Lincoln’s dad decides to leave on a Thursday – Thor’s Day – and the event lives up to its namesake, lightning strikes the earth, blackens the soil in successive hits. The clouds roil overhead. Lincoln walks outside, draws in a lungful of ionized air then holds his breath until black spots appear in front of his eyes, works his jaw until his ears pop.
Inside, the house is cloying and stuffy, the blinds have been drawn for days. He feels half-buried.
Their fridge is overfilled with casseroles, with slowly spoiling food. Rose petals are scattered on the dining room floor, every vase they own on display and more than a few drinking glasses too. Lincoln picks up a solitary petal, its edges curling, and inserts it among the pages of his book, smoothes his finger down the binding, the cracked and weathered spine. The paper is filled with illustrations, gregarious colours; the print blocky and simple. It’s precious, his mother used to say, her mouth beside his ear, hands brushing the hair from his forehead, everything’s digitalised these days. Lincoln closes the book gently, the fragrance of LeAnn Rimes sealed inside; the petals bound to the pages of The Faraway Tree.
He packs it neatly, along with three pairs of jeans, five shirts, underwear, and his parka, his keepsake settled on top, and struggles down the staircase with his duffel-bag. Outside, the first drops of rain hit the pavement.
“Ready, champ?” his dad asks, standing beside the old-fashioned Ute.
“What about the rest of it?” There’s furniture, appliances, and throw rugs that his mom hoarded. She’d smother them under blankets, reading aloud from under cover of torchlight. She hated the cold. “What about the food?” he protests, inanely.
Because they don’t have everything: there’s missing gaps, things that have been left behind, the fridge, rose garden, and the bedroom his parents never finished painting, eggshell white and incomplete. His dad’s hunched against the wind, eyes flickering toward the lightning strikes; his mouth pulls into a sour line.
“It can rot.”
They leave on Thursday.
Halfway through the school year Lincoln arrives in Florida. The kids are organised into miniature social networks, knotted groups who cluster together and stare at Lincoln as if he’s leading the invasion. His hair was cut short after the funeral – a buzz-cut his dad requested curtly, save me the hassle of morning routines – and his glasses feel too big on his face; his ears too exposed. He doesn’t have the generic school uniform or even the proper bag; he walks around with a blue knapsack with Spiderman stitched onto the material, with buttons and slogans shouted across the shoulder strap. He carries his lunch in a brown paper bag (squashed) and buries his book beneath the stylus and electronic learning PADD. He doesn’t show it to the other kids, doesn’t share in something ‘precious’ at show ‘n tell, but carries it with him like a snail hauling its shell.
No one approaches him. Lincoln doesn’t really care.
They move into a house on leafy cul-de-sac where every building is double-storied or more. It’s too big for Lincoln and his dad; they sleep on separate floors, rattle through the hallways, and only meet in the kitchen.
“Made any friends?”
“Nope,” Lincoln says irritably, and shoves a forkful of pasta into his mouth.
“Huh,” his dad mutters, and signs him up for Little League.
Coach Reteurs likes to groom his batters - he throws the ball too hard and too fast - and Lincoln thinks there’s something mean about him; how he weeds out the ‘cry-baby’s’ and the ‘sissy’s,’ how he names them so loudly, ticks them into columns. Lincoln skips practice after the second session. He cuts through a paddock, and wanders up his leafy avenue, eerily quiet and devoid of kids. A cream station wagon pulls into its driveway: a woman with curly black hair, the groceries stashed under her arm, smiles at him tentatively. Lincoln ducks his head shyly and trundles up the footpath.
Behind him, a clear British accent calls out: “I’m home, love! Can you give me a hand with the shopping?”
Jarrod Mathews tries to make friends the following day. He sits beside Lincoln at school and talks about kite flying, how Lincoln and himself look exactly alike. “We could be brothers,” he declares, the gap in his baby teeth wide.
Something obscures Lincoln’s vision, makes him tremble violently. His hands tighten into fists. “I don’t want a brother! I never wanted a fucking brother!” It’s the first time he said the swearword aloud - although his father says it often enough - it’s the first time Lincoln sees the inside of the Principal’s office, too.
He goes home early that day, words like grief and avoidance chase each other in his ears. His dad looks at him out of the corner of his eye, opens his mouth twice but says nothing. Lincoln watches the passing scenery and whispers furiously: “Why’d you want another kid anyway? Wasn’t she enough?” Because he married her, he was meant to choose her. “Wasn’t I enough?”
“Linc,” his dad says, and wipes at his mouth. “Linc, you don’t understand.”
He turns away, face hot, his chest too tight, and watches the clouds scud across the horizon. For the first time he sees another kid. Perched on the roof of the neighbours house, he’s dressed in flannel pyjama bottoms and a white t-shirt. He’s sitting outside the window on the second story, forearms on knees and his body folded inward. Lincoln turns his head to track him, their battered Ute pulling into the driveway at a sedate pace. Same age, same zoning area, but Lincoln’s never seen him at school. The kid’s brown hair is messy - long and in his eyes - he looks pale even from a distance.
Lincoln steps out of the vehicle and squints; the other boy stares back.
His dad follows his line of sight. “That’s the Bishop’s kid,” his dad informs - there’s a tightness to his voice - a tension Lincoln relegates to the topics they simply don’t discuss. “Leave him be.”
Lincoln looks at his dad suspiciously, the challenge barely hidden. “Why should I?”
“We don’t know if it’s catching. Just…stick to the kids at Little League, okay, for your old man?”
Lincoln frowns and follows his dad inside. He wonders what the school counsellors would say, if the broad strokes of grief and avoidance apply here. He doesn’t see the kid at school the next day or the following, although Lincoln sees him on the roof of his house on three other occasions. Flu might be the answer; it’s been tearing back and forth through the grades, it might explain his dad’s fears of ‘catching’. Lincoln gives it another week then decides the boy doesn’t go to school at all - and if Lincoln has to suffer the sheer agony of education then so should the neighbour- that’s an injustice worth investigating. “Hey!” he calls out, hands on his hips and feet planted on the neighbours lawn. A tousled head peers over the edge. “Come down!” He’s expecting the boy to disappear through the bedroom window, but he picks his way carefully over the tiles, climbs down to the first level then vanishes from view. A moment later, he re-appears directly over Lincoln, belly down on the roof and his hands tight on the gutter. He c-curves over the edge gracefully, dangles from the gutter by his fingertips, then drops the remaining distance to the lawn.
Lincoln, impressed, would have given him points for style except he fumbles the landing and stumbles. All in all, it takes him forty-five seconds until they’re face to face. Uncertain, Lincoln backs up a step. “My dad says you have cooties?”
The shove, he guesses, was totally deserved. Lincoln hits the ground on his bum, hard enough to bite his tongue. The other boy shoots back, in the exact same tone of voice. “My dad says you’re a moron.”
Lincoln looks at him crossly. “He does not! He’s never even met me.”
“Yeah, well, my dad knows all sorts of things.” There’s something wrong with his voice, with the sheen of perspiration on his face, as if he exerted himself by tumbling off the rooftop. It makes him sound husky, on the edge of a cough.
“I’m Lincoln,” Lee reveals and sticks his hand out experimentally, deciding to forgive the shove. “I don’t care if you have the cooties.”
The other boy hesitates. “Peter.” He doesn’t accept Lincoln’s hand outright but sits down opposite, cross-legged on the grass, eyes feverish. “I saw you guys move in. It’s a sweet ride.”
“The Ute. Retro 1950s, 40 horse power and leather interior.”
“Oh! Oh! The car!” Lincoln would have preferred something modern, or you know, fast, but whatever. “Want to come around and see it? I’ll show you my trading cards while you’re there?”
Peter, it turns out, doesn’t go to school. He’s home tutored, never been inside a classroom in his life and Lincoln’s insanely jealous. He collects coins, loves sleight-of-hand, and has a black magician’s hat that sits at a jaunty angle. “I’m going to pull a rabbit out of my hat one of these days,” he swears. (It looks more like the Dr. Seuss cover for Cat in the Hat but Lincoln won’t quibble) He reads avidly, everything he can gets his hands on. Peter’s going to be an astronaut when he grows up: or a pirate, he’s going to be a fireman, a scientist, and an explorer too. He jumps interests so fast Lincoln can barely keep up. There’s something bright and desperate about him, flailing for every skerrick of information, wanting to do it all. I like books, Peter says unashamedly, and later, when Peter’s too sick to climb onto the roof - when his chest rattles for every breath - Lincoln will bring The Faraway Tree into his room, will read aloud until his voice is sand paper rough, as husky as his friend.
Lincoln, in turn, collects comic books. He hates school, novels, and currently, his dad. He could talk about Battlestar Galatica all day, complains about the stupid baseball team, and flies into a conniption of joy when talking about the latest Flash Gordon comic because it's awesome. They become friends – and their relationship cements over the next few months – confined mostly to Peter’s house. They argue viciously - Peter loves pirates; Lincoln idolises the military – and Peter refuses to believe Lincoln’s related to Adama, he’s not a Captain in the Fleet and Starbuck’s definitely not cooler than Han. “Say that again and I’ll kick your ass when I’m out of this bed,” Peter warns.
“I believe you.” Lincoln looks around at the books, the collection of fantasy comics, their promise of escape; and ignores the medical paraphernalia stashed in the corners of the room. “How else are you going to become a pirate?”
“I’d have you as First Mate,” Peter confesses. His breathing turns harsh; his face goes tight and pinched.
There’s something laid open and shy about his tone and Lincoln thinks, a little desperately, that he preferred the threat. “Nothing less than Captain,” he answers, voice dry.
In the four walls of the bedroom, with the solar system on display, Peter’s smile turns incandescent.
Two weeks later, he disappears. It doesn’t matter how often Lincoln rings the doorbell, or peers at the rooftop, no one answers at the Bishop residence. He goes from frustrated to worried; a nameless dread clawing at him because he never said goodbye to his mom either. One moment she was fine, the next gone. They rushed her into delivery and when the doctors told his dad he had to make the call, he chose Lincoln’s brother, who didn’t survive long enough to be named. Lincoln can’t stand to look at him now and his dad can’t stand to talk, their house divided into floating islands.
Peter was his first friend in Florida. But when he thinks about the fear in his dad’s eyes, how he lectured Lincoln not to talk to the other boy, he suspects he might have been Peter’s only friend. Ever.
Days turn into weeks until an entire month slips by. Summer arrives with a vengeance, hot and stiffing. Then one morning before eight am Peter knocks on his door. Lincoln stares at him dumbly. The relief teeters him off balance until he has to cling to the doorjamb. “You’re not dead.”
“I told you, my dad knows stuff,” Peter explains, off-the-cuff. He shifts position surreptitiously, moving his weight from foot to foot. Lincoln notices because he always notices these things. “Did you want…?”
Linc interrupts because he doesn’t need to hear the end of the sentence, the thread of uncertainty, of course Lincoln wants to, of course he does... “What time do you need to be home by?”
“They didn’t say.”
Which is a terrible lie but Lincoln won’t call him on it. They only have one bike between them; Lincoln’s stunt BMX with the silver spikes on the back for a passenger to stand on.
Lincoln makes Peter pedal and balances on the spikes, his forearm braced against the other boy’s spine, half crouched over him. He points out the places of interest, the places they’re going to go now that he’s better, and the places that are too lame to even consider. They eat food nicked from the stands of the local shops - where Peter’s sleight of hand comes in handy - and explore down the storm-drains in search of killer clowns. They eat raspberry icicles, fingers tacky, their shirts off and bare-chested in the sun. Lincoln grabs him by the hand, interlaces their fingers tightly, and tugs Peter into the fairground of a travelling circus. By eight pm they’ve swapped positions, Lincoln pedalling with Peter on the handlebars, blocking his view and calling out directions. “Left! Left! Left, dammit, left!” And Lincoln swerves past a vendor, dangerously close, insults shouted in their wake. He puts on a burst of speed when he realises it’s close to nine, dumps Peter at his front door and steps back, the two of them grinning at each other like idiots.
Puzzled, Lincoln shrugs. “Okay... Oh, hey! I’ve got the entire collection of Praying Mantis.” He boasts instead. “Come around tomorrow?”
“Even number six?” Peter asks dubiously.
Lincoln had been searching for it frantically for almost three months. It’s his prized card. “Yep.”
“I’ll trade you.”
Lincoln blows a raspberry.
He’s eight the first time he masturbates. Olivia will call this bullshit (too young, she’ll say later) and Lincoln will stare at her and think, what does it matter?
In truth, it doesn’t have much to do with sex. He’s not thinking lewd thoughts. He’s not picturing anyone in particular. He’s simply bored. It’s about the slow pace of his hand, curled around his dick. It’s about the pull of pleasure and the sharp response it elicits. If anything, he’s wondering when Peter will be allowed to come out and play again (he didn’t have permission to be outside later than four pm, and Elizabeth – furious - threatened to confine Peter to his bedroom for the rest of his natural life, then relented the next morning. Lincoln’s dad - who typically works late, pops a beer, then vanishes into the garage - never even noticed his eight year old son was missing.) Lincoln thinks he’s fast becoming the invisible child, but then Peter will look at him in a certain way, laugh, bright and present and here, and the knot of resentment fades.
On a Tuesday, Lincoln mentions the postcards his class made on their final day of school, to send Ms. Jenkins away. She’s backpacking through France during the summer holidays. Peter grins at this tid-bit of information like the devil, and spends the morning on his dad's computer, looking up addresses and sat-nav photos of their surrounding area. Half an hour later, they’re scaling a tree and dropping over Ms Jenkins property line. They spend the rest of the summer using her pool.
They play Marco Polo, tie their beach towels around their necks like capes and dive-bomb each other. The days pass in a haze of heat and the smell of chlorine; it’s wet skin and shoulders that turn brown with the sun. It’s Lincoln jerking off quietly, one hand down his damp shorts while Peter dozes, belly down beside the pool and his head turned away. Lincoln wonders what would happen if he awoke, if he looked across the water and saw – tousled damp and half asleep – if he saw Lincoln yanking at himself. He comes for the very first time, hard and fast like a punch to the gut. There’s gunk on his fingertips, his chest heaving. Lincoln staggers to his feet, dizzy and panicked, and dives headfirst into the pool, washing the evidence away.
On Thor’s Day, thirteen months after meeting Peter for the first time, they're chased from Ms. Jenkins property by her irate gardener, who yells things like police! and trespassing! and I saw your faces you little shits! It’s rabbiting over the fence and running hell for leather – legs eating up the turf - gasping for breath until they realise he isn't, in fact, chasing them. The fear turns into laughter, the two of them jostling each other as they cut through a field.
It’s dark, the cicadas are out, humming from the grass, and Peter is staring up at the stars, pointing out the constellations. Lincoln, mostly, is watching Peter, the line of his jawbone and how his hair curls in the humidity. There’s a blimp in the sky, obscuring the Big Dipper, and Lincoln wants to reach out, draw his attention elsewhere. On Thor’s Day, the night's hot, there's no hint of thunder, but the smell of ionization comes from nowhere. Between one breath and another a girl appears, nose-to-nose with Lincoln, so close they both go cross-eyed. He yelps, the girl shoves (violently) and Lincoln fetches into the dirt, on his bum for the second time. She spins, hair loose, one side of her face indigo, purpling black, her eyes startled.
She stares up at the blimp like it’s a monster.
“Holy shit,” Lincoln stutters.
The air shimmers, the grass under his fingers blackens, his hands blister. Lincoln scrambles backwards because it hurts, and he doesn’t know where the heat's coming from, then Peter hauls him upward by the armpits and says sharply. “Stop it!”
She jerks as if she hadn’t noticed the other boy. The three of them stare at one another, a girl with blonde hair, a mass of bruises and eyes the colour of beer – dressed in layers as if she came from the cold - and two half-naked boys, still dripping water from the pool.
“Linc?” Peter asks. He has his arm thrown over Lee’s shoulder protectively.
Lincoln holds his blistered hands away from his body, examines them quickly, then shakes his head. “’S’okay.”
“Are you okay?”
It takes Lincoln a moment to realise Peter’s addressing the girl. She’s dressed in black cargo pants and a black hoodie, the colour of her runners are racing red. She’s holding something in her hand, a flash of metal and Lincoln, who watched Peter flip his lucky coin from one knuckle to another for almost a year, practicing magic tricks, recognises it.
“Where am I?” she asks, in a rush.
“Jacksonville, Florida,” Peter replies evenly. He’s too calm, he holds himself (and by extension, Lincoln) unnaturally still. He doesn’t ask the questions that are clamouring in Lincoln’s mind, he doesn’t say Where did you come from? How did you get here? He asks: “Who did that?”
She winces, ducking her head as if to hide the bruise. Lincoln thinks she won’t answer but then she straightens and looks them both in the eye. “My stepfather.” And oddly enough, she’s calming down too, following Peter’s lead and focusing on the smaller issues. “He gets angry…”
But then again, maybe they aren’t the smaller issues. Given how he and his dad don’t talk, Lincoln’s not an authority on the matter. “I’ve got ice,” he offers tentatively. “Back at my house.” His finger’s twitch. He doesn’t want to look at his hands under the light, but he thinks moving inside might be for the best. Her bruise is so recent Lincoln thinks he can see the imprint of a palm and he hurts just looking at her.
The girl shakes her head violently, eyes darting to track the blimp again. “This isn’t right.”
“We can stay here,” Peter says soothingly. “Just sit for a while?... It’s safe.”
“Safe?” she repeats.
“Well, you might have to dodge an angry gardener,” Lincoln corrects. “But you know, kind of safe.”
She examines them for a moment, the wariness bleeding off her bones, vanishing the same the heat did, her smile, when it appears, makes them both catch their breath.
“My name’s Olive.”