least not with me.
He was gone just over half an hour. When he came back, I was down under the duvet, the extra quilt tucked under my chin. He could tell I was still awake—my eyes were wide open and I was staring right at him—but he kept his gaze averted and crawled into bed with his back to me. Once he was settled I reached across once more and put a tentative hand on his shoulder, but he flinched away, and I didn’t try again. He started pretending to be asleep after that. I knew better, though: his breathing was too shallow, his shoulders too tense.
Eventually I did fall back asleep, though I’m still not sure whether Justin did. When my alarm went off in the morning, the bed next to me was empty, and I could hear him moving around in the kitchen downstairs.
I dug my dressing gown out of a box in the corner, put it on, and headed down. Justin was standing in the kitchen, fully dressed for work, his tie already knotted. Two of the remaining boxes had been opened, and both his electric kettle and my toaster were unpacked, along with a box of teabags and a sliced pan.
I leaned against the doorjamb. “Good morning.”
Justin lifted his head in my general direction, but didn’t meet my eyes. “Morning.”
He was trying to butter his toast, but his hands were clearly still shaking. In profile his face was pale, his mouth tight.
“Getting an early start?” I asked.
“I’ve got a bit further to drive now.” He didn’t look up.
His old flat had been just the other side of the river: ten minutes in the car, in the worst possible traffic. “I guess so.”
The kettle rustled as it started to boil, followed by a beep. He bent down to lift two of the mugs. They rattled furiously against the counter as he set them down.
And then Justin tried to pick up the kettle, and a splash of water sloshed right out the front. I moved toward him. “Here, let me do that,” I said, grabbing for it.
Justin took a big step back, the frustration scrolling across his face. He dropped his arms. He gave first one of his hands a tug, then the other, like he was willing them to behave.
I poured two mugs of water and dunked the teabags into them. Justin was staring at the floor. I moved closer and slipped a hand around his waist. “Did you want to talk about it?”
A wall slammed down between us. “I’m sorry.”
I rocked back a step. Tension spread across my shoulders. “What’s there to be sorry about?”
He lifted the smaller of the two boxes up onto the stove and started unpacking it: the other four mugs.
Now my teeth were clenched. “I don’t know why you won’t—”
Justin flinched, lowered his arms. One of the mugs clattered against the counter.
I made myself dial it back. “I really just want to understand,” I said.
He let out a sigh that was barely more than a sniff.
“If you don’t want to talk to me, maybe you should think about talking to someone—professional?”
He ignored that one entirely. He opened up one of the cupboard doors, started sliding the dishes inside.
Looking back, it feels like this was where everything could have gone completely pear-shaped. On the one hand I was concerned for him—whatever this was, clearly he was not doing very well at all—and of course a foghorn was sounding in the back of my mind the whole time that this new commitment would turn out to be more than he could handle. But by this point I felt more frustrated than anything. I mean, it had been three years—more than enough time to figure out whether someone’s worth taking the trouble to confide in—and I just plain resented the fact that he wouldn’t talk to me. I left a silence massive enough that it stretched into minutes, and when he refused yet again to fill it, it took all the willpower I had not to respond with any of the things that would have sent us straight into a blazing row.
It was so close to happening that I could see in my mind how it would have unfolded: I’d have started out asking whether he really meant to send the message that he didn’t want to make an effort with me, he would have got defensive, and before long we’d have been fighting about everything but whatever was going on with him.
In the end, though, I guess my fear of losing him trumped my indignation. “At least think about it?” I said finally.
“I’ll do that,” Justin said, in a small voice with no breath behind it. He cleared his throat.
Tentatively, I moved toward him again, curled a finger through one of his belt loops and gave his hip a wee squeeze. He reached down and let his hand linger on mine for a moment, but his face was stone.
Rafe’s feet thudded off the concrete steps as he raced up them, taking two at a time. When he reached the top, he pushed the door open and wove his way over to their regular table. The Buttery was little more than a bloody school canteen once you scratched the surface, but over the past three years it had become their regular haunt.
Their table was empty, and for a quick moment Rafe eyed it, puzzled. It was half an hour before their usual lunchtime, but Justin had specifically asked him to come early. Rafe shot a glance back at the door, then looked around and finally spotted him sitting by himself in one of the booths along the wall. He was tucked away in a little nook you couldn’t even see from the entrance, the one that was usually filled with rugby wankers with shoulders like eight-wheeler lorries and even bigger mouths. They weren’t going to be thrilled that Justin had nicked their table.
Rafe walked over to him. “Where are the others?” He craned his neck, looking over his shoulder. “What are you doing all the way over here?”
“They’re going to come by a bit later.” Justin nudged his glasses down his nose, then back up again.
Rafe slid in opposite him. From over by the entryway a couple of first-year girls started shrieking. Rafe smirked at them, waited for Justin’s pithy comment in response, but he didn’t react.
“There’s something I want to talk to you about.” Justin laid both hands flat against the table.
“All right,” Rafe said with a shrug.
Justin dropped his eyes. He was staring at the middle of the table as if he could make something materialise there.
A tiny knot of tension worked its way up the back of Rafe’s neck. “What did you—”
“Wait,” Justin said loudly, and one of his hands flew up: splayed wide, stiff. “Please,” he said, more quietly. He was still staring at the table. Then his eyes flicked up, met Rafe’s. “Ever since I was about six, I’ve known there was something different about me.”
Rafe gave him a long look. That was the sort of melodramatic Justin line that always made Rafe want to take the piss—Different? You mean your face? Oh, wait, you’re talking about the spaceship that brought you to our planet twenty-one years ago!—but Justin’s eyes were hooded and his face so serious that the words evaporated as soon as they’d formed.
“It pretty much came to a head in sixth form, but I managed to bottle it up and focused on my A-levels.” He dropped his hand back down to the table. “And it really was fine back then, at least most of the time. It didn’t matter so much that I wasn’t telling anyone when there was no one I cared about enough to tell.”
Realisation slammed into Rafe at full speed: Justin was about to tell him how he felt. His forehead went hot and clammy, like the start of a fever.
“I was never in denial about what it meant about me, exactly—I mean, I pretty much always knew. And I suppose back then I thought, maybe, when I got to college—but then I met you—and Abby, and Daniel—and suddenly the stakes were higher. What if you couldn’t accept it? I wouldn’t have been able to bear it.”
Rafe shoved his back up against the wall and hunched down. He’d thought they had an understanding, unspoken, that they wouldn’t talk about this. For Rafe that sort of business had always been more about randy teenagers finally being out from under their parents’ watchful eyes than anything you could have ever called love, but that difference between him and Justin had never particularly mattered. It had been nothing but background noise from the start anyhow, never any sort of massive elephant in the room that they’d all had to go to Herculean lengths to ignore. Not until now.
“It’s as if there’s always been a voice in the back of my head, whispering but what if they knew? But we’re all of us older now, and postgrads, and—and I suppose I’ve been feeling that things can’t go on this way forever. And that means I’ve got to stop listening to that voice. Anyway.” Justin leaned back against the booth, drew in a long breath. “I’m gay.”
Rafe’s spine seized up. Their equilibrium was going to be at stake, after this: the carefully maintained balance between the five of them. So far they’d each played their own role in cultivating it, like a top they all had to take turns nudging along its various edges. It had only faltered a bit when Lexie’d come along, and now they were good as new, just one person stronger. It was always going to be tenuous, though. You couldn’t just give it a hard shove in one spot and assume that everything would just keep on spinning properly. Rafe grabbed the salt and pepper shakers, clinked them against each other. His eyes twitched over to the exit.
The hopeful look on Justin’s face shriveled into a wince. He hesitated, stumbling over a breath, then pressed on. “Ah. I’m sure you’ll have noticed that I’ve never been especially good with—” He waved a hand in the space beside their table to indicate out there. “Lovers. And that’s not changed—I mean, I’ve not gone and got myself a boyfriend or anything.”
Rafe let go of the salt and pepper and gripped the edge of the table. What scared him most was how much he needed them. Any one of them alone was worth ten of either of his parents, but all together they were the one thing that could consistently make Rafe feel fully human. From the start, Justin had been the vine that had wound its way through his carefully walled off world and pulled him toward the others, but since then all five of their roots had intertwined, and you could no longer tug any of them apart. Sometimes when Rafe was alone in his flat at night, it felt if he’d stopped existing.
Justin stared at Rafe, huge-eyed. “I’m really just saying this because I thought you deserved to know. Because you’re important to me, Rafe. And now I can’t tell—I’ve really got no idea at all what you’re thinking.” He shifted in his seat, his hands twisting together. “I tried to sort through in advance what your possible reactions might be, but I didn’t expect—have you really got nothing to say?”
Rafe was still braced against the table, but suddenly Justin looked like he was done talking. The proverbial other shoe dissolved into thin air. “What do you—you mean that’s it?”
Justin’s eyebrows knitted up. “Y—yes?”
“Oh.” Rafe let go of the table, the muscles loosening first in his arms, then in the rest of his body. “Okay. Well, good, then.”
The crease between Justin’s eyebrows deepened.
A reckless energy burned through all of Rafe’s leftover adrenalin in one burst. He put on a cocky grin. “I mean, it’s less competition for me, right?”
The cloud around Justin’s shoulders lifted, leaving a smile behind. “Oh.” He put his head down, laughed. “I’m so—had you already guessed?”
A thread between them stretched taut. Rafe gave him a stiff shrug.
“Abby wasn’t surprised, either,” Justin said, and the thread slackened again. He shook his head. “I’ve probably made this out to be something much bigger than it needed to be, in my head.” His face went pink. “Silly, I know.”
“You told Abby?” There was a little twist in Rafe’s chest.
Justin tilted his head, confused. “Well, yes.”
“Are we allowed to come back yet?” Lexie, at the edge of the table.
Rafe blinked. “Wait, you knew?”
“Come on, Lex, let them be,” Abby called out from across two empty tables. She was standing next to Daniel, waiting.
Lexie shrugged, didn’t move. “Justin brought it up last week,” she said to Rafe. “One day while we were walking back to the library from the Arts Building.”
“He’s known you eight months!” Rafe threw his hands into the air. “Not even that.”
“Aww, is somebody feeling left out?” she said in a singsong. She gave him a little pat on the head. “So sad. Scoot in.”
Justin made room for Daniel and Abby on his side of the booth, and Rafe moved over to let Lexie in, frowning. “You all knew?”
Daniel shrugged. “For me it was last week, too.”
“Going on a month now, for me,” Abby said. “Officially, I mean.”
Justin had worked so hard to get each of them alone. That would have been an enormous undertaking, too, just to keep it from him this long. Rafe made a face, folded his arms.
Abby rolled her eyes. “Okay, our Justin’s done something terribly brave, here. Please tell me you’re not going to go and make this all about you feeling the odd one out.”
“I’m not,” Rafe insisted, scowling.
Justin pointed an eyebrow at him. “Somebody had to be the last to know,” he said, his tone so flat he almost sounded like Daniel. But he started grinning like a Cheshire cat halfway through, like he was so full of emotion that he couldn’t help but let it spill over onto the table.
A jolt of energy hit Rafe: Justin didn’t want to bollocks up their equilibrium any more than Rafe did, and he’d made carefully sure he hadn’t done. Daniel was still as imperturbable as ever, Abby still prickly and nurturing by turns, Lexie still a gigantic eight-year-old, Justin still Justin. They were still going to be them.
Suddenly Rafe was grinning too, with Justin echoing it back at him until they were both just sitting there like a pair of bloody idiots. And it was one of the most ridiculous thoughts he’d ever had, but all at once he wanted nothing more than for all five of them to climb into some soft, warm place together and just stay there, forever.
Work kept me so busy that day that I hardly had a free moment to worry about what might be waiting for me at home. As soon as I pulled up outside, though, it all came back. And when I opened up the front door, I saw a little brown roller bag through the French doors, poised and waiting in the sitting room. One I’d never seen before.
I mean, just think about what that looked like from my perspective: I’d just bought a house with this man, he was clearly stressed about that fact beyond any reasonable understanding, and then I arrived home to find that he’d packed a suitcase and had one foot already out the door. I was so sure this was it: three years over just like that, and without even a real explanation. All the wee hairs on my skin lifted, and the breath flew out of my lungs like I’d been sucker-punched. I was too panicked to even be angry.
“What is this?” I said as I pushed the doors open, staring at the suitcase. Then I looked up at Justin. He was sitting at a completely empty table, and his tie was loosened, but he hadn’t changed out of his work clothes. My heart started going like a horse at a racetrack. “Are you moving back out?”
Justin winced. “No. Just—” His eyes met mine, twitched instantly away. “—would you please sit down? If I don’t do this right now, I’m never going to do it at all.”
My shoulders felt like bricks, and it was an effort to get my coat off. I hung it on the rack and came back inside, closing both doors behind me. Finally, I sat down in the chair next to Justin’s, searched his face. He was staring at a space in the air in front of him. His hands were pressed into fists against the table, so tight his knuckles were white.
“Right. So.” He drew in a long breath. “I killed someone.”
This felt like a complete non sequitur. He might as well have announced that he was moving to Tibet, or had decided to run off and marry an elephant. I blinked. “What?”
“Not—I don’t mean—” He waved a hand in the air, caught another breath. “Down in Dublin. While I was at Trinity. Nearly ten years ago.” His voice was a hollow monotone: it would have sounded matter-of-fact if it hadn’t been so strained.
I couldn’t parse what he was saying. “You mean—an accident?”
Justin closed his eyes.
I reached through the tangle of my thoughts for an explanation, any explanation. “In your car. You were driving?”
He opened his eyes and gathered his hands into fists again, looser this time. He brought them both to his mouth for the length of one long breath: in and out. Then he set them back on the table. “At Trinity, I had—some friends,” he said finally. “Four of them. We were close, so close that—one—one of them was my first lover. And the others, well—I loved them, too.” There was a long shadow of pain in his voice.
I had no idea where this was going. “What does that have to do with—”
“Can you just—I need to get this out.” He paused for a moment, a muscle rippling in the corner of his jaw. “One of them—she was—she hurt us. The rest of us. I was angry. We were all angry, but I was the one with the knife and I—” He brought his fist to his mouth again.
“You stabbed someone? With a knife?” I forced myself to picture it: Justin, standing there with some sinister-looking switchblade, like a Hollywood gangster. It was so ridiculous it was almost comical. I gave him a faint, incredulous headshake.
He shielded his eyes with a hand, like he was trying to make himself remember and forget at the same time. He nodded. “She ran from us—from me. Hid. We couldn’t find her at first and she—she died. The other three—they covered it up. Helped me cover it up.” He swallowed. “The police questioned all of us. No one was charged. But it was me. It was me.”
It was then that it filtered through to my conscious mind that this had actually happened. I remember that my eyes snapped open wide, and I remember that it was a long moment before my breath came back to me. I remember picturing the scene like a cheap slasher film with all kinds of blood and gore, and Justin standing in the middle of it all. I can only guess what my face looked like, but when he stole a quick glance at me, it made him cringe.
He stood. “Right, then. I—I’ve got a room booked for tonight, so I’ll just be—”
“Justin.” I stood up too.
He rushed over to the French doors, threw them open, reached for his coat. “I mean, I certainly don’t expect you to—now that you know—”
“Stop. Just wait.” I leaned against the table. My mind was still whirling, and I was staring at him, trying to make it all make sense. “Give me a minute, all right?”
Justin jerked his arms into his coat, his head down like it was too painful to look at me. “If it makes you feel any better, there’s nothing you’re thinking about me that I haven’t already thought about myself,” he called out from across the room. He grabbed his suitcase—the handle was already extended for a quick getaway—and headed for the door.
I didn’t even consciously decide to walk over there. I just remember thinking that I had to pull myself together, and straight away, or else he was going to be gone. So by the time Justin had hold of the front door handle, I was standing next to him. His eyes were wet.
“I love you,” I said.
“Don’t.” His voice was a sob.
“But I do.”
He squared his shoulders, turned his head away. And then he opened the door and was gone: long strides along the pavement, yellow headlights against the dark, a puff of exhaust in the distance.
I don’t know how long I stood there staring at the spot across the street where his car had been parked—several minutes, at least. Eventually, though, I pulled myself together, closed the door, and went back inside.
It had been Justin’s turn to make supper that night, so I made myself go into the kitchen and cut up a couple of chicken breasts for a makeshift curry, anyway. The last fifteen minutes had taken a shredder to my mind, though, and I couldn’t focus. My thoughts kept turning cartwheels from Justin’s murder scene—blood everywhere, a knife, and a dead body—to the realisation that he had just walked straight out of the beginning of our life together with a suitcase trailing behind him. By the time I was done, I had an oversalted chicken vindaloo that was more than enough for two, and a sinking feeling that if I didn’t find it in myself to go after him, I was going to be eating double portions of bad homemade curries alone in that kitchen for the rest of my life.
I went to bed after that, but it was a long, long time before I could fall asleep.
The night air was a chill on Justin’s face. They were huddled together on the swing seat for warmth, the three of them: his head resting on Rafe’s thigh, his legs stretched out across Abby’s lap. An enormous olive-green blanket that they’d found in one of the spare rooms was tucked in around them. A few feet away Daniel was sitting on one of the patio steps, facing the garden and looking up at the sky with a cigarette in his hand. Lexie was sprawled out on her back between them against the patio, her eyes closed.
“Tonight marks our first full day at Whitethorn House,” Daniel announced, to the garden.
Rafe thrust his empty glass upward. “To making it through.”
Justin held up his own glass, a twinge running through his arm from all the scrubbing earlier. Rafe clinked his against it.
Daniel shook his head. “It’s been absolutely everything I’d dared hope for.”
Abby poked her chin out from under the blanket. “You mean the house?”
Daniel turned toward them, facing them head on. The look on his face was one of utter contentment. “The house. The five of us.”
Abby echoed his smile back at him. Lexie sat up, scooted toward him along the patio floor until she was leaning against him, her shoulder tucked under his arm.
“It’s been positively Epicurean, don’t you think?” Daniel put an arm around Lexie’s waist and took a drag on his cigarette, looking up at the sky as he exhaled. The smoke formed a cloud around his head before dissipating. “A bit of hard work, but not too much. Enjoying the drink, but in moderation.”
“Moderation in all things?” Rafe asked.
“Including moderation,” Justin said, tilting his head back to smirk at him.
“Pursuing both philosophy and pleasure,” Daniel continued. “Ridding ourselves of all the unnecessary problems that human beings invent to make themselves miserable. But most importantly, taking the time we need to enjoy each other’s company.”
“Once the term starts we’ll have a lot less of this sort of time,” Abby said.
“That’s all the more reason to enjoy it properly now.” Daniel reached for the ashtray, flicked the ash off his cigarette, then snuggled back up to Lexie. “The Epicureans even lived together, in a house with a big garden just outside Athens. I imagine it was very much like this house, in many ways.”
“Our house,” Justin said, trying it on. In an ideal world he would never have to venture into the kitchen again, but somehow saying it aloud still felt exciting.
Abby turned onto her side, shifting against Justin’s legs. “Still Daniel’s house, according to the paperwork,” she said.
Daniel shook his head. “The transfer of ownership won’t be long now. December at the latest, they said. And in the meantime, I know better.”
There was a long, satisfied silence filled only by the rustling of trees—a breeze or a deer, Justin wasn’t sure—and Daniel’s cigarette smoke mingled with the sweet scent of hawthorn. It was one of those crisp September nights that signalled the coming onslaught of winter: a sky full of stars so bright they could hardly be any further away than the treetops, a chill that was just starting to threaten to bite through their clothes. Justin sat up just far enough to take a sip of wine and lay back down.
“Of course, that only means we’re all of us responsible for making it livable,” Abby said.
“Why do you think we’re all still out here on the patio?” Rafe asked. Justin couldn’t see his face from where he was lying, but he could still hear the smirk. “None of us can deal with the fact that it looks and smells like the fridge in Justin’s old flat in there.” Justin reached up to give him a poke in the ribs.
“Come on, where’s your sense of fun?” Lexie pulled her legs to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “All those rooms full of buried treasure?”
“Buried I’ll give you,” Rafe said. “Even the beds have several years’ worth of dust on them. Possibly even the one Daniel’s uncle was sleeping in regularly.”
Lexie shook her head. “But don’t you just love the sense that you never know what you’re going to find next? Every drawer you open has something new in it. Scraps of old fabric, a box of costume jewellery dating from before the 1916 Rising.”
Abby smirked at her. “Tinned French beans—”
“—also left over from 1916.” Justin held up a finger.
“Unwashed knickers,” Rafe added. “Probably worn by Daniel’s uncle.”
Lexie’s face set in a pout. “You people wouldn’t know an adventure if it bit you in the bum.”
Justin craned his neck to get a better look at the sky: it really was perfectly clear, with none of the pollution of the city. “You know, Rafe has a point. As long as I’m out here, all I can see are the stars and the trees, and I can imagine that it’s just as beautiful in there.”
“It will be beautiful,” Daniel said. “Given enough time.” He ground out his cigarette.
Lexie looked up at him, her head against his shoulder. “Well, I think it’s already beautiful.” Daniel smiled at her.
“Lexie.” Justin tucked his chin into his chest, looked down at her over his glasses. “When was the last time you had your eyes examined?”
“It’s her head she needs to get examined,” Rafe said.
“You two can’t fool me,” Lexie said. She pointed at Justin. “I saw you looking out at the view from your bedroom window like you’d just won the lottery.” She turned to look at Rafe. “And you may have been moaning about how crap it was to have to scrub the kitchen floor this afternoon, but you had an awful big smile on your face when it was done.”
“That was a bloody grimace,” Rafe protested, but he was grinning.
A silence far more intimate than speaking settled over them. Out of the corner of his eye Justin could see the side of the house where the patio met the front wall, and it felt as if it was reaching around them, enveloping the five of them in all its sturdy certainty. It struck him that he hadn’t thought about his father’s aloofness or his stepmother’s judgment for weeks, and he certainly hadn’t had the time to miss them. As soon as Daniel had told them about the house they’d seemed suddenly so far away, as if something had swooped in and moved him out of their orbit.
“All right.” Abby extricated herself from Justin, rolling off the swing seat and sending it rocking. She stood, brushed herself off, reached down to grab her empty wine glass. “It really is beautiful out here, but it’s also freezing.”
That was Lexie’s cue: she grabbed her own glass and stood, stretching like a cat. And then Daniel followed her to his feet, and the three of them headed inside.
Justin reached down and tucked the extra bits of blanket in around his legs. He shifted, leaned over to put his empty wine glass on the ground, settled back into place.
Then his shoulder muscles went tight. Rafe was hard. Right there, right at Justin’s neck, that was his—
For a long, long moment Justin didn’t dare move, but there was a stirring inside of him like the shifting of tectonic plates, and zaps of electric current were coursing through his body. All at once he was conscious of every place where they were touching: his elbow resting against the underside of Rafe’s knee, Rafe’s foot tucked under Justin’s back, his head cradled next to Rafe’s hip. It was as if a light switch he’d deliberately turned off years ago had suddenly gone live again. This wasn’t the flickering lamp in the garden, either: this was the floodlights in a supermarket car park, this was a blinding spotlight on an opera singer during her last aria.
Justin shifted onto his side, took a long look. Rafe’s eyes were gently closed, his face relaxed and still. If anything, he’d only got more beautiful in the last five years: the choirboy curves in his face were a man’s now, and his hair was shorter at the sides in a way that made his face look sleeker and more streamlined. There was a scratch on his neck where he’d cut himself shaving: the tiniest vulnerability right near the spot where you could see his pulse fluttering.
He had to try something. It was a compulsion, it was a chance.
Justin tunnelled his hand up underneath the blanket, reaching for Rafe. He was trembling. Then his fingers met thick denim, and that hardness underneath.
Rafe’s eyes didn’t open at the contact, but his lips parted in a silent gasp. Then Justin started moving his hand, and the muscles corded in Rafe’s neck, sending a flush across his face like a sunburn. Justin’s pulse leaped in response. There was a burst of warmth in his chest that went all the way down.
“Don’t,” Rafe said suddenly, in a hoarse whisper. He swallowed.
Justin snapped his hand back. Embarrassment burned through him to the tips of his toes.
Then Rafe sat bolt upright, grabbing Justin’s arm. His eyes held Justin’s for a long moment, and he tossed a quick but meaningful glance at the house. “I think I’m going to head off to bed,” he said loudly. He let go of Justin’s arm, stood, headed for the door without even a look back.
Justin’s thoughts started buzzing, colliding against each other. Was he asking Justin to go to bed with him? Was he saying he would be joining Justin in bed?
Either way, it meant sex, with Rafe.
The idea burst into Justin’s head like some wayward comet, searing through every other thought that was lodged there: Sex with Rafe. Sex with Rafe. “Me too,” Justin managed to say.
“Be sure to shake out the blanket before you bring it in,” Abby called out, through the window.
Justin grabbed the blanket and stepped down into the garden. His arms were jelly as he shook the stray twigs out of the blanket, but his mind was going like an engine on overdrive. He’d traced these exact thoughts so many times that they were practically engraved onto his mind, and now it was all about to happen.
Might be about to happen. If he hadn’t misunderstood.
Justin hugged the blanket to his chest. The air nipped at him, and he could feel the chill on every inch of exposed skin.
The next half hour crawled by like swimming through treacle. Justin took the third turn in the shower after Abby and Rafe, so distracted he nearly forgot to turn the water off when he was done. Then he put on his pyjamas like any normal night—was this a normal night?—turned off the light, and got into bed. He listened to the others in the bathroom across the hall: first Daniel, then Lexie. Then the house went quiet.
Justin lay there for what surely must have bordered on forever, uncertain whether he was supposed to wait there or go downstairs. Then the door to his room slid open: silently, but with purpose. Rafe was just a blurry outline across the room at first, but then he was right there, smelling of soap and toothpaste in just his boxers, a muscle rippling in his forearm.
Rafe lifted Justin’s duvet, climbed inside, grabbed onto Justin’s hand. Then he wrapped it around his erection through the thin cotton fabric of his boxers. There was a rush in Justin’s head like he was about to pass out: this was happening this was actually happening.
“Right, then,” Justin said, his breathing coming in gasps. He looked Rafe in the eyes: tea-brown with those golden flecks. They’d never been quite this close. “You should know—I’ve ah, never actually—I don’t know what I’m—”
Rafe’s fingers flew to Justin’s mouth. “Shut up,” he said with a smirk.
He inched down, his hand snaking up inside Justin’s pyjama top to rest against his navel, sending Justin’s stomach muscles coiling tight. Then, with a single tug, Rafe pulled the bottoms down. His face was right there, so close Justin could feel the heat of his breath against his leg, and that was Rafe’s warm mouth around his—and—and oh, this definitely wasn’t the first time Rafe had done this.
Justin had only a split second to register what that implied before his mind shut down, and he gave himself over to it.
I knew there was only one place in the city Justin would have booked a room on such short notice. It was a guest house just off the Stranmillis road where he’d told me he’d stayed for a few weeks once, at a time before we met when he’d been briefly between flats. It turned out not to have much of a lobby, but I planted myself in the uncomfortable armchair across from the front desk. I was there waiting for him when he came downstairs the next morning.
He froze when he saw me, his hand on the bannister, and his suitcase dropped to the step he was standing on. He was wearing his coat and a fresh pair of trousers, but he hadn’t shaved, and judging from the red rims around his eyes he hadn’t slept much either. Then he picked up his suitcase again, walked the rest of the way down. He wasn’t looking at me.
I stood, bridged the space between us. “Can we please talk about this?”
The woman behind the front desk was probably in her fifties, with wiry grey hair and a face that was made up completely of curves. She shot me a suspicious look.
Justin walked up and leaned against the desk, struggling to maintain his stone façade.
“I mean, your checkout time’s not actually until eleven,” I said, forcing a smile. “I confirmed that with this very nice lady, here, so I did.”
The very nice lady narrowed her eyes.
“And that means you’ve got the room for another two and a half hours,” I added.
She shot the both of us a full-on glare. A fresh wave of tears rose to Justin’s eyes.
I stepped closer to him. “At least give me that chance?” I said, more quietly.
His shoulders slumped, but he gave me a nod, almost invisible. He led me up the stairs.
The room was sparsely furnished but neat: he’d even made the single bed before coming down. Our eyes met as I pulled the door shut behind us, but Justin flinched and looked away again.
I took off my coat and folded it over the edge of the bed. Justin left his on, though, and stayed hovering near the door right next to the spot where he’d set down his suitcase.
I sat down next to my coat. “Okay. When I said I loved you, I meant it. I wanted to be with you before last night, and nothing about that changed when you told me about what happened.”
The moisture in his eyes thickened. He squeezed them shut, but a tear leaked out of one corner.
“We can make this work,” I said, my voice insistent.
Justin choked on a laugh. “How can you—” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “I can’t even imagine what you must think of me.”
“I think—well, I guess I think I know you better than I did yesterday.”
Another laugh: a hiccup that rounded a corner and twisted into a sob.
I tried to catch his eye. See, I’m in charge of the money at the Belfast branch of a big London-based law firm, and an awful lot of criminals had passed through our offices over the years. I don’t have the sort of contact with them the solicitors do, of course, but I’ve shaken hands with plenty of them. Some make excuses for whatever it is they’ve done, but with enough others the remorse clings to them like a burr to a woolen jumper.
He wouldn’t look up, so I kept going. “And I’ve met too many people who’ve done awful things not to be aware that they’re still just people, most of them are.”
He gave his forehead a rub with the side of his hand.
“And I love you,” I said. A half-shrug, with one shoulder. “But you know that part already.”
His eyes travelled over to me, bounced away. “Paul, I—I’m a mess.”
“Well, that’s not really news to me, now, is it?” I said, forcing a smile.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
“You know, it’s almost a relief, in a way,” I continued.
He shook his head. “You can’t mean that.”
“I mean, it’s not as if I didn’t know something was wrong. I’ve known from the first week we were together. And now I finally know what it was.”
Another laugh, almost a sigh.
I stood, walked over to stand beside him. “And no, of course it’s not even in the same universe as the things I’d been assuming it had to be. But it’s still a relief to finally know.”
I reached for him then, and he let me hold him. We just stood there for a long time, his coat half-unbuttoned, his cheek pressed against my neck.
And then Justin pulled away. He took off his glasses, gave them a rub on his coat. “I do love you. So much. But I loved Lexie, too. And Rafe. And Abby, and—and Daniel. Oh, God, I haven’t even told you about Daniel.”
I took a half-step back, my hand still on his arm, leaving a space for him to elaborate. I was ready to hear the rest.
He gave me a helpless look. “I don’t think I know how to do that properly right now. Love someone. Not when I haven’t even taken any sort of responsibility for what I did.”
“You did a pretty good job of it the other afternoon,” I teased, trying to inject at least a hint of levity into all this.
He ignored the teasing. “Paul, I—” He ran a stiff hand across his forehead. “For ten years I’ve looked at myself in the mirror every single day and decided not to phone the police. Every day I’ve thought about doing it, and every day I’ve decided not to. Like I’ve got some God-given right to make that choice. Like I’m so bloody special I just get to stand there and think right, then, it’s going to be yet another day where I get to go unpunished.” There was a terrifying hatred in his voice: raw and biting and turned entirely on himself.
Something surged in me, something protective. I reached for him.
He took a step back. “And it’s time. I need to make that right, as best I can.”
“What?” I felt a rush of vertigo. “What are you saying?”
Justin drew in a long breath. “When I check out downstairs, I’m going to drive down to Dublin. I’m going to turn myself in.”
“Wait.” Something acidic dropped into my stomach. “No.”
“Yes.” His eyes met mine with a sudden determination.
“It’s—it’s an old case,” I said, my head whirling. “It’s a cold case.”
He gave his head a ferocious shake. “It’s not a cold case, it’s a closed case. One that should never have been closed without a confession from the real killer.”
I started to panic in earnest then. I work with lawyers who talk about their cases like soldiers tell their war stories, and what raced through my mind just then was everything horrible I’d ever heard about prisons down South: violent assaults on inmates, hostage situations, riots. It’s not as if ours are necessarily any better, but that didn’t matter—each time I remembered one of those cases, I pictured Justin with his back up against some wall, surrounded by convicts twice his size and a hundred times as tough. My heart bounded up from my chest, lodging in my throat. “You can’t do that. You can’t.”
His jaw set. “I have to, Paul.”
My mind kept churning through the names of all the awful prisons I’d heard about down there: Mountjoy, Cloverhill, Wheatfield. Justin wouldn’t survive in any of them, not even for a week. “Justin, you don’t—prison is a terrible place.”
“I’m not afraid of that. It’s what I deserve.”
“Well, you should be afraid of that, no matter what you think you deserve.” My voice was winding tight, and I grasped at anything that might put a stop to this. “What about—aren’t there other people you can talk to about this? Didn’t you say there were three others? Your friends, from Dublin?”
There was a flicker of pain on his face, and a split second later, a crack in his resolve. Then his knees started to buckle beneath him, and he stumbled the rest of the way into the room, sat down on the corner of the bed.
He pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “Two,” he said.
His eyes flicked up to me, then back down again. “There are two others. Left. Now.”
There was a quiver in my stomach. I had no idea what that meant. I went to sit down next to him, but I let the silence grow.
“But you’re right,” he said finally. He gave his forehead a rub, and when he lifted his head, he just looked defeated. “Abby and Rafe certainly wouldn’t want—we weren’t even supposed to—”
“Come on,” I said, I tugging at the lapel of his coat. “Take this off.” Justin unbuttoned it absently, and I pulled his arms out of the sleeves. I laid it over the top of mine.
“Because—because of Daniel,” he was saying. “He—God, I don’t know how to talk about this.” He leaned forward, traced his eyebrows with a thumb and index finger.
Justin’s breathing was shallow. “Daniel, he—he confessed. Right before he—there was a—a cop. A detective. A woman.” His eyes fell briefly shut, then opened again. “She shot him. He died.”
A sudden understanding clicked into place, and I drew in a breath. “That’s why no one was charged. Because the person who had confessed was dead.”
Justin pressed his mouth into a line.
The silence came back, and we both sat there for a few moments as I digested all that. Ten years ago Justin would have been twenty-four: not far off from being a teenager, really, and in the middle of that whole scene. It was clear who the villain of his story had been—Justin wasn’t even trying to mince words about that—but I still felt a sudden pang for that young man, in so far over his head with something he couldn’t take back.
And then my eyes were on Justin’s hands, in his lap, tense and twisted into a half-clench. Those hands—those hands I knew like a part of my own body—they had taken a life. I pictured the knife again: silver and shining and deadly. I blinked. It was almost impossible to imagine—almost, but not quite.
He caught me staring then, and fresh shame washed across his face. He slid his hands underneath his legs, turned his head away.
Then he let out a sigh like a single puff of smoke. Slowly, he brought his hands back out. He put them in his lap palms up: an admission.
“The police—they had to let us go,” he said finally. “Because of what Daniel said. Because nobody could prove anything different, and we didn’t—so if I were to—it would have consequences.”
My panic started to recede: those consequences would at least buy him some time. I rested a hand on the edge of the mattress, leaned against it.
“So I suppose I—I should at least talk to Abby first. She’s never been anything but lovely to me, even—even afterward. I owe her that.”
“You’re in contact with her?” I pictured him having regular conversations with her all this time—late-night phone calls, long emails—and just never mentioning anything about it to me. There were so many things I didn’t know about this man.
He shook his head. “I haven’t heard from her in eight or nine years. But I Google her once in a while. She’s in London now, a lecturer at one of those dreadful former polytechnics. I suppose—I suppose I’ll fly over next weekend.”
I reached for him, slowly stroked down his arm starting at his shoulder. When I arrived at his wrist, I spread his hand wide. He had a wee scar that stretched halfway across his left palm: white, pencil-thin, and puckered at one end. It wasn’t large enough to really stand out, but it had always been there, and suddenly I couldn’t stop looking at it. I traced it with my index finger.
Justin jerked back almost imperceptibly, just far enough that I was no longer touching the scar. Then he pressed our palms together, intertwining our fingers. “Will you—can I ask you to come with me?”
“To talk to Abby about confessing?” The vertigo was back, as if the world had suddenly started moving faster than anything I could cope with.
I closed my eyes and let my head roll back. “Justin.”
“I’m serious, Paul.” His voice was even, and he dropped my hand. “I have to do this. I can’t put it off any longer. And if—if that means this is it for you and me, I understand.” He sniffed. “I more than understand.”
I put my head back down and met his eyes. “I didn’t say this was it.”
Justin’s face went still.
“I said the opposite of that, actually.” I shook my head. “And I hope that’s what you heard.”
At one corner of his mouth, a wisp of a smile.
I gave my head another shake. “Do you even want me there? In London?”
I searched his face: he meant it. And despite everything else that was going on, that meant something to me. I couldn’t help but see it as a good sign.
Then my mind boomeranged back to what he was proposing. If he did this, there would be meetings with solicitors, possibly a trial, a sentencing hearing. That, too, was almost impossible to imagine—almost, but not quite.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll come with you.”
He gave my knee a squeeze. “Thank you.”
I could still taste a trace of the acid on the back of my tongue, but I spread my hand across his anyway.
“I’m starting to think Daniel’s uncle never threw anything away,” Rafe said. He’d picked one of the ubiquitous crumbling boxes in the sitting room at random, and he and Lexie had its contents spread out across the table: a few colourful wooden blocks, a stack of old letters from one of Daniel’s long-dead relatives to another, some gardening tools, what looked like a pile of dishrags. The smoke from the hawthorn twigs Daniel had thrown onto the fire hung over the room like mist, making it smell like winter.
“Keep the tools, bin the rest,” said Abby from the kitchen.
Lexie snatched the letters from the table. “Don’t you dare bin these.”
Rafe rolled his eyes. Just three days since they’d moved in, and the pile of tat Lexie had insisted on rescuing was already waist-high. “Clearly you were cut from the same hoarder cloth as Uncle Simon.”
Abby twisted the cork out of a bottle of wine. “What are we going to do about the piano?” she called out to Daniel.
Daniel looked up from the fire and shot the piano a sceptical glance. “Will we use it? It does take up an awful lot of space in that corner of the room.”
Lexie poked Rafe in the arm. “You play, don’t you?”
“You might as well ask whether Shakespeare wrote sonnets,” Justin called out from the sitting room, without looking up from his book.
There was a prickle of unease on the back of Rafe’s neck. “Hardly.”
Rafe dipped his head, let a curtain of hair fall across his eyes, studied Justin through the gaps. He was curled up under a blanket on the sofa with a notebook in his lap and a pen in his hand. He’d been like this all day: just a bit too quiet.
“I think Rafe should play piano and we should all sit around drinking mint juleps,” Lexie announced.
“What’s a mint julep?” Daniel asked. He gave the fire an absent poke, and it flared a bright orange.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Lexie said. “But drinking one while Rafe plays piano would make me feel like I was sitting in a cocktail lounge.”
Abby set three wine glasses on the table, and she held the bottle up so that Lexie could read the label. “Tonight we’ve got a cheap Italian red. Take it or leave it.”
“That’s okay.” Lexie shrugged and picked up a glass. “I’ve got a good imagination.”
Rafe poured himself a glass and went over to inspect the piano. He ran a finger along the top of it, leaving a trail in the dust. It was an attractive enough instrument—an old Grotrian-Steinweg upright with only a few obvious gouges and scratches—but if it was anywhere near as neglected as the rest of the bloody house was, it was probably unplayable. “It probably hasn’t been tuned in a decade,” he said sceptically.
He lifted the lid with one hand, played a scale, and his eyebrows inched up in surprise. It sounded all right: not perfectly in tune, but this certainly wasn’t a piano that hadn’t been touched in years.
“Huh,” Abby said. “It’s grand.”
“It’s really not bad,” Daniel added.
Rafe grabbed a scrap of fabric from the floor and laid it across the top of the piano, set the wine glass on top of it. He leaned over and ran through a few more scales with both hands. “Somebody’s been in within the past year for sure.”
“Surprising, really,” Daniel said. “My uncle was apparently pretty far gone toward the end.”
“Maybe it was just habit?” asked Abby. “You sweep the garden path, you get your piano tuned.”
“Except he didn’t actually sweep the garden path,” Daniel said. “Or anything else, for that matter.”
The stool groaned against the hardwood floor as Rafe slid it back. It had been a few years since he’d really played. He closed his eyes, hovered his hands over the keys, fragments of one of Mozart’s sonatas coming back to him.
He stumbled over the first few bars of the Allegro, but the notes were right there as soon as he started playing, as if his memory had a direct connection to his fingertips. It really was a good piano: it had the same weighty solemnity as the one in his grandfather’s house. The keys were a bit heavy but still smooth, and the worn spots on them felt like sliding his hand into somebody else’s old velvet glove. Some ancestor of Daniel’s had loved this piano once.
“Wow,” Lexie said.
“That’s gorgeous, Rafe,” Abby added.
He could feel Justin’s eyes on him, a gentle nudge, and Rafe looked up at him over his shoulder. His face was spread in an enormous, delighted smile, and he set his notebook down on his lap for a long moment before picking it up again.
Rafe put his head back down. He’d been an idiot for thinking this situation could be anything at all like a pair of fourteen-year-olds stealing away to one of their beds at night and fumbling against each other in the dark. It might have felt like that for a few moments out there on the patio, but this was Justin, this was the five of them. Rafe let his right hand linger on one of the arpeggios, drawing it out.
“What other fantastic hidden talents have you got?” Lexie asked, taking a few steps into his field of vision.
Rafe flicked his eyes up to her. “Anyone can play the piano after twelve years of lessons.”
Lexie grabbed another box from the floor. “Was your teacher a stern little old lady from down the street? Did she rap your fingers with a ruler whenever you missed a note?”
“All right, what have you been reading these days?” Abby asked her, teasing.
“It was a man, actually,” Rafe said, his eyes back on the piano. “The first one, anyhow. He was a German guy called Mister Schmidt. And he wasn’t so old.” He paused for a moment, combing through his mind for the next bit. Then it came to him. “He was actually stern, though.”
There was a rustling from over the fire, and Daniel’s gaze met his: gentle, but still a reminder. No pasts.
The muscles stretched tight in Rafe’s neck. It had been a ludicrous rule when Daniel had come up with it and it had turned out to be even more ludicrous in practice, but he gave the subject a rest.
He picked up speed, rushing through the beginning of the second section. The last time he’d really sat down to play like this had been in their third year: an evening of revising with Justin and Daniel that had rolled into a round of drinks in a near-empty pub with a piano in the back corner. They’d encouraged him, and the bartender had been an old softie who hadn’t minded at all, and it had been nearly midnight by the time they’d left. Daniel had sat off to the side on a wooden stool with a contented smile on his face, and Justin had spent the whole time leaning with his arm stretched out against the top of the piano, his eyes wide with the same delighted surprise from a moment ago.
He let his eyes wander back over to Justin, watched him set his Milton book down on the little table in the corner and pick up his dog-eared Durkheim. A knot started forming in Rafe’s chest: Justin really was being unusually quiet. He had plenty of work to do before the term started again, but that was true for all of them, and it didn’t account for this. Even over dinner he’d seemed lost in thought.
It didn’t take a Trinity PhD to figure out why, either. Guilt crawled up the back of Rafe’s neck, lodged into the stem of his brain.
Rafe cut the Mozart off in the middle, switched to one of Prokofiev’s war sonatas. Already the edges between them were blurring, and there were moments where he wasn’t sure where the others stopped and he began. Lexie had never had any boundaries to start with, but this morning Abby had absently eaten the toast from Daniel’s plate without even an amused smile in response, and yesterday afternoon in the garden it had taken Rafe nearly an hour to realise he’d been wearing Justin’s jacket.
The knot in his chest tightened, and he pounded his way through the cluster chords. No matter how he complained about the mess and the mould, it felt good and natural and right to all be there together, like breathing pure oxygen after years of air thick with smoke. But what had happened last night between him and Justin was bound to have consequences. Something was seriously fucked up about the way Rafe had encouraged it.
“That’s not exactly lounge music,” Lexie said, loudly enough to be heard over the piano.
“It could be lounge music for an army canteen,” Daniel mused.
“Don’t mind Rafe, he’s been on the edge of a foul mood all day,” Abby said, her voice straining over the Prokofiev.
He jerked his head up automatically, but he made himself look at the peeling patch of wallpaper in the corner rather than over at her.
“And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d rather see him take it out on the piano than on us.”
Rafe skipped the slow bit and moved on to the tumultuous third section, leaning on the pedal.
“You should play something happy,” Lexie said, bouncing over to stand by the piano. She’d found a brownish-grey feather a few inches long, and she was waving it around. “Play something we can all sing along to.”
He kept playing the Prokofiev, his fingers tripping over the wild discordant section that he’d never quite managed to get right. “Nobody wants to hear me sing,” he grumbled.
“Nobody wants to hear me sing,” Daniel added.
“Fine. Play something me and Abby and Justin can sing along to, then.” Lexie shoved him over on the stool and sat down on the edge of it, right beside him. Her body was radiating heat, as if she’d been standing too close to the fire. She tickled the back of his hand with the feather, then the back of his neck. She smiled up at him.
Rafe leaned away from her and kept playing. He glanced at Justin. He was still reading.
Then Lexie stuck the feather in his ear, and Rafe jerked his fingers back from the keyboard, slammed the lid shut. He stood, shoving the stool back. Lexie grabbed onto the edge of the piano to keep from falling off.
Everybody stared at him except Justin. Daniel’s eyes were wide with surprise, Lexie’s squinting and a bit hurt. Abby rolled hers. “And the foul mood has well and truly arrived,” she announced.
“I’m going to bed.” Rafe grabbed his wine glass from the top of the piano.
Lexie shot him a bewildered look. “It’s nine o’clock.”
“Let him go, Lex,” Abby said wearily.
Rafe stormed past them and into the hall, throwing his bedroom door open. It slammed shut behind him, louder than he’d intended.
He sat down on the corner of his bed, wedging his leg into the space between the footboard and the lumpy mattress, jiggling it. From down the hall he could hear Abby saying something in a raised voice about like a teenager some days, and then Daniel said something calm and rational and infuriatingly Daniel in response that Rafe couldn’t quite make out through the door. For a long moment there was a low murmur of voices, a quick back-and-forth, and then nothing.
He drained his wine glass in one gulp, set it on the table next to his alarm clock, and threw a glance around the room. Everything was two days’ worth of unfinished: boxes in messy stacks, clothes half-unpacked, nothing on the shelves yet but the phrenology bust that Justin and Abby had christened The Head. He stood, moved it from the shelf to the mantelpiece, stared at it.
What had got into him?
Daniel had spent the afternoon in the kitchen scouring all the work spaces, and Rafe had joined in partway through, clearing out the cobwebs and stripping away the worst of the mould. It had been hard work, but there had been something calming about it, too, as if it’d been its own reward. Rafe swallowed.
There were so many things the five of them had planned, and now he’d gone and fucked it up when they’d hardly even begun. It was as if some sinister part of him was trying to sabotage things.
A soft knock at the door made him jump, and he spun around. “What?” he barked, glaring at the empty space in front of it.
The door slid open: Justin. Their eyes collided. “Okay, let me just say this,” he said quickly, his voice low enough not to be heard from the sitting room.
The knot in Rafe’s chest was back, doubled in size. His heart started going like he’d been running.
“In case you’ve been worried I might come to you looking for a repeat performance, I’m aware that it can’t be like that.” Justin gave his head a little tilt. “And that’s fine with me.”
Rafe’s brain bruised with shock. He blinked.
“So, good night, then,” Justin said. He stepped back out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him.
The muscles in Rafe’s legs slackened, and he collapsed into a heap on the bed. He could feel tiny beads of sweat lined up in a row along his eyebrows. He gave them a wipe with the side of his hand.
Something was tugging at the corner of his mouth: the start of a grin. And then he was laughing.
Justin and I spent the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday ignoring the gargantuan mammoth in our house by immersing ourselves in the unpacking, and by Monday night there were only a few stray boxes left. After supper I sat down at the table with my laptop open to a spreadsheet—my boss considers turning in work late to be one of the cardinal sins—and Justin curled up on the sofa with a book. For a couple of hours, things were almost peaceful.
And then his mobile let out two sharp beeps. There was a long pause before he spoke. “Abby’s free on Saturday evening,” he said. His voice was strained.
I looked up at him over the top of my glasses. He was holding the phone up, staring at the screen. He’d said he was going to email her, but I hadn’t realised he’d actually gone and done it.
“She says if we want we can come by hers and then go for dinner, the three of us.” He was scrolling through with an index finger. And then his mouth fell open a crack, like he was breathing hard.
This was where I really wrapped my mind around just how out of my depth I was. I mean, there had been absolutely nothing in any of my past relationships—most of which had been about as shallow as a teaspoon—that had prepared me for anything like this. I was swimming in uncharted waters now, so far out I was starting to lose sight of the shoreline.
But there was one thing I knew for sure I could do, and so I reached for my laptop. Within just a few minutes, I’d found us a flight and a plain but pleasant-looking bed-and-breakfast. “What do you think about staying in Kensington?” I asked. “I found something close to the high street that’s not too dear, and something a wee bit nicer might make it feel more like a holiday.”
He didn’t respond. He was still staring at his mobile.
I tried again. “Would you rather fly in Saturday morning or Friday night?”
“I’m—not sure,” he said.
“It’s twenty pounds less if we fly on the Friday, thirty if we don’t check baggage. And then we can catch a Saturday matinee in the West End if you want.” I opened a new tab and typed in the URL for the discount theatre tickets site. “It might help keep your mind off things.”
“Maybe.” Slowly, he lowered the phone to his lap. He fixed his eyes on a spot somewhere in mid-air.
“Are you all right?”
“I—I don’t—this is all suddenly very real.” His face churned from fear to anguish and all the emotions in between, his voice spiralling toward panic. “I mean, would we even be able to afford this? I—I wouldn’t have an income for God knows how long, and we just bought a—this house—” He tossed a look at the room around him, dismayed.
I took my glasses off and went over to sit next to him on the sofa. I reached for his hand.
He shook my hand away. His breath was coming in gasps. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You don’t even want me to do this. You never—I should have told you all this before we even thought about—”
“We could afford it,” I said, cutting him off.
He closed his eyes.
“We could. Do you trust me about that?”
He gave me a tight nod.
“I’ve plenty of savings to dip into if it turns out I need it, and I’m sure I wouldn’t anyway. But—”
Justin met my eyes, looked away. He started shaking his head.
“No, wait, listen,” I insisted. “You really could still rethink this. You’ve not yet done anything you can’t change your mind about.”
“I’m doing this, Paul,” he said. His voice was quiet, but that edge of insistence was still there.
“You can always tell Abby something came up, and you’ll meet up with her some other time. You don’t have to go through with this.”
“I do, though.”
“I wouldn’t think any less of you if you didn’t.”
“But I would think less of me.” He met my eyes.
That, of course, was another matter. I took in a long breath and pushed it out again through my nose. I put a hand on his leg, let it sit there. There was a pause.
“Can I ask you about the—what happened with your one down in Dublin?” I asked then, tentatively. “With—Lexie, was it?”
“You said you were all angry with her. You and the others.”
Justin swallowed. Another nod, a smaller one.
“Why was everyone so angry?” I asked. “What did she do to you?”
He let out a sigh. There was a long silence.
Now, our part of Stranmillis is more family homes than student shares, but the Queens University lot still pass our way when they’re walking through to the Botanic Gardens or beyond. The front window was open a crack to let in some air, and I could hear some of them through it: a Tarzan yell in a deep baritone, a peal of laughter from a couple of girls, thunder-loud footsteps from a whole pack of them. I imagined the awful things kids that age do to each other: the gamut of bullying, sleeping with each others’ lovers, drunken destruction of each other’s property. None of it sounded like any fun at all, those things, but Justin had to be remembering something on a whole different level.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said.
“I want to tell you,” he insisted. “It’s just—I’m not—” The silence returned, and it hung there in the air between us for so long that it felt like he’d given up. Then, finally, he answered. “Daniel,” he said. “He inherited a house. We—we lived in it together, the five of us. And—it—it was ours. He gave it to us.”
My forehead went tight, questioning. “He gave you his house?”
“He gave each of us an equal share. We were all of us—” He shook his head. “It made sense at the time.”
I didn’t understand, not then. I nodded anyway.
“Lexie, she—she was going to sell up. To someone else—someone from—not one of us. Secretly. But we found out.”
I left room for him to tell the rest, but when I searched his face, I realised that actually was the whole story. I felt a rush of surprise—wait, that’s not so bad—but Justin was closing his eyes, his head drooping against the back of the sofa. And then his face crumpled. All those years later, he was still devastated at the very thought of it.
“It was such a—it’s hard to—we were so close. Not just close like—” He drew in a shivery breath, held it. He shook his head. He threw up both hands and let them fall back down to the sofa. “I can’t explain this.”
His Adam’s apple moved up and down, and then his eyes fogged over. After a long moment they snapped into focus again. They met mine.
“I suppose they were a sort of family. I’d never had that closeness at home, you know—none of us had, really. And we were supposed to be better than our real families, the five of us.” He pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. “It was supposed to be something we could rely on. Always.”
I traced a circle on his leg with my hand.
“I just felt so betrayed. I don’t understand how she could have—we’d all of us invested so much, Lexie too—” He turned his head away, caught a breath. “And then all of a sudden everyone was yelling, and fighting, a real fight with nails and fists and—and I was in the middle of doing the washing up, so I was holding onto a—” He squeezed his eyes shut.
Relief shot through me: no premeditation, then. I took his hand, and this time he let me hold onto it.
“I didn’t mean to kill her. You’ve got to believe that. But—but I did mean to hurt her.” He looked at me then: checking my reaction.
I nodded. I’d figured.
“I still remember that—how—how that felt. How sudden. One moment I’m laughing with the others, and the next there’s this—this tremendous, horrifying rage.” He dropped my hand and brought his own together, tracing the scar on his left hand with an absent thumb. “More than anything, that’s what I can’t forgive myself for. That’s in me, Paul. That’s what I’m like.”
I sensed it was better not to argue with that bit. I put my hand back on his leg: look, I’m not going anywhere. He covered it with his.
“You told me one of them was your first lover,” I said, after another pause. “Was that the one who—” I didn’t say the one who got himself shot. “—your man with the house? Daniel?”
His hand stiffened, but he didn’t move it. He turned his head away. “No. That was Rafe.”
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t, and I didn’t ask. Instead, I leaned in close, so close our heads were almost touching. If he did this, we would be apart for years. Worse, I couldn’t know whether he’d actually want to come back at the end of it all.
“You know, I really can’t stand the thought of you going to prison,” I said quietly.
He gave me a worried look. Worried for me.
“You haven’t heard the stories I’ve heard, Justin. You don’t deserve that. No matter what you say.”
He ran a hand up my torso, reached inside my shirt to let it rest on the bare skin where my shoulder met my neck.
“But I guess—I have to say I’m still—”
I took a moment. Despite everything, I had to admire him for this. Pretty much anybody else would have taken the easy way out at this point, just because they could. I imagine I would have, myself. Only someone like Justin, with his immovable sense of fairness, would even have considered this seriously. I looked at him, took in his expression. It was full of question marks.
“I’m not saying I agree with this,” I said, holding up a hand. “But I’m still impressed. It’s the kind of thing only a truly good person would even think about.”
His questioning look shrivelled. He pulled his hand away. “Don’t say that.”
A pause stretched between us, just longer than a beat. I didn’t fill it.
“I used to be the good one,” he said then. “In Dublin, with my—with the others. I didn’t smoke like Daniel, I didn’t drink like Rafe. I didn’t curse like the four of them. I was the good one, right up until—” He swallowed.
He was still tripping over talking about it, but it was clear that he was trying. He was trying with me, and I couldn’t help but feel glad for that. It was so much better than all the silence.
“Until I killed Lexie,” he said with a tremor in his voice.
The words sat there in the space between us on the sofa. I reached across them for his hand and let a tentative finger rest in the middle of the scar on his palm. This time he didn’t pull away.
“You know, the Gaggle are going to hate me,” he said. His voice was flat.
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “The Gaggle hate everybody. They’re awfully consistent about that.”
“I suppose.” He swallowed. “But your parents don’t.”
My mam worried, my da horrified. I could picture it all too well, that scene. My shoulders tensed.
“They’re the ones who are really going to hate me.” A thread of pain stretched through his voice. “They’re never going to forgive me.”
I shoved the image of the scene aside. It made so much more sense to me now, how much he’d always needed them. “You thought I was never going to forgive you, you know.”
He gave his head a thoughtful tilt. “It’s true.”
“Plus, remember, it could always have been worse. They know I could have ended up with Donal.”
Something started on his face that might have been a smile if it had been less packed with sadness.
I pressed on. “Or Martin, or Billy.”
“Oh, God, not Billy,” he said with a shudder of distaste. “He’s such a Philistine.”
I patted his leg. “There you are. If you’re ever feeling like you’ve disappointed my parents, just imagine Billy sitting around the dinner table with them, trying to debate the finer points of gay nightlife with my da.”
There was a wisp of a smile at the corner of his mouth, real this time. “Which of the regular Kremlin DJs is superior, the Friday night one or the Saturday.”
“The various glory holes at Pipeworks,” I continued, piling on. “The merits of different sorts of cock rings.”
Justin tossed his head back against the sofa cushion and let out a breathy laugh.
In three years any reasonably happy couple will get a good-sized handful of moments like that one. But I think I felt closer to him right then than I had in any other single moment we’d ever spent together. It turns out you only get that kind of intimacy if you work at it, and we were both of us doing the sort of work that made up for lost time.
I inched closer to him until we were touching, just barely, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh. Then I slid an arm around his waist, felt my way across it to the bottom of his ribcage. I gave his shoulder a wee kiss through his shirt.
“I could have done much worse than you,” I said quietly.
He didn’t respond, but I felt his heartbeat slow.
“So much worse.”
He closed his eyes, and for a moment we just sat there, feeling the soft rises and falls of each other’s breath.
I kissed the top of his head. “You’re sure you want to buy those plane tickets?”
He looked straight at me. “I am,” he said.
“All right. You ready to do it, then?”
He sat up, rolled his shoulders, stretched.
It had been long enough that I had to do another search, but the deal was the same one as before. I pushed the laptop over so that he had a clear view of the screen from over my shoulder, and he agreed to it with a shrug and a nod. “Go ahead.”
I moved the cursor over to the buy tickets button, but suddenly it seemed it wasn’t really my place. I nudged the laptop toward Justin, held out a hand: now you.
He bent over and reached for the trackpad. He pressed the button.
Their clothes were pinned up by the fire to dry, lending the air the mildewey smell of a fallen tree left behind in the woods to rot. Justin could tell that he was shivering, so he knew he had to be cold sitting there in just his boxers, but he couldn’t feel it—his mind was suspended somewhere above his body and couldn’t access what that body was doing. Around him everything seemed exaggerated: the overlong shadows from the light in the kitchen, Rafe’s twitchy movements, Abby holding up her cards to hide a face so pale her freckles looked like they were painted on, Daniel’s utter flatline of emotion.
“I raise,” Daniel said. He lifted his chin, straightened his shoulders, brought his cards in toward his chest. The towel around his shoulders slipped to one side.
Daniel wasn’t shivering, himself—he was too meticulously calm for that—but out of the corner of his eye Justin could see mountain-sized goose pimples scattered across his arms, and they made Justin want to flinch away. Across the table Rafe was sitting there, saying nothing, but he kept twisting his wine glass around and around in the palm of his hand, a quarter-turn each time. His mouth looked like it had fallen open and he’d simply forgot to close it again.
Justin pressed his eyes closed, and instantly realised how much of a mistake that was. The images weren’t gone, they’d just been lurking back there in the recesses of his mind: Lexie flopped against the wall in that cottage like a wee girl asleep, the lost feeling of stumbling along the twisting lanes, following the hedges blindly like a minotaur trapped in some godforsaken bog of a labyrinth. He opened his eyes again, reached for his wine glass, took a big gulp.
And then there was a wave of dizziness, the room crowding in around him all narrow and stuffy and suffocating. He fell back into his body with the jolt of a crash landing, and the wine turned to vinegar on his tongue. His stomach seized.
He gagged, laid his cards flat against the table. The others stopped playing, stared at him: identical expressions of distress from Abby and Rafe, utter evenness from Daniel. Justin stood. He braced himself.
Another pounding wave of nausea washed through him from stomach to throat, and his tongue flushed with acid. He bolted into the kitchen, leaned over the sink. Just in time, he coughed something noxious and horrible into it.
He was shaking. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Without looking, he reached for the dishtowel at the handle of the fridge. He ran the tap over the mess in the sink, covered it with the towel. He gagged again.
“Leave that,” Daniel said. His voice was even, but there was something sharp in it. “It’ll make a mess of the timeline. I’ll take care of it later.”
Abby’s chair slid against the floor. “Can’t we just let him—”
“No,” Daniel insisted.
“He’s sick, Daniel,” Abby said.
“We’ve all got to stay on the same page,” Daniel said. “The same page exactly.”
That edge of insistence—Daniel only ever sounded like that when it was truly important. Justin twisted the water off, made himself turn around. In the space on the floor between him and the kitchen table, the knife was still lying there. His knees buckled.
“The important thing at this point is not to complicate things,” Daniel said. He was turned toward Justin in his chair, but he didn’t stand. “As things are right now, all we need to do is remember that we went from the washing-up to the card game, and eliminate the intervening events from our minds. We can all do that, can’t we?”
Justin closed his eyes again. Moving her out of the rain, her arms limp like a rag doll’s, the weight of her like an enormous sack of wet sand. Daniel sweeping their footprints away with a stray tree branch, yelling at Justin, because they’d—
There was a rush in his head, and his thoughts started to swim. He grabbed onto the edge of the countertop. From out of nowhere, a sob choked out of his throat.
“The intervening events never happened,” Daniel said. There it was again: that same calm insistence.
Justin lifted his head, made his eyes focus on Daniel. There were new shadows on his face, but if Justin could make himself just listen to that voice, latch onto it—
He swallowed, made himself look everywhere but at the knife, and then he half-stumbled, half-fell back to the table. Rafe drew hard on his cigarette as Justin sat down. He was twitching again, like there was something looming behind Justin: something horrible and haunting and evil.
Justin picked up his cards, but he was still shaking, and they scattered across the table, his lap, the floor. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I—”
“Justin.” Daniel’s hand was on his arm. “Look at me.”
He did. Daniel’s face was just inches from him now: grey eyes, cool and unflinching as stone.
Daniel reached down to pick up Justin’s cards with his free hand, straightened the stack against the table. Then their eyes met again. “It never happened,” he said, giving each word its own underscore. That voice: so calm, so gentle.
Justin let the stillness sink into him, absorbing it. He synchronised their breathing: in and out. He took the stack of cards.
Daniel gave his arm one last squeeze. He let go. “All right?”
Justin nodded. Breathing, in and out. He looked down at his cards, fanned them. A three, that one belonged next to the four. In front of it. He moved it.
“Daniel. Can’t we—it’s probably four in the morning by now.” Abby looked up at the clock.
Daniel sat back into his chair. “It’s twelve-fifteen,” he said. His eyes were vacant, like a statue’s.
Rafe’s own eyes widened. He drained his wine glass, felt for the bottle without looking down at the table, refilled it.
They all turned back to their cards, but Justin’s eyes were unfocusing, and then the images were rising around him again, thick as poisoned smoke. Daniel making him stand on the patio in his boxers, shivering in the lashing rain, the same rain that had fallen on Lexie, lying in the dark by herself and—
It hadn’t happened.
Justin forced himself to take in a breath: first in, then out. It felt as if something was being sucked out of him, leaving only a hollow space behind, but that was still better. In, then out.
His heartbeat slowed. He spread a hand flat against the table, steadied himself.
“I raise,” Daniel said again.
They played another three hands. The rain lashed at the window like it was trying to cut right through the glass, and Justin got so cold his teeth started chattering. But he held his cards carefully against his chest, and he managed to keep from dropping them again. Then, finally, Daniel wiped the rest of them out with a lucky hand. Abby stood immediately, and then hovered there, waiting for instructions.
“It had grown rather late while we’d been playing,” Daniel said, narrating again. His voice was distant, as if it had been artificially generated somewhere far away. “Of course, we were feeling quite tired by then. So Rafe suggested it was time for bed. We all agreed.”
Rafe’s eyes were so wide they looked to be all whites. His mouth opened, then closed. He gave them a slow nod. He stood.
Daniel gave Rafe a little head-tilt. “Did you want to go first in the bathroom?” As if it had been any ordinary evening.
“Good night, then,” Daniel said, dismissing him.
Rafe headed for the stairs. He was moving like a robot: small, stiff jerks. His hand was on the bannister. Then he was gone.
Justin looked first at Abby, then at Daniel. He waved a helpless hand toward the stairs. “I suppose I’ll—”
“Sleep well,” Daniel said. Only the tension along his jaw kept him from looking serene.
It sounded like madness, but Justin took it as permission and stumbled upstairs. The door to his room swung open easily, but he didn’t turn the light on.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. From upstairs he could hear something moving, footsteps sliding across the floor, a door opening and closing. It sounded like nothing more than Lexie, upstairs, getting ready for bed. Like every other night.
Some shock of emotion crashed through him: either hope or fear, he wasn’t sure which. Could it be—maybe she—
Whenever Lexie had her light on upstairs, he could see it shining on the grass below. If he could just look—either way, it was better to know—
He couldn’t make himself turn.
And then he was rocking like a seesaw, hugging his arms to his chest. He sat there—kept sitting there for what felt like hours—listening first for Rafe, then Abby, and then, after a long stretch of quiet, Daniel in the bathroom. Then he got up, slipped in there himself.
His hands were trembling like the start of a seizure, but he managed to turn the tap on, brush his teeth. In the dark he could picture her waiting outside the door for her turn: those little flowered pyjamas, her towel slung across her shoulders, her curls fixed to her head with those pins of hers. Leaning against the wall, shooting him that enormous Lexie grin as their eyes met: What do you think you’re looking at?
He put his hand on the door handle. He held his breath. He opened the door.
Nothing. A long, cavernous silence of nothing.
Because she wasn’t here. Because she was lying dead in that wee cottage, her hair matted with rain, a pool of blood beneath her on the floor, and her—
There was a great pulsing in the base of his skull, and a rush of loss pulled at him, threatened to drag him under. Something threatened at the edge of his memory: something dark and horrible and evil.
He braced himself against the doorframe, his fingers curling around it, but it still came back to him in a flood that almost knocked him over: all of them shouting, the blood galloping through him red and hot, the tap still running behind him. And then something curdled inside of him, and he was holding—
It hadn’t happened. It hadn’t happened. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Then Justin heard another noise from upstairs—a rustling, followed by a loud thump—and he knew he couldn’t be alone up here for one moment longer. He swung the bathroom door the rest of the way open and ran downstairs, his hand tight around the bannister, his feet barely able to carry him.
The sitting room was empty. The lights were switched off, but the dying embers of the fire were still flickering, and Justin could just make out that their clothes were no longer pinned up, but folded next to the fireplace. In the kitchen the sink was clean, the knife gone.
Justin dug his nails into the soft flesh on the underside of his forearm, pressing as hard as he could. He could hardly feel it. He turned, headed back toward the stairs.
Down the hall, the door to the toilet slid open, and its light cast a shadow across the floor. It was Rafe, backlit and glowing, in just his boxers. His hand hovered on the light switch on the wall.
Justin shuffled closer, step by step until he was close enough to see Rafe’s face. And then Rafe went still—so still it was as if he’d stopped breathing.
For a long moment they just looked at each other. Rafe was usually so full of bluster that it took an enormous effort to peel back the layers and access the tender parts underneath, but tonight Justin could read everything from his face as if it had been printed there in boldface type: the dread, the grief. And something else.
It wasn’t clear who took the first step: they were moving as one, toward each other. And then Justin’s back was up against the wall, Rafe’s hand at his waist, and they were—okay, yes, they were actually kissing. For a split second it was a shock, but then a moment later it was too familiar for that: less like a lightning strike and more like trying on his old favourite shirt and finding he’d not grown too big for it after all. And then Rafe’s tongue was in his mouth, and Justin’s whole body was buzzing.
Rafe jerked away, his eyes wide and blinking, a hand splayed flat on Justin’s chest. He rocked back on one foot. They stared at each other.
Justin clamped down on his breath, held it. Rafe’s chest was heaving.
Then Rafe leaned in again, reaching around to thread his fingers through the hair at the nape of Justin’s neck, and their lips met again, harder this time. Rafe’s mouth moved down to Justin’s neck, sending another jolt singing across his skin. Justin took his glasses off.
They stumbled into Rafe’s room together, kissing as Rafe pulled the door shut. The tangle of the duvet was still warm from where he had been lying beneath it, and if Justin could have this after everything that had never happened on this horrendous night, he thought he might just survive it after all.
We flew over to London on the following Saturday morning. It wasn’t much of a holiday, of course—I tried to push the minutes along by telling tales from the last time I’d been in a Kensington pub with the people from the firm, but I could tell Justin wasn’t really paying attention. Basically we both spent one tense afternoon walking up and down the high street pretending to be interested in the shops before finally making our way north to Abby’s on the tube.
She lived on a main road, and far enough out of central London that it stopped looking like city I know and started looking more like something out of the early years of EastEnders. The sounds were different, too: horns honking, Eastern European music pouring out of a cracked-open window, a loud argument taking place on the street corner opposite, in a language I didn’t recognise. It was just as cold in London that week as it had been in Belfast, but the temperatures hadn’t slowed anybody in that neighbourhood down.
Justin’s feet finally ground to a halt in front of a building with a sign that read Henri’s Hair Salon in big bold letters. “I think this is it,” he said dubiously. He craned his neck to search for the buzzer, found it tucked into a corner just to the right of the door. He pressed it.
Footsteps clattered on the stairs inside, and then the door slid open. The woman on the other side was short and slim, with freckles and long, loose brown hair that went most of the way down her back.
Justin’s face lit up, and all that delight came out in his voice. “Oh, just look at you!” he cried.
Abby’s breath was shallow, like she’d run further than just down the stairs. “Sorry, the buzzer’s not working, so I’ve been trying to listen for you through the window.” Her accent was still fully Dublin. “You haven’t been standing here long, have you?”
“Not at all,” Justin said with a grin.
Abby echoed his expression back at him. “Hey, you. Welcome to London.”
There was a shard of a moment where they both looked like they didn’t know what to do, but then Justin leaned in and they threw their arms around each other. The bubble of tension burst and floated away, and then the both of them just looked comfortable.
Abby pulled back first. “You’ve hardly any hair left!” She reached up to the fuzz on the top of his head, gave it a tousle.
“Well, you’ve got more of it now!” Justin slid his fingers through hers: from the roots all the way down to the tips. They both grabbed each other’s arms at the elbows, beaming.
Her gaze snagged on me. She let go of Justin, held out a hand. “Hi.”
“Hi. Paul Malone.” I shook her hand.
“Abby. So glad to meet our Justin’s fella.” Her eyes bounced up to him again with a look of genuine delight. Then she turned around. “Right, then, it’s just upstairs.”
The carpet on the stairs was an ugly institutional brown, worn threadbare in the centre, and overhead there was a single bulb. When we reached the top, there was just one door. Abby opened it. “So,” she said, stepping aside so we could see. “This is home now.”
At its core it was an unremarkable single-room flat with a kitchenette, but it felt like one owned by an interior designer with quirky but exquisite taste. The basic bits of furniture were antiques from different eras—a pale blue Victorian-looking armchair, a gilt black nursing chair, a French sofa—but like jigsaw pieces that seemed to come from entirely separate parts of the puzzle right up until they clicked perfectly into place, they still fit together. The curtains were a heavy off-white fabric—homemade, they looked, but by an expert hand—and the bureau was tucked away behind a screen that was so colourful and unconventional that it did away entirely with the Japanese cliché. The centrepiece of the room, though, and the first thing my eyes were drawn toward, was a single piece of furniture that served as a loft bedframe, desk, and bookcase. It was made of what looked like walnut wood, and it had ornate, medieval-looking patterns carved along the edges.
I was gobsmacked. I swear, I spent my first few minutes in there just walking around and around in that one little room, inspecting everything, shaking my head with a big grin plastered across my face. Finally, I turned to Justin. “I thought you said Abby was a university lecturer, not a designer.”
Abby closed the window that faced the street, and both the draught and the traffic noise died down. When she turned around, she was beaming. “Now you know why I didn’t want you to meet me at a restaurant. There aren’t all that many people I can show my flat off to.”
“This is just stunning.” I ran a hand along the wood of the bedframe portion, sloped it down to the desk. The whole thing was sturdy, and a rich red-brown, beautifully stained. “You made it?”
Pride radiated out from her every pore. “I did.”
“It ties the room together like something out of one of those ‘tiny house’ interiors,” I said with my eyes on the desk portion. I looked back over at her. “Do you know what I mean? The ones all over YouTube?”
She was already nodding. “That was the inspiration, actually. With such a small flat I wanted to make use of all the space I could find. But it’s my own design.” She shrugged. “Of course, I built it for the space, so now I can never move anywhere nicer even if my uni does end up giving me a pay rise.”
“It’s lovely, Abby,” Justin said, sitting down on the sofa. “If I lived here, I’d never want to leave, anyway.”
I claimed the armchair next to him. “Are you willing to travel?” I asked Abby. “Fancy coming over to Belfast to do up our new house?”
“You’re sweet,” she said with a smile that was almost sheepish. “Can I get you two something to drink? I’ve a bottle of red wine open.”
“I’ll take a glass,” I said.
Justin’s gaze slid over to me, and there was a sudden burst of tension in the air: there was no forgetting what we’d come for. “All right,” he said, after a beat.
“You still teaching, Justin?” Abby asked from over in the kitchenette. She gave the cork a tug, set it on the counter.
“I am,” he confirmed. “The maternity leave position you knew about dried up after a year, but it helped me find something else in town.”
She poured the wine: three identical glasses. “How do you like it?”
“Well.” Justin shrugged. “The pupils are spoiled rotten and they’re mostly nowhere near as clever as they’ve been told they are. But there are always good ones. They make it worthwhile.”
She held two of the glasses immobile with the fingers of her right hand, grabbed the other one with her left. She stepped out of the fluorescent lights of the kitchenette and back into the sitting area. “Sounds like it’s not too different to teaching uni students.”
Justin gave her a look that was halfway to a grimace. “That’s an appalling thought.”
She gave him a shrug and stretched out the wine glass toward him. “There are an awful lot of students who are only taking a degree because they don’t know what else to do with themselves,” she said. She handed the other glass to me and sat down on the sofa next to Justin. “What am I even telling you this for, you remember.”
Justin’s mouth tightened. He nudged his glasses up his nose.
“So the two of you bought a house?” Abby asked.
I glanced at Justin, decided to answer myself. “We actually just moved in last week. You’ll have to come across and see it sometime, once things are more sorted.”
“I’d love that,” she said with a big smile.
“It needs a wee bit of work yet, but it’ll get there.” I leaned back against the chair, stretched my legs out. “It’s got good bones.”
Abby and Justin’s eyes flew toward each other as if drawn together by a magnet, then bounced immediately apart again. An uncomfortable silence stretched between them. I could only guess at what it might mean.
And then Abby was nudging him with an elbow. “Hey, did you notice? No ashtrays.”
A corner of Justin’s mouth turned up. “You quit smoking?”
“I did. I started thinking about it after I’d been here long enough to get it looking the way I wanted. Because there’s just nowhere to put an ashtray in a flat like this—” She turned briefly to me. “I can’t stand coffee tables, all the clutter—” She turned back to Justin. “So I always left them lying on the floor. But I just hated the look of that.”
“Having everything on the floor is even worse than a coffee table,” I said with a nod.
“Exactly,” Abby said, pointing at me. “I couldn’t make it work, not in this space. So I took it as a sign and quit.”
“The threat of lung cancer wasn’t enough?” Justin’s eyebrows were rising, and then he was smirking. “Or heart disease?”
I reached over to the sofa, gave Justin’s knee a pat. “I’ve told you this. It’s the little things that get you to quit, not the big ones.” I lifted my chin in Abby’s direction. “Non-smoker. He’ll never understand.”
Abby’s eyes were on Justin, and she gestured toward me. “Okay, I definitely like this one,” she said. Then she looked back toward me, took a sip of her wine. “It’s been three weeks so far.”
“Good for you,” I said. “I tried for nearly two years. The last attempt finally took.”
She gave me a knowing nod. “The first few days were pretty rough going, but I think I’m past the worst of it.”
“Getting through the smoke breaks at work was the hardest for me,” I said. “After they made our building non-smoking, it was the only time people really talked to each other during the day, so I couldn’t just stay at my desk.”
“What is it you do?” Abby asked.
“I’m a legal cashier.” The look on her face was blank, and I shook my head. “Which is really just a confusing way of saying that I’m an accountant for a law firm.” I took a sip of wine.
“Abby.” Justin looked at her with a sudden seriousness.
She turned toward him, took in his face, and her cheerful expression vanished. I leaned forward.
“I’m going to go down to Dublin and turn myself in to the police,” he said.
Abby’s eyes widened. Her gaze pinged briefly over to me, and then to Justin. She lifted her chin like she was going to nod, but her head didn’t go back down.
She stood. And then she was over in the kitchenette, fishing around in one of the drawers.
“That’s why I—I wanted to make sure you—” Justin twisted toward her. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a packet of smokes,” she said.
Justin gave me a look of distress, like he wasn’t sure whether to continue.
After a moment Abby came back in with a pack of Benson and Hedges in one hand and a lighter and the screwtop from the wine bottle in the other. She sat down, lit one. She inhaled. She closed her eyes.
Then she opened them again, let the smoke trickle out of her mouth. She looked at Justin. “Okay,” she said with a shrug.
“Okay—okay what?” Justin’s back was rigid, his shoulders stiff. “You’re all right with this?”
Abby gave a short bark of a laugh, looked up at the ceiling, took another puff. “I guess I am,” she said as she exhaled. She gave her head a shake, as if she couldn’t quite believe it herself.
It was Justin’s turn to stare. “Really?”
“Well, no.” Her eyebrows flattened. “Of course not. But I always had a feeling it was coming. The way you were that first year after Lexie died—it just wasn’t sustainable.”
“No.” The tension in Justin’s shoulders eased. “It wasn’t. Thank you for recognising that.”
There was a long, loose pause. Abby took another drag on her cigarette, let her eyes fall to her lap. “You know, I was there that night too. And if it hadn’t been you, it would have been me.”
“It wasn’t you, though,” he said pointedly.
She flicked her eyes back up. “No, it wasn’t. So I’m sure as hell not going to stand in your way now.”
Justin gave his head a confused shake.
“I wasn’t doing the washing up that night. I was one of the lucky ones. So I’ve no right to object to anything you want to do now.”
He leaned back against the sofa, took that in.
“I mean, God knows I hate the idea of you doing anything that’s going to put you in gaol,” Abby said with a toss of her hand. “But if you do actually do this, I’ve got your back.”
Justin’s eyes widened, but I was the one who was truly floored. In her place I’d probably have been angry, or at least a whole lot more upset. But she really did seem to think she had no business stopping Justin from doing what he felt he needed to do. There wasn’t really time to dwell on that then, but it lodged itself into my mind and stayed there.
“Thank you,” Justin said. “That—that means a lot.”
“How are you with this?” she asked me, between puffs.
I gave her a stiff, awkward shrug. Every honest answer I could come up with felt too much like a betrayal.
She smirked at me, let the smoke out of one corner of her mouth. “That keen?”
“Paul is a confession sceptic,” Justin explained, attempting to smile. He shot me an apologetic look.
“Hey, you know what?” Abby asked suddenly, pointing her cigarette at Justin. “I never told you that detective came to see me. Maddox.”
“What?” All the colour fell away from his face. “Why—why would she do that?”
“She had some—” She stole another drag, shrugged. “—it doesn’t matter. It was about six months after everything happened, I don’t really remember the details. What I do remember, though, is that she didn’t sound a thing like Lexie when she talked. Or move like her. Or even—” She gave her head a shake. “It made me wonder, was she really that good? Or did we all just want so badly to believe that Lexie was still alive?”
I tilted my head at Justin, puzzled. There were whole layers here I was suddenly missing, as if I was trying to follow a whole conversation when I could only hear every second word.
Abby’s eyebrows shot up, and she gave me a wry look. “Oh, has he not told you about that part yet?” she said to me. “About the cop who looked so much like Lexie that she lived with us and pretended to be her for three weeks after she died so the lot of them could get the goods on us?”
“What?” I scooted to the edge of my chair. Justin looked away, but not before I caught the wince on his face. I swivelled around to Abby again. “What the hell?”
“And about how she was wearing a wire the whole time?” Abby continued. “A bloody charmer, that one was.” She took a long, hard drag on her stub of a cigarette.
The sadness was rising off Justin like cold off ice. It sounded illegal, that sort of thing did—and if it wasn’t, it should have been. It was an awful thing to do to anyone, but for someone to do that to Justin, when he’d already been having so much trouble coping, it would have been nothing short of torture.
“Ah, yes,” Abby said dryly, to me. “Now you’re thinking that must be why he didn’t tell you before. Because clearly you’re too sane a person to believe a story like that.”
It was then that I realised I was clenching my teeth. I slid my jaw far enough forward to loosen it. “What I’m thinking,” I said, “is if that’s the sort of mind game the Dublin police play, then Justin doesn’t owe them anything at all.”
Justin lifted his head, just a bit, but he didn’t quite meet my eyes.
“Good man,” Abby said to me with a sniff. She tilted her head. “You know, I knew there was something I liked about this one, Justin. You can keep him.”
He looked at me then and managed a weak smile, but it pinched the corners of his mouth and dissolved. “I hate the very thought of her,” he said, his voice tight. “I hate that there’s someone out there walking around with Lexie’s face when Lexie isn’t—” He sat up all the way, dropped his gaze back to the floor.
Abby looked away then, too, letting her hair fall across her face. She dug in her pocket for a tissue and gave her nose a wipe. Then she ground out her cigarette in the wine screwtop and felt around on the sofa for the remainder of the packet. Her hands were trembling as she flicked the lighter: once, then again.
A worried furrow appeared in Justin’s forehead. “Do you really think you should be chain-smoking those?”
The lighter finally caught. “Of course I shouldn’t be chain-smoking these,” she said, and arched an eyebrow at him. She lit the second cigarette.
“But if you already quit, then your lungs aren’t used to the nicotine anymore. That makes it—” He caught himself.
The both of them started laughing, catching quick as fire on dry paper and growing loud and long. There was something too much in it, though: something awkward and brittle and just on the edge of hysteria. Abby put her head down against her knees, snorting, but when she came back up for air her eyes met Justin’s again, and a fresh stream of giggles burst out of the both of them. By the end of it, Justin’s face was tomato-red, and Abby was wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“It really wasn’t that funny,” Justin said finally.
“No, it wasn’t,” Abby said. “I guess you just sounded so much like—like you.”
“Oh, sweetie.” His voice was quiet, but heavy with sadness.
And then her head was in Justin’s lap: her eyes closed, her arm outstretched and suspended in mid-air. Justin put his hand into her hair, and they sat like that for so long that Abby’s cigarette burned halfway through and the ash dropped to the floor all on its own. There was pain there—shared pain—but also a sort of familiarity like nothing I’d ever seen, like Siamese twins that had been ripped apart. I would have felt like the most awkward sort of third wheel sitting there with them if it hadn’t been for the force field around them making it clear that neither of them even remembered I was there.
It must have been then that I got it: what it would have been like for Justin to find that sort of relationship, what it would have been like to lose it.
Then Abby sat back up, reached for Justin’s hand. “Listen,” she said, giving it a squeeze. “Rafe needs to know about this, too.”
Justin flinched. He pulled away.
“He deserves to be told this is coming.”
“No,” he said, adamant.
It hit me then that Justin hadn’t really told me about Rafe at all. In all the halting fragments of memory he’d shared with me about the Dublin Five over the past week, he’d barely mentioned Rafe’s name. Suddenly that seemed astonishing.
“I don’t really have any contact with him, either, but I do know he’s living right here. In Hampstead, near the Heath. It’s five stops away on the Northern line, for God’s sake. You would’ve gone straight past it on your way here.”
His gaze flicked briefly over to me, then fell to the floor.
“Justin,” Abby said.
He didn’t move.
“You mean you came all the way here to tell me, but you’re just going to let Rafe find out when the cops show up at his door? Isn’t that just a bit cruel?”
He jerked his head up. “Even if I were to—he won’t see me, Abby.”
She shrugged. “So we just go, then. Tonight. Now.”
He gave me another look, longer this time.
“You know what I think about this,” I said. “But she’s got a point.”
A tiny sigh, almost inaudible. And then Justin looked back at Abby, gave her a slow nod.
“Rafe?” The voice was too loud to pass as a whisper, and there was a hysterical note in it, like a phantom in a haunted house. A hand came to rest on his shoulder: cold and clammy.
“What the hell?” Rafe jolted out of sleep, his heart thundering. He jerked upright into a sitting position, shaking off his dream like a chill.
His eyes snapped into focus in the moonlight and settled on the figure standing by the bed: Justin, in his striped pyjamas. Without his glasses his face looked years younger, as if that awful night had transported him back in time.
Rafe’s heartbeat started to slow, and he pressed his lips tightly together. He rubbed a hand along his face, glared at Justin. “God. Don’t fucking scare me like that.”
Justin was trembling, his face the colour of fireplace ash and the skin on his arms shining with sweat. And then the rest of it came back: Lexie getting out of that cop car, walking up to the front door. Not a ghost, but the genuine article, eating Justin’s steak Diane and joking with them about Abby’s horrible doll as if the past week had been nothing but a mass delusion.
The hand on his shoulder tightened, and Justin let out a little gasp. “Can I—I need to—”
Rafe rubbed the sleep from his eyes, blinked. It was a spectacularly bad idea. It had always been a bad idea, but what had happened on the night they’d almost lost Lexie had got especially out of hand.
He glanced at the clock: a quarter past three. Justin’s jaw was tight, his free hand clutching at his stomach like he was trying desperately to settle it.
Rafe swallowed, pushed out a breath. He lifted the duvet.
Justin crawled inside, burrowing his face into Rafe’s neck. He lay there for a long time, trembling against him, twisting a hand behind Rafe’s back and pulling him close. Then he started kissing him.
Rafe’s mattress always squeaked like a rusty gate in a rainstorm, but once they’d got settled, Rafe tried to put that out of his mind and just let things happen. Justin’s back was warm against his chest, and as they slid against each other Rafe was able to trick himself into thinking that they’d somehow stumbled into just the right place together, as if this was a perverse twist on the old trope of something shining and good emerging from a period of sheer horror. But then Justin let out a groan when he came that Abby had to have heard through her bedroom floor, and Rafe cringed, curling inward. His thoughts twisted into a knot, and it took a gargantuan force of will to finally let go.
After, they both just lay there for a moment. Then Justin rolled toward him, and his whole face was lit up brighter than the sun at noon. “You know, that feels so much better than it has any right to.”
Rafe shifted against the mattress. He looked over at the wall.
“All those horrid people who go on about the sinfulness of two men having sex should be forced to explain exactly who created the prostate, then.”
A flush crawled across Rafe’s face. “Bloody hell, Justin.”
“I wonder, has anybody ever asked them that? Why God would put a pleasure centre in a place that He didn’t intend to be stimulated?”
“Jesus H. Christ, would you just stop?” Rafe shoved himself over until he was right up against the cold wall, clutching the corner of the duvet to his chest. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Justin’s smile drain away, the spark fading out of him until he just looked sad.
It was so different with Lexie. After that afternoon with the two of them alone on the kitchen floor, neither of them had ever mentioned it again—and that had been fine. It had become a delicious little secret that they could share with a look or a touch only they understood: her hand at his waist, the backs of his fingers running down her cheeks.
And Justin would have been upset if he’d known that had happened. Rafe curled his shoulders in toward his chest, his jaw tight.
“Why did Lexie want to leave us?” Justin asked, as if he’d been reading Rafe’s mind. It was a tiny voice, and he sounded about ten.
Rafe’s eyes twitched over to the other side of the bed. Justin was staring up at the ceiling. “God only knows.”
At first, the sight of her had been enough of a relief that Rafe had realised only then how much he’d been going around feeling like a clenched fist. But none of it had gone away: she’d still been planning to sell up, and the way she’d steadfastly refused to say a single word about that felt like a fucking dismissal. She’d gone to Ned without a care in the world, and now it was simply meant to stop mattering that the rest of them had spent the past week driven halfway around the bloody bend with horror and grief. Anger started building in Rafe’s lungs: coiled tight and toxic.
“Why didn’t she say something to us, if this wasn’t what she wanted? We’re not monsters. If she was unhappy, she could have—”
“I don’t bloody know, Justin, all right?”
Justin twisted his forearms around the corner of the duvet. His Adam’s apple moved up and down. “Does she still want to leave now? I mean—do you think she might—”
Rafe sighed. That was the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.
A long, flat silence stretched between them, sending Rafe straight back through those first few days of hysteria. It had been like a descent into hell: the nausea that had felt like it would never go away, the gaping black hole in the house where Lexie had always been, the interminable wait for the cops at their door, Daniel’s bloody sociopathic stoicism, and through it all Justin shaking, always shaking. If it had gone on even one more day, they would have all ended up sectioned.
Rafe gave his forehead a rub. “I was so sure she was dead,” he said quietly.
“I was, too,” Justin said in a whisper. “Right up until the cops told us about the coma.” A muscle rippled in his jaw. “You didn’t see her in the cottage, but she looked so—” He shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m so glad she’s all right. I really couldn’t have—I’m just glad she’s all right.”
At least Lexie being back meant that Daniel had finally been forced to give his conspiracy theories a rest. He’d been so cryptic about it—fucking typical Daniel, there—but Rafe had decided he’d been better off not knowing the details anyway. “Daniel actually thought she never made it to hospital,” Rafe said. “Even after the cops talked to us.”
Justin blinked. “He said that?”
“But they said she was alive. Why would they tell us she was alive if she wasn’t?”
“Daniel thought they could have been messing with our heads.”
A cold fear was rising in Justin’s eyes. “What?” His voice was shrill with alarm.
Rafe shook his head. “This is Daniel we’re talking about. Who knows what he was thinking?” The memories nagged at him again: the poker, the clock turned back, the calculated narration, everything to prepare themselves just perfectly for being interviewed by the police. He didn’t want to think about the sort of mind it had taken to dream that up. “Don’t be—I mean, who knows what goes on in that man’s brain.”
Justin wasn’t reassured. “But why would the cops want to mess with our heads?” A shiver ran through him that Rafe could see all the way up in his neck, and then he was shaking again. “Why would Daniel assume that?”
Rafe reached for him: a hand on his arm, petting him like he was a scared kitten.
Justin scooted closer. He buried his face in Rafe’s shoulder. “I just want all this to be over.”
A fog of exhaustion poured over Rafe, settled into his bones. “We all do.”
“Lexie’s alive. She’s back home now. When are things finally going to go back to normal?”
It was too late for normal, far too late. If normal had ever been normal anyhow. Rafe wrapped an arm around Justin and said nothing.
They were coming undone. In order to save themselves from what had happened that night, they’d all started pulling at the stray threads of the tapestry that wove them together, and so none of them had any right to be surprised that it was unravelling. And by this point it was as clear as a pond in summer that a part of Rafe had wanted just that to happen. Still wanted it now.
Justin was perfectly all right on the train on the way to Rafe’s—the three of us even spent those five stops cracking jokes about a tube ad enticing Londoners to go on holiday to Las Vegas where your accent is an aphrodisiac—but as we were coming up out of the station, it must have hit him what we were about to do, and hit him hard. Abby and I were talking, so it took the both of us a few steps to notice, but when we turned around he was frozen, his hand glued to the railing.
Slowly, I walked back down the stairs to stand beside him. He was shaking again, his breathing all gasps, and I wanted nothing more than to take him back home and leave all this behind. But all misgivings aside, I really did know how to deal with this now: a quiet hand on his arm to steady it, my head tilted toward where he had to go, an encouraging smile. His hand tensed around the railing at first, but he gave me a nod and let go. Then he followed us, his eyes on the ground.
Day had already rolled into night as we made our way outside, and there were a few stray flakes of snow in the air, but it was only a short walk down a series of narrow cobblestone streets. Abby had her phone out, navigating past the boutiques and apartment buildings near the station as they gave way to streets of single-family homes lined with Volvos and people-carriers. “I guess it must be this one,” she said just after we’d turned the last corner on her GPS map. “Number thirty-two.”
There was an iron gate out front, but it was standing wide open. “Come on,” Abby said, and marched up to the door. It was a narrow house, three storeys, with ivy growing up a grey-brick façade. In Belfast it would have just been another mid-sized terraced house—a dressed-up version of ours, really—but this was London, and places like this went for more than a million quid.
Abby rang the bell, and through the door we could hear muffled voices, a thump, and then a click as the lock unlatched. It swung open. The man inside was half-turned, his gaze focused somewhere inside the house. “You’re going to want to give her the—”
He turned the rest of the way toward us, took us in. Shock spread across his face, and he fell back a step.
Meeting Rafe was—well, it was like coming face-to-face with a living pin-up. He was around Justin’s age, but with a model’s perfect cheekbones and a full head of thick, sandy hair, with a few lines around his eyes that only made him look distinguished. A charcoal-grey jumper was rucked up around his elbows, and let’s just say he was wearing a pair of rather expensive jeans extremely well. He was the sort of guy who could have walked into the Union Street pub back home and made the whole room fall silent while everyone stared, calculating their chances of being the one to go home with him.
It sounds like I’m lying to say I wasn’t jealous, but I really wasn’t—there wasn’t any room to be through all the surprise. Justin’s everything I want, but let’s be honest, he’s never going to be the first man people’s eyes gravitate toward in a room full of strangers, and he’s nobody’s idea of the type who could snag a man who looked like he’d just stepped out of GQ. The occasion was so solemn, and the moment so tense, but my hindbrain just wanted to slap him on the back: Well done, love. Well done.
Rafe’s gaze bounced off me, lingered for a moment on Abby, and finally landed on Justin. His mouth fell open. He didn’t speak.
“Hello, Rafe,” Justin said in a low voice.
Then there was a shuffle of footsteps against the floor, and a wee girl in red fleece pyjamas appeared behind him: skin the colour of milky tea, loose black curls, big dark eyes. She peered out at us with a big smile and a healthy dose of curiosity, but she was quickly overcome by an attack of shyness, and she ducked behind Rafe’s leg, her fingers holding tight to the fabric of his jeans.
“What’s going on over here?” asked a woman’s voice, and then there was someone else standing next to Rafe in the doorway. She was Indian or Pakistani, with hair cropped to her chin, wearing jeans and a smart brown cardigan. She tilted her head in our direction, curious. “Hello.”
For a long moment nobody said a word. Rafe was still staring at Justin, who moved a half-step closer to me. I brought my hand up to the small of his back.
It was Abby who finally broke the silence. “I’m Abby Stone,” she said, stepping forward, holding out her hand for the woman to shake. “I’m an old friend of Rafe’s.” She gestured behind her on both sides. “This is Justin, and this is Paul.”
A flicker of what might have been name recognition crossed the woman’s face, but it was gone too quickly to be sure. “Amina.” She smiled, taking Abby’s hand. “Well, this is a great surprise, isn’t it, Rafael? Come in, come in,” she said with just a touch of an accent. She motioned to us, ushering us inside. “You can’t just stand out there in the cold.”
I tried to catch Justin’s eye to see what he thought of going in—this had all been decided so quickly back at Abby’s that we hadn’t really talked about what would happen when we got there—but he had his head down again. Abby took over there, too, though. “That sounds brilliant, thank you,” she said, and stepped inside.
A row of coats hung on the wall in the hall—a man’s, dark brown in wool, a woman’s in a red plaid, and a blue one the size of the wee girl—and Amina took ours and interspersed them among the empty hooks. Two family photographs hung on the wall opposite: one of the girl at only a few months old, and the other of Rafe in a suit and Amina wearing a brick-red Indian dress with a lot of very detailed ornamentation. A wedding picture, it seemed.
Amina opened the French doors, and we were all of us in the sitting room. It wasn’t large, but it had a tall ceiling with coving along the edges, and along the back wall stood a nice-looking upright piano. The rug on the hardwood floor was covered with toddler-sized Legos and a half-built toy house in all sorts of bright colours. The girl ran over, sat down in the middle of it all. She caught me watching her and gave me a shy smile.
“Please, have a seat,” Amina said. “Can I get you three something to drink? Red wine, white wine?”
“Red wine sounds grand,” Abby said, taking a seat on a sleek, modern-looking armchair.
My stomach was grumbling—the fact that we were already supposed to be at dinner by that point was slowly catching up with me—but wine was what was on offer. I glanced at Justin, but couldn’t catch his eye again. “We’d love some,” I said finally. I sat down on the leather sofa, and a split second later Justin joined me.
Rafe’s gaze bounced from Justin to Abby and back, like he couldn’t quite fathom what they were doing in his sitting room. “I’m fine,” he mumbled.
“All right, back in a bit,” Amina said, navigating around the Legos on the floor as she headed into the hallway.
A silence fell over the room then, the kind so uncomfortable it makes you want to cough or clear your throat just to hear some sort of noise. It was the girl who eventually filled it: humming to herself, stacking Lego bricks on top of each other with a series of satisfying clicks. Abby and I looked at each other, and I opened my mouth, closed it again. Rafe and Justin were both sitting there saying nothing, Rafe eyeing the three of us warily and Justin stone-faced, staring at the floor.
The breeze coming in through the open French doors felt more like June than April, and it was even smelling of summer: the buds on the hawthorn trees were in full flower, scenting the air honey-sweet. Justin let his head droop forward, stared at the bottom of his glass. It was empty now, but there had been a sweet cognac-and-rum concoction in it earlier, one that had both tasted and felt like that same honey going down. At some point he was going to need to get more, but standing up sounded awfully difficult at the moment.
He rested his head against the back of the sofa, gave Rafe a lazy smile from across the room. Rafe’s back was turned, and he was standing—Justin couldn’t help but feel impressed that he was still able to do that so ably—and peering out at the garden.
“I suppose this is what they call punch-drunk,” Justin mused.
“That’s a boxing expression.” Rafe didn’t turn around.
“What?” Justin tried to lift an eyebrow at him, but it felt like it was stretching his whole face.
“When a boxer has been hit so many times that he’s—oh, never mind.”
Rafe’s shirt was half-untucked at his waist, covering up one side of his bum. Justin had a sudden urge to go over there and tuck it back in, but his legs were feeling wobbly, so he let the idea play out in his mind instead. A warm feeling settled over him, and he closed his eyes.
He didn’t usually care for it when alcohol made him this woozy, but this time it was as if he was cradled in a bed of hope. The whole evening had been an exercise in casting off the Apollonian and running headfirst into the Dionysian: Rafe and Lexie spinning each other around in the garden like figure skaters, Daniel and Abby waltzing to music only they could hear. It had still been lingering in the background, that horrible night had, but for a few hours they’d all managed to keep it at bay by smothering it with an enormous pillow of punch and togetherness. Justin was finally starting to let himself think all that might be close to being over.
“I wonder what’s keeping the others,” Rafe said in a low voice.
Justin opened his eyes, lifted his head with a bit of effort. Rafe was shifting his weight from one leg to the other, fidgeting like a nervous teenager. His hair was starting to get long again: it almost covered the back of his neck. Something surged up inside of Justin, some willful feeling that had its own ideas about what they were supposed to be doing right now.
“They’re fine,” Justin said finally, swinging his legs off the edge of the sofa, making room. He tilted his head in his best come-hither pose. “Come over here.” They were almost never alone, but they were alone now, and even if somebody did come in, this was the sort of night where that sort of thing didn’t have to matter.
Rafe turned around, gave him a cautious look from across the room. Then he started toward him, moving slowly, and sat down on the other end of the sofa. Justin put his legs back up on it, one of them bent at the knee, the other stretched all the way out until his foot was in Rafe’s lap. Rafe eyed it like it was a foreign object. He didn’t touch it.
Trying to catch Rafe’s eye, Justin curled his toes around Rafe’s hip and then nudged his shirt up. Rafe was fidgeting again, though, staring out the front window. “You know, at some point we’ve got to get that replaced.”
Justin turned his head, took it in. The window was still broken, the scarred piece of wood starting to jar loose where Daniel had nailed it shut. A memory reached through Justin’s drunken fog and grabbed him by the shoulders: the jagged rock lying on the sitting room floor in a pool of shattered glass, Rafe and Daniel and Lexie taking off after the guy and coming back bruised and breathless. The note: WE WILL BURN YOU OUT. The cops had brought the guy in for questioning, but they’d released him without charge.
From out of nowhere, a stray image flashed across Justin’s mind: Lexie, her face looking like a frightened rabbit. He pushed it away, but all the hairs on his arms were already standing on end, and a chill settled in between his ribs. He shivered.
“The guy who threw that rock.” Justin’s own voice sounded hollow, like he was really somewhere else and only his body was here doing the talking. “I wonder why the cops didn’t believe he was the one who—” He swallowed.
“I don’t know.” Rafe’s face was drooping, his voice weary, like he’d just been asking himself the same thing.
“Isn’t that why Lexie went to the police station to begin with—to make them think it was him? Isn’t that what Daniel wanted her to do?”
“We were both there when she told us what happened, Justin.” He blew out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know why you always think I can answer your bloody questions when you can’t answer them yourself.”
Justin swung his feet back off the sofa, stung. He sat up—too quickly—and a wash of dizziness swept through him. He put his head back down.
Rafe kept going. “So no. They didn’t arrest him. So much for the brilliant plan to get the cops involved again.” He was fidgeting again. He’d been brooding over this.
Justin blinked. The gears were moving a bit more slowly than usual in his head, but he was pretty sure that passed for a plea for reassurance from Rafe. “Daniel did say it could end up being useful,” he attempted. “Maybe he thinks they might still arrest him?”
“Daniel said. Maybe Daniel thinks. Fuck Daniel.” Rafe’s words were slurring. “I am so tired of his bloody bullshit.”
Justin’s eyebrows pulled together. Somehow their perfect evening had turned sour, and so quickly. He wondered how that could have happened without him even noticing. “I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”
“Why?” Rafe said sharply. “Daniel doesn’t know everything.” He pressed the heel of his palm against his forehead. “Sometimes I think he might not know anything,” he said, more quietly.
After a moment Rafe lifted his head, but his eyes were still fixed on a spot in the room where there was nothing but air. A tense silence came sifting down over them, slipping into the corners and settling across the furniture. It looked as if Rafe was off in the far reaches of some other galaxy, a million miles from here. There was a little wobble in Justin’s stomach. It wasn’t just from the punch.
“You know, Daniel’s not always going to be around to do your thinking for you,” Rafe announced finally.
Justin shook his head, completely bewildered. “Why wouldn’t he be around?” He sat up a bit more. “You can’t really think he would ever just leave. Daniel?”
Rafe gave the back of his neck an absent scratch. “I suppose you’re probably right. Daniel needs this even more than the rest of us do.” He looked straight at Justin, and there was a shadow on his face that made an alarm bell sound in Justin’s head. His eyes were bloodshot, and there were bags under them. “Maybe you’re the one who won’t be around, then.”
“Why would I leave?” There was a twist of discomfort in Justin’s chest.
“Any of us could leave. If we wanted to, we could.” He gave Justin a stiff shrug. “Hell, even Daniel said that himself when he asked us to move in. We all talked about how the others could buy their share if one of us wanted to move out.”
“He was just explaining that he’d already thought through everything, Rafe. That doesn’t mean he thought it was actually going to happen that way.”
“I left.” For a moment Justin could see what Rafe must have looked like as a child: cheeks puffed out, all pride and defiance. “The other day.”
Justin flinched. Rafe had been gone a full night, and the next day he’d shown up at the library smelling like a businessman after a night on the prowl: cigar smoke and stale Guinness and some girl’s cheap perfume. “Exactly. Look where that got us.”
“I think it went extremely well,” Rafe said, with an edge.
“What?” A chill flattened itself across Justin’s shoulders. “What are you saying?”
Rafe’s eyes narrowed.
There was a tiny spark of anger in Justin’s chest. “Have you really got no idea at all how scared we were, when you didn’t even bother phoning, or texting any of us—”
“What I’m saying is that I’m not a bloody child. That I get to decide where I spend the night. That I don’t need to ask any of your fucking permission to go off on my own.”
There was a long, stubborn silence. Not even the wind responded.
“I really was worried, you know,” Justin said finally, forcing the tension out of his voice.
Rafe’s mouth pressed into a line. He looked down.
“And hurt,” Justin added, more quietly.
Rafe’s head jerked back up, his eyes flashing. “Oh, well, if you were going to be fucking hurt, then I definitely shouldn’t have gone.”
The spark caught again, hotter this time. “What the hell is your problem all of a sudden?”
Rafe folded his arms. “It wasn’t about you, okay? It had nothing to do with you.”
Justin lifted an eyebrow at him. Rafe could say that, but Justin still remembered the way he hadn’t met his eyes, the way he’d looked at everybody else but him. “I was actually pretty convinced it had everything to do with me,” he said.
An eye roll from Rafe, all the way up to the ceiling.
“I’m still convinced of that, actually.” Justin shoved over along the sofa until they were sitting right next to each other, their legs lined up and touching. Rafe didn’t move. He smelled of cigarette smoke and punch and sweat.
Justin leaned in, brought his mouth up to Rafe’s, but Rafe’s lips were immobile beneath his. And then Rafe was pawing him away in jerky, drunken movements. “Let—go.”
Justin wrenched himself back, stared at Rafe. And then Rafe turned, and Justin was looking at the back of his head.
Maybe this was just how these things ended, with one person suddenly pushing the other one away. Justin could feel himself slipping, as if something dark and empty had opened up underneath him and he could no longer find his footing. “Is this over?” he asked.
Rafe put his head back down against the sofa. He closed his eyes. His right leg started jiggling restlessly.
“Is that what you’re saying? That you want this to be over?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Rafe said. His leg stopped jiggling. The anger was gone, and now he just sounded knackered.
A tremor of shock crossed the back of Justin’s neck. “What?”
Rafe didn’t move.
“How can you say you don’t know what I’m talking about?”
The spark of Justin’s anger caught again, fanned into a flame. “I’m talking about you and me.”
The silence twisted tight.
“In bed. Doing all kinds of—”
“For God’s sake, Justin.” Rafe jerked his head up. His face went red, whether from anger or embarrassment, it wasn’t clear.
Justin’s pulse was drumming in his ears. Rafe wasn’t dumping him, this was something far worse than that. This was Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew: I say it is the moon that shines so bright. “And I have to say, I had plenty of evidence that you enjoyed it just as much as I did.” His voice was rising, and he hated the way it sounded: high-pitched and manic and girlish.
“You’re drunk.” Rafe stood, walked toward the piano.
“Both times.” Justin gave his forehead a theatrical slap. “What am I saying—all three times.”
Rafe ignored him. He shoved the piano stool back, sat down.
“Look at me.” Justin’s heart was in his throat, and he could taste acid on the back of his tongue. He leaned forward, his fist clenched around the ashtray on the coffee table, his fingers digging into the ashes.
Rafe didn’t look up. He opened the piano lid.
A billow of rage flamed through Justin. “You look at me!” he screamed.
He threw the ashtray at the wall behind Rafe with every shred of force in him. It shattered into shards, spreading out like a fan across the piano, spilling grey ashes and cigarette butts onto the floor.
Rafe stumbled back, startled, and his eyes jumped over to the wall. There was a gouge in it: a new tear in the wallpaper, a dent in the plaster underneath. He looked back at Justin, his face going through contortions of shock and disgust.
Justin’s heart banged against his ribs. He fled out onto the patio. He pinned his arms to his chest.
Rafe was two steps behind him. “Why is it that you always have to make such a huge fucking deal out of everything?” he yelled.
Justin whirled around. “My God, that’s rich, coming from you.” His voice was shaking with fury. “You’re the one who wanted to—”
“Of course,” Rafe said, raking a hand through his hair, pacing up and down across the patio. “It was all about me from the start. You can’t actually be thinking that, can you?”
All the energy drained out of Justin in one enormous whoosh. He slumped down with his back against the house. He could feel his throat tightening—he wasn’t crying, he wasn’t crying—and a pain shivered along his jaw. He bit at the corner of a fingernail. His finger tasted of ash.
Rafe stopped pacing, turned around, and met Justin’s eyes in a cold stare.
“It started right here,” Justin said, his voice quivering. He pointed at the swing seat. “Right there. Last September.”
Rafe’s eyes flicked over to the seat, then back away.
There was something rough and jagged poking into Justin’s back, but he didn’t move. “You know it did, Rafe. As well as I do. And then you came to my room.” His voice cracked. “And then after—after that night, I came to yours. Twice.”
An expression shot across Rafe’s face that Justin couldn’t read. Rafe’s shoulders dropped.
There was a wetness on Justin’s cheeks, the air a chill against his skin. “And I might be drunk, but I remember every second of it like it was fifteen bloody minutes ago, so don’t even try to convince me that none of it actually happened.”
He turned away, hugging his legs to his chest, willing himself to at least cry in a way that Rafe couldn’t hear.
After what felt like a never-ending silence, Amina brought wine for the three of us and sparkling water for herself and Rafe. And then the lot of us—which, in practical terms, ended up meaning me, Abby, and Amina—attempted to have something that could pass as an ordinary conversation. You know how they talk about tension by saying that it’s so thick you could cut it with a knife? Well, the tension in that room was so thick that your knife would have got stuck in it.
“You’ve a beautiful home,” I said, for something to say more than anything, and took a sip of my wine. I shot a glance at Justin. He wasn’t actually drinking, but he was holding onto his glass like it was the only thing anchoring him in the room, his eyes pinned on a knot in the hardwood floor.
“Thank you,” Amina said from the chair opposite. The wee girl was leaning all the way across her lap, swinging her legs, and giggling, and Amina had her hand across her back to keep her from falling.
If the evening had gone as planned we’d have been halfway through dinner by now, and I was starting to feel that, but I pushed it aside and pressed on. “Have you lived here long?” I asked Amina. I looked at Rafe, too, but his eyes were flicking rapidly between Justin and Abby again.
“About two and a half years,” she said. “We moved in shortly before this one was born.” She patted the girl’s shoulder.
The girl flipped over onto her back then, kicked her legs into the air. She let out another giggle, looked at me.
I leaned in toward her. “Hey there.” I flicked my eyes up to Amina. I was pretty sure I’d heard her call the girl by name earlier. “It’s Maya, isn’t it?”
The girl looked straight at me. “Sumaya,” she insisted.
“That’s right, lovey,” Amina said with a laugh. “She just found out yesterday that her name has a longer form. She hasn’t stopped correcting us since.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Sumaya, then.”
The girl held her smile on me for a long moment, then turned over and hid her face in her mother’s lap. She tucked her arms around one of Amina’s legs, hugging it to her.
“I think she’s flirting with you,” Abby said in a stage whisper.
“Oh, she’s good at that, this one,” Amina said. “She’ll chat your ear off most of the time, too. It’s just a bit too close to bedtime for strangers, I think.” She traced a series of circles on Maya’s back. “Somebody’s tired, isn’t she?”
Maya lifted her head, her face screwing up. “No,” she said with a quick, here’s-what-I-think-of-that headshake.
“So predictable,” Amina said with a roll of her eyes. “All right. Just one more minute.”
The girl pushed away from Amina, extricating herself, her mouth pressed into a pout. Then she walked over to where Rafe was sitting and leaned across his legs. He gathered her onto his lap and held her there.
“So the three of you are from Dublin, I take it?” Amina’s voice was friendly.
She’d definitely taken us for Rafe’s former Trinity classmates, even if she didn’t know the full story. I shot a glance at Justin. He wasn’t looking at the floor anymore, but now his eyes were locked on Rafe and Maya like he couldn’t tear his gaze away. Rafe caught him staring and instantly stiffened. He wrapped an arm around Maya, pulling it tight across her chest.
“I’m from Dublin originally,” Abby offered, filling the silence. “I live here now, though. Up in Barnet?”
Amina’s forehead creased, and she shook her head.
“Do you know the Burnt Oak Underground station?” Abby attempted.
A light of recognition dawned on Amina’s face. “Oh, that’s not far from here. It’s on the Northern Line too, isn’t it? Our same branch?”
“Just a few more stops.” Abby was smiling, but she was fidgeting with her hands in the way you do when you’re desperately craving a cigarette. “I teach at Middlesex.”
Amina turned to Rafe. “That’s the university we drive past on the way to Saint Albans, isn’t it?”
“I think so,” Rafe said quietly. Maya rubbed her eyes and started sucking her thumb, and he leaned in toward her, said something too low for the rest of us to hear. She let out a whine.
Amina stood. “I should really take her,” she said, and Rafe stood and handed her over, with Justin still staring. “Say goodnight,” Amina said. Maya gave us all a halfhearted wave and put her head against her mother’s shoulder.
“Good night, Sumaya,” I said, and we all watched them as they disappeared down the hall. The silence came back as soon as the two of them were gone: bigger, stronger.
This time Rafe was the one to fill it. The guarded look hadn’t budged from his face, but now a layer of apprehension was folded over the top of it. “So,” he said, turning toward me. “What brings you and Justin to London?” It was the first completely clear thing he’d said all evening, and I realised then that he wasn’t actually Irish at all. Whenever he’d left Ireland, he’d been going home.
There was a whisper of a sigh from Justin. He looked straight at Rafe. “Something has come up,” he said. “Something I should—probably talk to you about.”
The tension in the room rose another notch, and Rafe leaned back into his chair. He looked at Abby, questioning. She pressed her lips together and shrugged.
Abby and I carried the rest of the conversation alone, then, trying to fill what otherwise would have been the most awkward of silences. It was only a few minutes before Amina came back in.
“She was out almost as soon as her head touched the pillow,” she said, flopping back down in her chair. “Which—I know you three don’t know her, but that really is a bit of a miracle.” She gave Rafe a half-smile. “Maybe we should have company in the evenings more often.”
“Actually,” Rafe said, his hands tight around the arms of his chair. “I thought I might take them round the Kings Arms.” He glanced first at Abby, then at Justin.
Amina’s eyes widened, just a bit. She covered it with a pleasant smile almost instantly, but this time I was sure that she was aware of more than she was letting on. “Oh,” she said. “Well, all right, then.” Her voice sounded like she’d pressed the brightness button on a computer monitor for just a sliver too long before speaking.
We all set our glasses on the table, stood.
Rafe went over to stand by Amina then, leaned in for a kiss. She squeezed his hand, held it for a long moment, and they shared a look I couldn’t quite read. “Be sure to ring if it’s going to be late,” she said.
The snow had become thicker, turning the air white and sticking lightly to the ground. Abby lit a cigarette as soon as we were outside, and the three of us followed Rafe’s footprints back out to the pavement.
This was a different interview room to the one they’d had Rafe in the last time: smaller, with a table and two chairs and bugger-all else. His brain was dream-blurry, whether from the madness of the day or from the vodka, he wasn’t entirely sure. His chair was missing the cap from the end of one of its legs, and it wobbled whenever he tried to sit upright, so he didn’t even attempt it. He tilted it up against the wall, his face against the cool concrete. It smelled of paint and stuck to his cheek.
He drifted in and out of semi-consciousness for what felt like long lazy hours, his eyes focusing and unfocusing on the countless names and epithets that all the other common criminals had written or scratched onto the wall. Thirst clawed at his throat, but it was drowned out in snatches by a shooting pain in his right hand that he couldn’t quite identify, another in his ribs, the headache that was starting at the nape of his neck. Whenever he shifted position there was a bone-deep ache in one of his legs that went all the way from his knee to his ankle. He didn’t remember why. He didn’t want to think about any of it.
Then his eyes caught on something, snapped into sharp focus. He sat bolt upright. Not at his eye level but at hers, in fancy letters drawn in blue ballpoint pen, the wall read LEXIE WAS HERE.
It hit him with a one-two punch with no space to get a breath in between, and he reached out, traced the letters with a finger. They’d had her in this very room, right before she’d—
His hand dropped. No. That hadn’t been Lexie at all. The real Lexie had never seen the inside of this room. She’d never even been in this building.
His throat felt scraped raw, his fists were clenching, and he’d never wanted to punch a wall so much in his life. It was the cruellest idea of a joke. Somewhere that cop was out there laughing at him, at all of them. Rafe looked up at the camera in the corner, narrowed his eyes.
Their tapestry had unravelled entirely now, all of its stray threads lying in a heap at his feet, and it felt as if something had reached inside him and pulled his insides apart vein by vein, entrail by fucking entrail. But worse yet was the realisation that those threads had been twisted from the start, that even his memories were stained straight through to the core.
The door opened: O’Neill. Rafe’s jaw clenched. The man had about a day’s worth of five o’clock shadow and his shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, but he still looked determined.
O’Neill slid a pint glass full to the brim with water onto the table, dropped two aspirin next to it. Rafe stared at it: so close he could taste it, cool and wet against the sandpaper of his tongue. He worked his right hand underneath his thigh, willing himself not to reach for it.
“How are you feeling?”
From Mackey it would have been a taunt, but from O’Neill it was the start of a conversation. Rafe would have preferred the former. He put his head back down against the wall. His head throbbed, the pain creeping up the back of his scalp.
“Do you need anything else? Anything we haven’t brought you?”
When O’Neill had first interviewed Rafe, trying to seem harmless and friendly, his country accent had been as thick as butter. There was barely a trace of it tonight.
“I’ve just a few more questions.” The second chair dragged against the floor. “There’s a theory we’ve been developing, and I wanted to run it by you. See what you think.”
Rafe lifted his head just a bit, looked up at O’Neill despite himself. He was sitting opposite Rafe now, and he met Rafe’s gaze head-on. There were bags under O’Neill’s eyes, but there was still a light behind them, and they were knife-edge-sharp. They were the kind of eyes that could take Rafe in without giving anything at all back.
“We’ve been over the tape from today,” he said.
Rafe’s forehead creased for a sliver of a moment—the tape?—but then, like a backhanded slap across the face, he knew. The cop, the one who looked like Lexie, had been wired. The whole time.
“Pretty thoroughly, sure,” O’Neill went on. “And the first thing that jumps out is there’s a discrepancy between the different accounts.”
Rafe’s head was whirling, his eyes suddenly unable to hold onto anything. He closed them. He thought about everything they’d said in front of her, every private moment that had been eavesdropped on. A sick feeling settled into his stomach. He put his head back down against the wall.
“Mister March said he just happened to have a knife in his hand that night. Because he was doing the washing up, he said.”
Daniel sitting them down in the Buttery, telling them he’d inherited a house. Daniel standing behind the high-backed armchair, his fingers clutching the Webley. Rafe ran a hand down his face.
“But when you described the struggle, you described him as using two hands. In fact, Mister Mannering’s story also had Mister March using both hands. Can you think of why that might be?”
Justin sitting next to him that first time his father had rung with too much drink in him, his hand a tentative but reassuring presence on Rafe’s knee. Justin standing by the sink with a knife in his hand.
“Now, we’re aware that you and Ms Madison had a relationship. We can confirm that with a DNA test once it’s necessary, but it shouldn’t be necessary, should it?”
The headache travelled north to Rafe’s temples, and he rubbed at them in tiny circles. Lexie on the bare floor of the kitchen, the backs of her fingers running down his face. He’d returned that gesture that night on the patio after she’d come home, giving her a sly little smile—remember? But she hadn’t remembered. The real Lexie had taken that secret to the grave.
“I imagine you’d have to be pretty angry with whoever killed her.”
The child that could have been: a baby boy with his chin, or a girl with Lexie’s deep brown eyes. Something heavy and jagged was chafing the inside of Rafe’s throat.
“According to your account and Mister Mannering’s, there was only one person that night who had a free hand to hold a knife. It wasn’t Mister March, no matter what he told us.” O’Neill’s chair squeaked against the floor. “And it wasn’t Ms Stone. And it wasn’t you.”
Rafe’s pulse started beating in his ears, and then something raw and hot was swelling up in him, pressing against the walls of his skin from the inside. He kept thinking he’d spent every shred of his anger at Justin, but it kept being rekindled, again and again.
He sat up, tried to fix his eyes on O’Neill, but the water glass was a magnet, drawing his eyes to it. He struggled to swallow, couldn’t.
O’Neill gave his head a tilt. “Go on. It’s yours, sure. And the pills are just aspirin. I just figured they’d probably come in useful.”
Rafe scooted his chair nearer to the table, picked up the two pills, pressed them out of the packaging. He held them in his hand for a long moment, turning them over and over against his palm. His eyes locked with O’Neill’s.
And then the pills were on Rafe’s tongue, the water going down his throat clean and smooth and cool. There was a momentary shudder in his stomach, but his skin felt instantly more alive, as if the moisture had been teleported there. He set the glass on the corner of the table.
The room went still. O’Neill smiled.
“In the past you’ve felt protective of him,” he said, after another beat. “I get that. You were always so close.”
A flare of anger, a twist of pain. Rafe’s eyes flicked away.
“But you’ve also had plenty of cause to change your mind.”
Rafe traced the headache along his eyebrows in a steady pressure. For weeks, they’d all acted as if it hadn’t mattered who’d stabbed Lexie. As if they’d all been equally culpable, the five of them always and forever a single united front against whatever life threw at them. Rafe had almost believed it.
“You’ve no reason left to protect him, Mister Hyland.” O’Neill’s voice was level, giving nothing away, but his face was soft and almost kind. It didn’t even sound patronising. “No reason at all.”
A single drop of sweat dripped down Rafe’s back. His head throbbed.
“And I’m pretty sure you realise that, too.”
They hadn’t all done it, and they weren’t equally culpable. Moisture pricked at Rafe’s palms. He wiped them against his jeans.
“You were there. You know the truth. You’re not the only one, but you do know.” O’Neill set his forearms down on the table, folded his hands. “So tell me. Was it Mister Mannering who killed Ms Madison?”
The memories resurrected themselves like ghosts lurking just below the surface of Rafe’s mind. It had happened right after Lexie had punched him, but he hadn’t been able to feel the pain through the rush of adrenalin. His heart had been roaring in his ears, and he’d had his hands wrapped around Lexie’s arms just below her shoulders, holding them tight, his fingers digging into the fabric of her shirt. And then Justin, not a step away, something sharp glinting in his right hand, the overhead light flickering against it like a warning. And then he’d stepped forward.
Rafe’s head was splitting open, his teeth clenching. He leaned closer, mirroring O’Neill’s posture back at him. He looked him in the eye.
Then a thought, unbidden: Daniel with a finger to his lips, seconds before the gun had gone off. Not one word, no matter what. Rafe’s throat closed over, jammed shut.
Rage surged through him, pushing him to his feet. There was a slosh in his stomach, so overwhelming he almost heaved. He stumbled. He gripped the back of the chair so hard he thought he might claw straight through it.
He tried again, willed his mouth to open, but there was a clamp around his throat. Like he was brainwashed. Like he was in a bloody cult.
O’Neill was holding onto him with his eyes. Anger flew up inside of Rafe again, crashed against his ribs. His fists were tight around the chair back.
His eyes collided with the wall. LEXIE WAS HERE.
In front of some video screen in some back room, they were all laughing.
Rafe let out a yell: deep and guttural and primal. He lifted the chair over his head, throwing it against the wall with both hands, with all his strength. It clattered to the ground. He was panting.
And then one of O’Neill’s hands was at his forearms, pulling his hands together, and a pair of handcuffs closed around his wrists with a click. O’Neill grabbed the chair from the ground, set it back down, pushed Rafe into it. He fastened the cuffs to the edge of the chair.
For a long moment they stared at each other. There was no anger in O’Neill’s eyes, just disappointment.
There was a soft knock at the door, and it slid open almost immediately. Another cop, a uniformed officer. “Sam?” The other cop motioned to O'Neill.
A long, searching look from O’Neill, hesitating. Rafe met his eyes, then put his head down.
O’Neill followed the officer out the door. It latched behind him.
The cuffs dug into Rafe’s wrists. He tried to shift into some sort of natural position, but that only made them cut harder, until that pain matched the one in his ribs and his leg, his hand and his head. Finally, he braced his feet against the floor and shoved the chair up against the wall, put his face back down against it. He wanted a drink. He’d never wanted one quite this badly.
Then there was a click, and the door slid back open. A shuffle of footsteps, a shifting against the table. A little sigh, soft and almost sympathetic.
That made Rafe look. O’Neill again. Rafe pressed his eyebrows into a quizzical look.
The man actually looked flustered: his face pink, his mouth open a crack like he didn’t know what to say. “We, ah. We have some bad news.”
It sounded insane. This was one of those old-time slapstick comedy sketches, the ones where the misery kept piling on and piling on until it was ultimately too ridiculous to fathom. Rafe let out a breath of a laugh.
O’Neill didn’t crack a smile. “It’s the house.”
And then Rafe knew. WE WILL BURN YOU OUT.
He put his head back down against the wall. There was a searing pain in his chest, and now every last part of him hurt.
“There’s a fire. They think—it’s not clear yet whether it was intentionally set, but they’re pretty sure—” Another sigh, even softer this time.
Rafe swallowed. This was the only way their story could end, really, with Lexie and Daniel both lying on cold metal at the mortuary and their bloody lunatic dream a pile of wreckage and ash at the base of the Wicklow mountains.
O’Neill was talking. Rafe closed his eyes and tried not to hear him, not to breathe, not to think of anything at all.
We retraced our steps through the snow back to the main road to get to the pub, just a couple of hundred yards from the same station door where we’d emerged onto the street earlier. Without Amina, only Abby and I were available to carry the weight of the conversation. I was very conscious of the fact that we were quickly running out of things to say.
Abby still had a half-smoked cigarette by the time we got there, and she stopped just out front to finish it, the wind tugging at her hair. Rafe stood there with one hand on the door and the other in his coat pocket, waiting. “Damn smoking ban,” said Abby through a too-tight smile.
“How long’s it been in effect here?” I asked, keeping the conversation going.
“Two thousand seven, two thousand eight?” Abby answered. “Before I came across the water, anyway.” She drew in a smoky breath, let it back out.
“I know a couple of people who were thinking about quitting before the ban, but then they decided to keep on smoking after, just out of spite,” I said, injecting a thread of lightness into my voice. I tried to catch Justin’s eye—he’d have known exactly which of the Gaggle I was talking about—but he wouldn’t look up.
Rafe was leaning into the door by this point. He cocked an eyebrow at Abby, and she took one more puff before putting her cigarette out. “Okay,” she said. “Sorry.” Rafe nodded, swung the door open.
The place was less trendy than I’d expected, given the neighbourhood: all dark brown wood and old-fashioned booths. As we passed one large table I could smell something savoury that sent my stomach rumbling. Rafe found us an empty booth near the back, stood at the edge of it. He looked around at each of us in turn. “Is this all right?”
“It’s grand,” Abby said, and climbed in.
I slid in opposite Abby, with Justin close behind me. We took off our coats, but hung onto them: mine tucked into the corner, Justin’s folded across his lap. Rafe stayed standing. “Does anyone actually want anything to drink?” he asked.
We all looked at each other. I was going to need something to eat before I could even think about having another drink. “Nothing more for me,” I said.
Abby shrugged, and Rafe turned to Justin. He gave Rafe a quick glance before letting his eyes skitter away again.
“Well, then,” Rafe said, sitting down next to Abby. He folded his hands against the table like a professor about to begin a lecture. “If nobody wants me to buy a round, I might as well just go ahead and ask what all this is about.”
Justin lifted his head all the way, looked straight at Rafe. “I’ve decided to turn myself in, Rafe,” he said. “To the police.”
It was as if someone had messed with the colour on an old computer monitor and made everything go several shades darker all at once. Rafe put his head down, let it hang there for a long time. When he brought it back up, his face was pink and he looked ready to punch something. Justin’s first reaction was to flinch, but in his eyes there was a bright spark of anger.
Rafe shook his head. “I can’t believe we’re going to talk about this. In a pub. In front of a complete stranger.”
“You were the one who wanted to go to the pub, genius,” Abby snapped.
“Well, I wasn’t about to talk about this down the hall from where my daughter was trying to sleep, now, was I?” Rafe said, tension spooling through his voice.
I retrieved my coat from the corner and tucked it over my arm, and then gestured at Justin to let me out. “It’s all right. I’ll just go for a wee walk.”
He wrapped a hand around my arm: solid and firm. “No. You’re staying.” He turned toward Rafe. “Paul is staying.”
I leaned back against the booth, and after a moment, so did Rafe. “Fine. Let’s all talk about this together,” he said. “Why not?” He shook his head at Justin from across the table. “What are you thinking?”
Justin’s eyes narrowed, and a vicious look I’d never seen before scrolled across his face.
“How can you even think this is a good idea?”
Justin was clenching his teeth so hard I could see it. “God, that’s so—that’s just rich.” He gave his head a shake. “And why do you think it’s such a terrible idea, exactly?” It was phrased as a question, but it was low and angry and it sounded more like a threat.
“Do you really need me to tick off the reasons?” Rafe asked.
“Because of how it will inconvenience you? Because you might actually have to talk to the police again?”
“Justin,” Abby said, warning.
Justin kept going. “Because you’re going to have to tell your wife?” His voice was rising to a peak: sharp and tight.
Rafe’s forehead creased. “For God’s sake, keep your voice down.”
Justin jerked away from me, out of the booth, spilling his coat onto the floor. His hands were clenched and he looked like he might run a hundred miles away, or maybe throw one good punch.
Everything Justin owned was right here in this dreadful bed-and-breakfast in Summerhill, and in the end it amounted to a few piles of nothing. Taking stock was a matter of counting off possessions on a single hand: the clothes he’d had on his back that night, a few things to change into and a new toothbrush from Victims’ Services, the two books he’d been lucky enough to loan to one of the other postgrads last week, a stack of paperwork about the smouldering wreck of a house that was now one-third his.
Seeing the others gnawed at the edges of his heart every time: the way Abby looked at him more with pity now than affection, the way Rafe averted his eyes whenever they were in the same room. But the loneliness of the silence was worse even than that, and so he’d left the door to his room ajar, just enough to be able to keep track of their comings and goings. Abby’d got back around seven, and every once in a while he could hear her through the thin wall between their rooms, shifting against her bed. Rafe wasn’t there yet, though. The landlady locked up at ten every night, and on Justin’s nightstand the clock had just ticked over to quarter past.
The jangle of the door chimes finally sounded out five minutes later. Justin sat up, crept silently into the hall to sit at the top of the stairs.
The landlady’s shoes clacked against the tile. “Late again, I see,” she said in that sharp voice she seemed to reserve specifically for the three of them. She was probably in her early thirties, but she looked a decade older: a forehead that was creased in places it shouldn’t have been yet, crow’s feet pinching out from the corners of her eyes. Her hair was dyed that unnatural red that was probably supposed to cover grey, but it only made her look like somebody who wore pyjamas to the supermarket and thought Hello Magazine was quality reading material.
“I apologise,” Rafe said. He didn’t sound sincere, but he didn’t sound angry, either. Mostly he just sounded drained.
“You know, some of us have to be up at a decent hour in the mornings,” she said, digging in. “Not everybody has the time to just be faffing about.”
He didn’t respond to that one, but Justin could practically hear him thinking if you’d just give me a bloody key. It was like a physical pain, knowing him so well.
If things had been different between them, Rafe would have invented a backstory to explain the landlady’s constant surliness: something about how a handsome lorry driver had swept her off her feet at age sixteen and promised to marry her, but he’d left her when they’d found out she was really his sister. Justin swallowed.
“So I hear the cops have finally given your lot permission to leave the country.” There was a fringe of disgust in the way she said your lot, as if they were the worst sort of lowlifes. “I guess you’ll be glad to see the back of this place.”
Rafe ignored that. “How much will it be to settle the account?”
Justin’s spine stiffened, his heart churning. Rafe was leaving. Leaving the country.
“The fruit basket in the sitting room’s got awful low,” the landlady said.
“I didn’t take any—” Rafe pushed out an exasperated sigh. “Fine.”
“One of you lot broke one of the glasses, too.” Like it had been a personal affront.
“How much is that going to cost?”
“You know, you can’t actually buy that sort of glass anymore.”
“Will ten euros settle it?” Rafe’s voice was winding tight.
“I guess it’ll have to do,” she said, her voice heavy with reluctance. There was a clinking of coins, a rustling of papers, and then silence.
Six years, it had been since they’d met. Rafe had been so defensive at first, but somehow he had let Justin in anyway. Justin could still feel his lips on that soft hollow of skin where Rafe’s neck met his throat. A cloak of misery wrapped itself around him, settled across his shoulders with all its weight.
And then those familiar footsteps were coming toward the stairs, and Justin scrambled to his feet and ducked inside his room. He closed his door all but a crack and busied himself with pulling his duvet tight along the bottom of the mattress in fast, clumsy jerks, but Rafe passed by Justin’s room without even looking inside. Justin’s eyes caught the edge of Rafe’s shoulder, the contour of his leg. Then the door to Rafe’s room swung open, closed again.
Justin wrapped a fist around the bedpost. He couldn’t let Rafe leave like this. Some things were worth trying to salvage no matter what.
There was only one dim light on in the hall—a bare bulb, flickering—and Justin followed his own shadow down to Rafe’s room. The door was shut, and fixed to it with sellotape was a piece of yellowing paper with a number two printed on it.
He knocked. There was no answer.
A jangle of nerves went up Justin’s spine, but he tried the handle anyway. It wasn’t locked. He slid it open.
Rafe was stretched out on the bed, his back to the door. He had on a green T-shirt Justin had never seen, and a pair of what looked like brand new jeans. His whole room was packed up: the shelves and desk bare, a mostly-full suitcase open on the floor. The offending broken glass lay on top of a newspaper on his bedside table.
Justin felt his heartbeat and his breathing stop, and everything inside him ground to a halt. Then he opened his mouth, made himself speak. “Rafe,” he said quietly.
His heart started drumming, his stomach tying itself in knots. He regrouped his courage, took a step toward the bed. He reached for Rafe’s arm.
In a burst of movement, Rafe whipped around, sat up. “Don’t you fucking touch me!” he yelled, tossing Justin aside. Justin’s ankle slipped on a fold in the rug, and he stumbled, crumpled to the floor.
Their eyes locked: Rafe’s upper lip curled in a sneer, his cheeks red, his breath coming fast. He was clearly drunk, but it wasn’t just that. It was the same expression he’d been wearing when he’d attacked Justin in the kitchen. The kind of expression only a gunshot could interrupt.
Justin pushed himself up with both hands, but a pain in his right wrist shot straight up to his elbow, and he fell back down. “Ow,” he said under his breath. There was another pain in his ankle, and still another in his lower back: the start of a bruise. His teeth clenched. His jaw slid forward.
Rafe turned away again, his back to Justin. His shoulders curled in toward his chest, and he slid a hand up to grip the back of his neck, the muscles in his arm straining. Justin could hear Rafe’s breath: sharp and shallow.
And then Justin was shaking. Something hot caught in his chest, at first just a spark, but it swelled quickly, grew into something black and ugly and overwhelming.
“Get out of my room, Justin,” Rafe said. He’d stopped yelling, and now his voice was hovering somewhere between resignation and a warning.
Rafe wouldn’t look at him. After everything they’d meant to each other, everything they’d done to each other, the least they could do was look at each other. “You know, I loved you,” Justin said. His voice came out all edges.
A scoff of a sniff from Rafe.
“And I think you loved me, too.” Justin winced past the pain in his wrist, pushed himself up into a sitting position.
Rafe didn’t turn toward him. “I loved all of you,” he said, his voice flat.
The black feeling was rising into Justin’s throat, choking him. “Yes, but you weren’t having sex with all of us.”
An image of Rafe with Lexie flashed into Justin’s mind—in her bed, maybe even in his—their legs wrapped around each other. A sensation that was equal parts revulsion and pain rose up from inside of him and swept on through, leaving behind a sharp core of anger.
Justin pushed himself to his feet. “Or were you?” he spat, jagged and vicious.
Slowly, Rafe turned back around, sat up straight. Justin had never seen his eyes look quite that cold. “Just a suggestion. You might want to tone down some of that venom if you don’t want to be a bitter old queen by the time you’re twenty-five.”
A bomb detonated in Justin’s brain, and then he was reaching down, his fist around the pile of broken glass, lunging at Rafe. In one swift move, Rafe scrambled back against the headboard, grabbed a pillow, clutched it to his chest like a shield.
There was a blast of something on Rafe’s face, and it took Justin a flicker of a moment to register that it wasn’t anger, wasn’t disgust, wasn’t mockery. Rafe’s eyes snapping wide open, a shiver rising in his eyes, the colour dashing away from his face: that was fear.
The black feeling drained out through Justin’s feet, leaving an empty, hollow space behind. His hand flew open, sending the broken glass clattering to the floor. There was a gash across his palm. Blood was leaking out of it: bright red and water-thin.
Justin’s head was hovering above his body, looking down at the scene, and the memory came back to him with crystal clarity. At the cottage, they’d found her lying in a pool of blood just like that, only shadow-dark with nothing shining on it but the moonlight. It hadn’t even seemed possible, all that blood—in the kitchen there had been none at all.
Justin closed his eyes. It had never happened. It had never happened. It had never—
And then the sounds of that night were coming in a low hum: the tap running, Lexie breathing fast, Rafe’s grunt as he’d tried to hold her. Justin could feel it then, as surely as if he’d been transported back: his body lunging toward her, the knife in his hand going through her as if rippling through water.
Her look of surprise as she’d looked down. The pain, spreading across her face like shockwaves, and then, finally, the primal terror. That animal recognition—too late—that something dark and deadly had been hiding in plain sight all along.
And then Justin was back in his body, shaking again, shaking so hard he couldn’t catch a breath. He brought his arms in close, hugged them to his chest. Rafe was staring at him now, his eyes wide just like on that very night, the pillow still braced against his stomach.
Justin stumbled over to the door, fell more than stepped out into the hall. After just a fraction of a moment, it closed behind him. The lock slid into place.
He made it back to his room, collapsed against the bed, clutched his knees to his chest. The moments unfolded in front of him, and after a long stack of them Justin could feel a trickle of blood first dripping down his arm, and then drying into a crust. He let it happen.
His back was still hurting, and his ankle, and now his hand, but the pain was right, only right. And if he could just lie still enough for long enough, he might be able to stop existing.
For a moment no one said anything, and all we could hear was the rumble of a dozen surrounding pub conversations. Justin was standing next to the table, his eyes narrowed at Rafe, his fists clenched. Then I leaned over and reached for him, a hand on his arm. “Hey. Come on.”
He sat back down, but there was still something red-hot vibrating across his skin. “You don’t get to do this,” he said finally, to Rafe. “You don’t get to put six years of your life in a box and pretend it never happened, as if you could push it all far enough away that it doesn’t have to have an impact on who you are today.” I put a hand on Justin’s knee, and he peeled it off and pushed it away without looking over. “You don’t get to act as if you never even cared—as if we were just—”
“I never said I didn’t care.” There was a flash of indignation in Rafe’s eyes.
“Oh, that’s right.” Justin tossed a hand into the air. “You cared. You cared about all of us.”
Rafe shook his head, incredulous. “After everything that happened, this is the part you’re still upset about? Really?”
A wall slammed down around Justin, so hard I almost heard it. His face went blank. “Don’t minimise it,” he said in a quiet, pinched voice. “Don’t you dare try to make it less than what it was.”
Rafe’s head dropped, and he sat there, still, for a long time. Then he let out a quick whoosh of a sigh, and slowly lifted his chin. “You know, there was a time that the five of us were my whole world,” he said to Justin. “I would have done anything to keep us all together—pretty much literally, anything.” One of his eyebrows arched. “And the centre of that world was you.”
Justin jerked back, as if something had struck him from an unexpected direction while his attention had been busy elsewhere. This was not what he had expected Rafe to say.
Rafe’s eyes jumped over to me. “I’m sorry.”
I shook my head. “Don’t be.”
He looked back at Justin. “I couldn’t even consider what you and I were apart from the others. I was so convinced that you were what was holding everything together, and that would have only made the whole thing come apart.”
The wall around Justin started crumbling: a few stray stones dropping to the ground. A line formed between his eyebrows: not quite a question, not quite a wince.
“I wasn’t even wrong about that. In the end that’s more or less exactly how it happened.” Rafe smirked. “Give or take a few aborted attempts to beat the stuffing out of each other.”
And then Justin’s wall was gone, leaving behind a residue of emotions and memories that I could only scratch the surface of. He looked so vulnerable I wanted to reach for him then, but I didn’t. This wasn’t about me.
Rafe shook his head. “The whole situation was spectacularly fucked up, and it never could have lasted even if it hadn’t been for what happened with Lexie, but I never stopped caring. All right?”
A blush crept across Justin’s face, all the way to his ears. His eyes dropped to his lap.
“Don’t turn yourself in.” Rafe leaned in toward him, his forearms on the table. “Don’t ruin your life. Let this go.”
Justin shook his head. “I’ve tried. For almost ten years.”
“You know, Lexie wouldn’t have wanted you to do this.”
Justin sniffed. He gave Rafe a wee half-smile. “You might be right about that. She never was one to hold a grudge.”
The others flinched, in unison. There was a flash of grief on their faces: Abby’s raw and right on the surface, Rafe’s tight-lipped and embarrassed. It wasn't my loss and I didn't even know them, but I still felt it.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Justin said. “It’s the right thing to do—the only thing to do. I should have done it ten years ago, and the only way to come close to making up for not doing it then is to do it now.”
“You know, that detective gave me something when I spoke to her,” Abby said suddenly.
“Which detective?” Rafe asked, but the realisation hit him just a sliver of a second later. “I see,” he breathed, his eyes wide. “You spoke to her?”
“She came to see me,” she explained. Her bag was open on the table in front of her, and she pulled out her wallet, slid a plastic sleeve out. The piece of paper inside was old, and it fell limply against the table as she unfolded it. “It was a long time ago, and not—anyway. She gave me this.”
She turned it around against the table, slid it across to Justin. It was a streaky colour photocopy of a photograph, worn around the edges and at the creases where it had been folded and unfolded a few hundred times. The faces were clear, though, all five of them: a younger Justin with a full head of hair, Abby with her own so short it barely touched her shoulders, Rafe in ripped jeans and a hat, plus another young woman and another young man. They were smiling for the camera, standing in front of a big Georgian house on another snowy, windy day.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Justin, and then he let it back out, slowly. He stared at it for a long time, then looked at me. He put a finger just next to the image of the young man at the edge: taller than Justin and Rafe, with a serious, square-jawed face. “This is Daniel,” he said. Then over to the centre, to the girl with the dark curls. “And this is Lexie.”
The one he’d watched die and the one he’d killed. A tiny shiver ran through me and was gone. “Hello, Daniel,” I said. “Hello, Lexie.”
Justin shot me a lopsided smile, then looked back at the page. He hovered his hand along the roof of the house before letting it drop. “And this is the house. Whitethorn House. Our house.”
It was a country house, hardly a mansion, but still reminiscent of the bigger and better-kept ones that dotted the roads just outside Ballymena. “It’s beautiful.”
“It was.” He swallowed. Then he turned the picture around, slid it across the table to Rafe.
Rafe shifted in his seat, unsettled, but his eyes stayed fixed on it. “We can’t really blame the detective,” he said finally. “It was her job to catch criminals.” He started to reach for the picture, then slipped both hands under the table as if he thought it might bite him. “It was just bloody bad luck that we were the criminals that time.”
“I sure as hell blame her for Daniel,” Abby said with a tremor in her voice. “She had a choice.”
“Daniel had a choice, too.” Rafe lifted his head, looked straight at her. “He had a lot of choices. He could have chosen not to initiate the rest of us into his own personal madness, for starters.”
Abby bristled, her back arching like an offended cat’s. She swiped the picture back. “Will you stop? It’s been ten years, and he’s dead besides. There’s really no need for you to keep giving him stick.”
Rafe gave her a long look, like he was thinking about arguing with her, then reconsidering.
She folded the picture again, slid it first into the protective sleeve, then back into her wallet. “Daniel was the glue that held the lot of us together,” she announced, as if that was supposed to be the end of it.
“For you that was Daniel,” Rafe said. His voice was quiet and almost gentle. “Not for me.” He looked at Justin.
Justin was visibly moved: his eyes wide, his mouth trembling.
“And that’s no knock on Daniel,” Rafe continued. “That’s just how it was.”
“I’m sorry, Rafe,” Justin blurted. “I’m so sorry.”
A line formed between Rafe’s eyebrows. Then he shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. Amina, she’s—I found a good one.”
“No. I meant—” Justin shook his head. “About Lexie. And the—the baby.”
My breath caught. All the scenes I'd been picturing in that beautiful old house reshuffled themselves, making a new kind of sense. Rafe pressed his lips together: a thin white line.
“I never said that to you,” Justin said. “I should have.”
“It was on all of us, Justin,” Abby insisted.
“No.” Justin looked back and forth between Abby and Rafe: strong and solid, with no hesitation. “I know you think that, Abby, but it really wasn’t. We tried to make it about all of us because—I suppose because that was the way we wanted to think about everything back then. But I was the one holding that knife. Nobody else.”
“We still covered it up,” Rafe said. He gave his head a thoughtful tilt. “I still think about that—what had us all so bloody convinced that was the only way to go.”
Abby arched an eyebrow at him. “In our defence, we were really young.”
“We were old enough to make the choice to do that, though.” Rafe ran a hand through his hair. “And each of us chose not to tell the truth, again and again, in each of those separate rooms.”
“I feel like I’m still making that choice.” Justin’s shoulders were drooping, like there was an invisible weight there. “That’s why I need to turn myself in. It’s as if I’ve been making it all over again every single day for ten years, and it’s—I just can’t do it anymore.”
Rafe looked like he’d been kicked in the stomach, but Justin wasn’t done. He gave his forehead a quick rub with the side of his hand, closed his eyes just a beat longer than a second. There was a heavy feeling in the air, like the drop in pressure just before a storm.
“I—I told myself I wasn’t going to say this, but—” He swallowed, looked at each of us in turn. “I spent most of those first seven years wanting to die.”
Rafe’s eyebrows flew up, and the colour drained out of Abby’s face, leaving only the freckles behind. I sat bolt upright, my back rigid against the booth.
“I had a plan, even.” A look crossed his face that was almost thoughtful. “I suppose it was a comfort, in a way—knowing I could choose that.”
I took Justin’s hand. I thought about his old flat in Belfast, how sparse and temporary it had always looked. I thought about the night he’d told me about Lexie, how things might have gone if I hadn’t tracked him down in that guest house the next morning. I’m not a big crier, but if we’d been alone, I wouldn’t have held back.
He laced his fingers through mine. “Things did get better after I met Paul, here. I suppose being happy made it easier to think I could just move on.” He looked back at the others. “But I’ve still been trying to convince myself everything would be all right if I just kept quiet, and it’s never been all right. It’s never going to be all right. And I need to stop. It’s time to stop.”
I don’t know why it took all that for me to really understand. I guess I just kept hanging on to the thought that there had to be a better option for Justin than prison, even as it had got more and more obvious that all his options had been used up years ago. Whatever had been standing in the way, though, it all finally clicked into place for me then, as if someone had flicked on a light switch in a darkened room. Turning himself in wasn’t some reckless idea brought on by telling me, it was what he’d always needed to do to save himself from all that suffering. What he still needed to do now, with my help. I squeezed his hand between the both of mine, kept on squeezing.
I saw more than heard the breath leak out of Rafe, and a look fell across his face: raw and achingly sad. There was a long pause, filled only by the pub’s background noises: laughter, the clatter of plates, the rumble of conversation.
He opened his mouth then, but it took him a while to speak. “I guess—maybe we’ve all been trying to pretend that what happened didn’t have any lasting consequences. Beyond the obvious, I mean. But of course it did have.” He was looking at Justin. “Does have.”
“In any case,” Justin said, a hand splayed in the air in front of him. He looked first at Rafe, then at Abby. “This is about me, no one else. So I’m just going to tell them what I did, not what the two of you did, or didn’t do, or should have done. I’m trying to take responsibility, not spread it about. I want you both to know that.”
Rafe gave him a quick nod, like the end of a sentence. “Go on, then.” His voice was rough.
The silence around us grew again, then turned awkward. It seemed like this was a natural end to the conversation, but no one was moving.
It was my turn to do this. I made myself let go of Justin’s hand, reached underneath the table for his coat, and set it on the seat next to him. “You know, we’ve a pretty early flight tomorrow.”
Rafe jumped to his feet immediately, a wash of relief painted across his face. Then the rest of us stood. We all put on our coats, followed him out the door.
Outside, the wind had picked up again, whipping Abby’s hair around, and she pulled it into a ponytail, twisting it at her neck. The snow had gone thick, too: glowing yellow in the cars’ headlights as it fell, forming a fringe along the roofs of the shops, lying in a thin blanket at our feet. We were about a hundred yards from the station.
Justin’s eyes dropped to the ground, then crawled back up to meet Rafe’s. “I suppose you’ve got to—”
“Have a good flight,” Rafe said, reaching for Justin’s arm. He squeezed it once, then dropped his hand. They were staring at each other.
Then, as if recognising it wasn’t enough, Rafe reached for Justin with both hands, grasping his arms through his coat. They looked at each other for one beat, then another, and then Rafe curled around him, his arm tight across Justin’s back. Rafe squeezed his eyes shut, and he grabbed onto Justin’s shoulder and held it.
Then they pulled apart. “Thank Amina and Maya for sparing you on such short notice,” Justin said. “They’re both lovely, Rafe. Really lovely.”
“Thank you. I’ll do that.” Rafe slid a step back, stuck out his hand for me to shake. “It was good to meet you,” he said to me.
Rafe’s grip was firm. “Likewise,” I said. “Take care.”
Rafe tugged his collar up and turned to walk back down the narrow lane toward his house. He slid his hands into his pockets. He didn’t turn around.
Justin’s shoulders relaxed as soon as Rafe was gone, but something else came loose from around him as well, and he was suddenly wobbly on his feet. The evening had taken its toll on him, and he was starting to fray around the edges.
Abby noticed right about the same time I did. “It’s a bit late for dinner,” she said.
“Not if you’re French,” Justin piped up, his mouth spreading in an attempt at a smile. But once again, no one moved.
“Listen,” Abby said then, quietly. She glanced at her watch. “I’m just going to catch the next northbound train.”
Justin nodded, and his eyes went lidded, the exhaustion coming off him in waves. “All right.”
The three of us walked the few steps to the station together in silence. At the door, Abby reached over and gave me a quick, friendly hug. “You take good care of our Justin,” she said.
“I’ll do my best,” I answered.
Justin bent down to kiss her cheek. “Sweetie.”
“You,” she said, pulling him into a hug, and then she stepped back. “Good luck with—” She gave him a wee sigh, patted his arm. “Good luck.” Then she dashed through the station door, rounded the stairs.
At first Justin just stared at the space where she had been standing. Then he closed his eyes. After a moment I reached for his hand. “You know, I spotted a curry house on the high street right at the end of our road. So if you just wanted to go straight back, I could pop in and pick up some takeaway.”
“Actually.” He opened his eyes. “Can we just stand here for a moment?” The snowflakes were piling up on his coat. “I want to catch my breath.”
“Of course.” We stepped out of the path of foot traffic, over to the edge of the station entrance. I leaned in close. “How are you doing?”
He gave me a breathy, ironic laugh. “So much better than I expected to be doing.” He clasped one of my hands between his. “You know, every time I take a step back and think about all this, I just really can’t believe you—” He gave his head a slow shake. “Rafe’s not the only one who found a good one.”
“Even though I don’t always listen?” The wind nipped at my face, and I pressed my lips together, tight. “I think that was four times you had to explain why you needed to do this before it finally sank in.”
He shook his head. “You were always listening. You can’t help it if there’s so much going on sometimes it’s hard to hear.”
I tried to smile then, but couldn’t quite manage it. There was no denying what was about to happen to us now that it was staring us in the face, and I felt that shadow looming. In so many of the ways that counted most, Justin and I had only just found each other, and now it was all going to get shaken up. “You’ll need a good solicitor for starters,” I said. I wove my fingers through his. “I can help with that, anyway.”
“Thank you,” he said with a nod. “I think—I think I’ll give notice at work first thing Monday morning. My name will be in the papers soon, and the least I can do for the school is be well gone by that point.”
I nodded, but it felt like poking at a bruise. A day and a half. Thirty-six hours. It sounded like nothing at all.
“Do you know how—how long will it be for?” he asked. “Gaol, I mean. Prison.”
“I’m not a lawyer,” I warned him.
“But you hear about these things. Previous cases.”
“I really can’t say anything for sure.” I wasn’t supposed to say anything at all, but this was Justin.
He shook his head. “Of course.”
“It will probably be manslaughter, not murder,” I said carefully. “In a case like this it’s awfully hard for the prosecutor to prove intent.”
His eyebrows pressed together, and his face went still.
I did the sums. “Based on everything I know about your case, probably five years. Give or take.”
I could see him imagining it: counting out the days, the months. There was another long silence, then a sigh from Justin.
I wrapped an arm around his waist, and then we were leaning against each other, as if we could both best stay stable by holding each other up. I kissed his temple, held my lips there for a long time.
A guy in a green wool cap brushed past us into the station, then turned and shot us a quick look back, his face spread in an approving smile. I had to wonder what he thought he was seeing: a casual bit of affection between an ordinary middle-aged gay couple, maybe, the sort of pair who’d already seen their share of ups and downs. My throat tightened.
“You know, I might not have been hearing you before, but I’m hearing you now.” There was a weight in my voice, but I kept it even. “And you should know—I want to be there. No matter what happens next.”
There was a light on Justin’s face, dim, but one that looked almost like hope.
“So at the end of all this, if you still want to come home—”
“Back to our perfectly imperfect house?” Justin said.
“That’s right,” I said, and let myself laugh.
“I don’t know anything about what’s going to happen to me now, Paul.” He half-turned into the wind, let the fat snowflakes fall and melt against his face. “I can’t know.”
That knocked my breath out: a plunge into icy water. I rocked a step back. Of course he couldn’t know.
He pulled me against him again. “But as sure I am that I need to do this, I’m just as sure that I’ll still want that life with you when it’s over. So if you’ll really still have me then—”
My heart caught, and the restart was so quick it felt like the revving of a motor in my chest. I leaned against him, pressed my forehead against his, kissed him.
I brought his hands to my chest. I ran a thumb along the scar on his left hand, squeezed the right one. Then I let go.