Sarah and Jesse took a bus as far as the river, then walked in the direction of the docklands. It had turned hot again, one of those late summer days when it seemed that school, and winter, could be postponed indefinitely. The air felt Mediterranean—dry and heavy and faintly laced with a smell reminiscent of sweet oranges. Even now, with the sun already sinking, the glare off the water smudged the colours so that the opposite bank had the look of a watercolour thrust into a portfolio before it had quite dried. Not a cloud in sight, the hue of the sky a mere premonition of blue.
‘Ben finally texted. They’ll be back tonight, we can have the board tomorrow,’ Sarah said. ‘Or do you want me to try someone else?’
‘Tomorrow’s fine. Anyway, it’s too hot to skate.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘A secret,’ Jesse said, his eyes gleaming.
‘Your secrets have a habit of biting back.’
At a solitary willow, Jesse stooped to pick up a handful of small stones lying scattered about. He stepped to the river’s edge and skipped them lazily, one by one, across the water. His movements were spare and graceful, though Sarah knew that years of practice lay behind that kind of perfection. Her chest ached to watch him. He was like one of Finn’s photographs, startling and beautiful and addictive: the more you look, the more you want to look, and the more you find. She thought she could never get enough of him.
When the last ripple had smoothed out, he continued to stare into the depths of the river. Sarah wondered what he was thinking. His face had an odd look about it, as though he were watching something only he could see. The colour of his eyes had intensified to a rich gentian blue like the little bulbs which carpeted her grandmother’s garden in early spring.
Believe me, the factory’s no place for her. She’ll be bored out of her mind. Scared, too.
It’s none of your business.
Your business is my business. Get used to it.
Look, just back off, will you.
All our meals are going to be joint ones from now on. No side dishes.
Go away and read a good book. There must be something in your archives. It might improve your language skills.
Funny. Very funny. While you look for an exciting place to shag.
I mean it. Shut up.
On second thought, maybe I’m going to enjoy this. Did I miss a feature performance last night? I’ve always wondered what it felt like. Books and films are no substitute for the real thing, are they? And you people do go on about it so. I can throw in some special effects. What would you prefer? Eerie, so she can get all shivery and grab you straight off? Stormy—driving thunder and lightning to set the tempo? Or a sweet rolling meadow and meandering stream and balmy breezes, a hint of violin?
Jesse snarled and whipped his head around. ‘Come on,’ he hurled at Sarah, who gaped at him with only a second or two to register the change in his eyes, now the colour of fungus, before he was gone. Someone had flung open a trapdoor into a cellar full of spiders.
She caught up with him by the derelict factory, near a gap in the chainlink fence where he’d stopped to wait.
‘It’s beautiful inside,’ Jesse said. ‘I’d like to show you.’
‘Why were you running?’
The attempt at a smile, then he gestured for her to follow.
The darkness closed round them like a fist. The little pocket maglite cut no more than a thin gash of light through the murk, insufficient to reach from one end of the main factory hall to the other. Jesse swung the torch in a slow arc, surprised by how different everything seemed with Sarah at his side—not cavernous or derelict at all, but sculptural, a modern art gallery for their own private enjoyment.
‘It’s like walking through a dreamscape,’ Sarah whispered. ‘Do you do this often? Wander into abandoned buildings?’
‘Sometimes. I like exploring places where no one else goes.’
They began a careful circuit of the hall. Their eyes were able, gradually, to pick out details and map their surroundings. When they reached one of the gaping holes for the duct system, Jesse put out a hand to warn Sarah. They stopped just as the silence in the vast hall was gathering strength.
‘Do you hear it?’ he asked.
hear it hear it hear it hear it hear it
‘Put down the torch,’ Sarah said.
He stared at her, then did as she asked. She stepped back from the edge. Jesse watched her as she lifted her T-shirt, pulled it over her head, and dropped it to the floor. He watched her as she unzipped her jeans and slid them down over her hips. He watched her as she shed her lasts scraps of artificial skin.
‘I hear the words you’re afraid to speak,’ she said.
He closed his eyes, unable to bear the weight of his own flesh, the rising sonority of the voices spreading from beneath within beside below above beyond the boundaries of his self. To escape, even for a moment, the cage of clock.
There are secret places in every city, every landscape. But none as dark and bloodrich and nourishing as the hidden places reached by koan. Sarah crossed the space between them. Her fingers touched yesterday; her lips, tomorrow. In the time it took to hum a simple melody she led him, her skin:his skin, to the place where sound is silent, and where silence sings.
Go on, enter her already, Red chuckled maliciously.
Jesse gasped and thrust Sarah away from him. She lost her balance and fell to the concrete floor with a cry. For a long while he looked down at her, saying nothing. But he didn’t turn and go; he didn’t run. The sound of their breathing—his harsh and bitter, hers saddened—rose to fill the silence.
At last Sarah stood. She began to dress, slowly and with dignity. There would be no hiding. Jesse’s face was as white and blank as a cadaver’s—even his eyes had died. After tying back her hair, she spoke for the first time.
‘I’m not leaving till you tell me what’s wrong.’
He could cache his eyes but not the pulse in his throat.
‘Tell me, Jesse.’
Mute, he shook his head.
‘Then tell me this. Am I wearing some sort of neon sign that invites blokes like Mick and Gavin to treat me like crap? Or maybe all men, even the ones I thought I could trust?’ She raised her voice, which echoed from the walls of darkness. ‘Because if it’s me, you’d better tell me right now. I’m not letting myself get fucked over again.’ Determinedly, she emphasised every syllable. ‘Not again. And not by anyone.’
She wouldn’t have thought his face could lose any more blood, but it did. With an inarticulate sound low in his throat, he took a step forwards. ‘Sarah—’
‘Tell me, damn you!’
He told her.
A deep violet twilight greeted them when they emerged from the factory. They walked side by side without touching, skin scraped raw from their conversation. If Sarah had expected Jesse to feel relief at his revelations, she’d miscalculated the effects of protracted and habitual concealment, burial even: any archaeologist could have told her that careful, patient brushwork was needed to remove the layers and layers of compacted soil, debris, and ash, and a rushed job meant damage to the find. She had been a little rough, perhaps. She was hurting too.
And though Sarah understood—rationally—that Jesse hadn’t rejected her, it would take a long time for her skin to slough off the imprint of his hands, shoving her away.
The air was cooler, moister also. Later there might be rain. A soft breeze lifted Jesse’s hair from his neck; for a moment he was startled, thinking that Sarah had brushed him with her fingertips. And he wanted her to, god how he wanted it. Even just imagining it gave rise to an almost sumptuous surge of blood. But he couldn’t bring himself to reach out to her, not after what he’d done.
You struck her. You struck her. Three barbed words repeated over and over again, silently, until they became a chant, a dirge, a self-mutilation: blood welling from the cuts they gouged into his skin. He’d struck her and come. His father’s son . . .
At the ship’s bow he slowed his footsteps and then halted altogether, held up a finger to his lips, and pointed towards the listing pier, where a young woman stood with her back to them, first stars glittering above her in the failing light. Her arms were raised above her head, hoisting a big plastic canister—one of those water-carriers used for camping—dousing herself. She tossed the carrier into the river, turned, and caught sight of them, and they saw that she was younger than Sarah, in fact little more than a kid, and decidedly pregnant. And how pretty she was—brown skin, black hair, and arresting though oddly mismatched oriental eyes.
The girl smiled, if it could be called a smile: a small sad twist that nipped the air like an acknowledgement of loss. Even from here Sarah could make out the expression in the girl’s eyes and bit down on her cheek to keep from exclaiming. Jesse held out his hands, palms up, and slowly walked towards her.
‘Please,’ he entreated. ‘Wait.’
The girl watched him without moving. Her hair was cropped short, her flowered dress clean but cheap, a thin cotton, her feet in plastic flipflops. Her arms were stick thin. She looked more like a ragged scarecrow than a person.
Jesse kept walking. The air was very still, as if it too held its breath.
A bird cawed overhead.
The sound severed the scene like a guillotine. The girl fumbled with something in her hand. Sarah heard the click at the same time as Jesse lunged forward.
‘No!’ he cried out.
The flames engulfed the girl instantly. She became a pillar of fire, a living torch. Sarah was frozen in horror, stunned, unable to move. Then she too screamed as she watched Jesse leap at the girl, his arms reaching out as though to embrace her.
‘Jesse, no! NO!’
No way. This couldn’t be happening.
Sarah saw Jesse fling himself upon the girl. The movement fuelled the fire, and the flames rose even higher. Burning fiercely, Jesse sprang into the air, drawing the inferno with him. He soared in an awesome—an impossible—trajectory, his arms beating like great fiery wings. Redgold flames shrouded him. Consumed him. Sarah threw her head back; she heard her throat, her heart burst open and the hoarse NO! NO! NO! NO! strike like a monstrous mallet against the sky. And the air pealed with knell after knell as if echoing between great mountains of brass. Then she could no longer see him. The blaze blinded her, her eyes swam with tears, and she was forced to look away. The screams began to recede as she was sucked into the cold white noise of a wind tunnel.
There is an unearthly silence when the world retreats.
Sarah raised her head. She was lying on the ground. She must have blacked out for a few seconds, because she couldn’t remember falling, nor seeing Jesse—Jesse’s body, she thought, and gagged—plummet into the river. She closed her eyes again and struggled with nausea and a ringing in her ears. She wrenched her mind away from the picture of him rising in flames from that girl. But she couldn’t prevent herself from looking out over the river. It was flowing smoothly: no foaming, no agitated eddy, no arm breaking the surface for help.
What did she expect? No one survives a fire like that. Fresh tears welled in her eyes and began to run down her cheeks, tears which washed away nothing. God damn him, she thought. Why the fuck did he have to play the saint? A spark of wrath was fireballing in her chest, blotting out the numbness, the shock.
The girl was lying curled on her side on the quay. Her faded dress rose and fell with each breath. Sarah couldn’t quite take it in, for though the girl’s eyes were closed, she looked unscathed. Sarah dragged herself to a sitting position. She ought to go to her, maybe help her. If she didn’t strangle her first.
Sarah tried to rise, but a wave of vertigo rolled over her, and she sank back down onto all fours, head hanging. Eventually she’d have to take charge, but for the moment she could do no more than breathe. And breathe.
At a touch on her shoulder, her heart nearly stopped. She looked up to find Jesse bending over her, dripping wet but otherwise perfectly sound.
A madwoman’s scream erupted. ‘I’ll kill you!’
‘Bloody kill you, you bastard!’ Sarah shrieked, her voice rising with each successive breath. ‘How dare you! I saw you burn. Damn you! DAMN YOU!’ and more, incoherently, until Jesse dropped to his knees, grabbed her, and hugged her tight. At first she struggled to get free, pummelled his back, yanked his hair, pinched him, kicked, even tried to bite him. He simply held on. Gradually the shudders subsided and she began to sob quietly, her head tucked into the crook of his neck, and to hiccup. He didn’t seem to mind the snot smearing his skin. Again and again he ran his hand over her head, stroking her hair, whispering meaningless phrases into the turmoil he’d let loose. After a long while she became composed enough to speak.
‘How?’ she whispered hoarsely. ‘How is it possible?’
He gave her a half-smile but said nothing. His eyes, darker than usual, were almost indigo in colour. Even now, at such a moment, she was spellbound; had to resist the temptation to let go, sink into that infinite well of blue, and ask no questions.
‘Was it a hallucination?’
He shook his head.
‘If you can put out fires, then why—’ she hesitated, but he understood straightaway. Abruptly he rose to his feet.
‘I want to check on her,’ he said, nodding at the figure on the dock, who was beginning to stir. ‘I won’t be long.’ Halfway there he slowed, then turned to look back at Sarah. Perhaps he was remembering their conversation in the factory. ‘I haven’t ever lied to you, Sarah. If I could have extinguished the fire that killed them, don’t you think I would have?’ He gestured wearily. ‘Like so much else, this is new. And it’s a lot harder to put one out than to start it.’
With a rush of shame she realised how exhausted he looked, hair dripping on bowed shoulders, clothes sodden, face drawn and bloodless. The computer spied on him, he’d said. She had a sudden picture of a creature something like a vampire, clinging to his back and feeding.
That night Sarah waited restlessly for several hours before throwing off her blanket. She stood at the open window, listening to the night sounds, listening for whispers. Go to him, Seesaw. You’ve got to tell him. But it was only when the neighbour’s cat began to yowl, and soft droplets of rain to fall, that she took herself to Jesse’s room, and even then she lingered outside his door at first. Once she finally slipped next to him and he awoke, they made love with an urgency altogether new and exhilarating and a little frightening; it almost convinced them that love had the power to melt and recast the hardest bell; almost, it tolled their last secrets.