Chapter Twenty-Six

Jesse had gone to his room for a shower while Sarah slept.  Her nightmares were beginning to ease off; sometimes he spent a few hours on his own with a book, sometimes went for a long walk with Nubi.  The night city read like a story yet to be written.  Despite his sleeplessness, there hadn’t been a migraine—not even a headache—in weeks.  He was standing barefoot before the wardrobe when he began to smell smoke.

The computer murmured softly to itself.  They never turned it off, not since a technician had been knocked unconscious by a jolt of current strong enough to land him in the hospital unit for three days when he’d depressed the power button.  It was one of the things Ayen had failed to mention to Finn.  The standby function still worked in a vague simulation of sleep, but only a few people knew that the computer seemed to turn it off and on at will.  Ayen sometimes wondered, a trifle uneasily, what would happen if the power supply to the building were interrupted.  Their backup systems were multiple and excellent, so it was unlikely.

A zigzag pattern in red and orange sprang up across the wall monitor, then just as quickly faded.  Jesse gasped, dropped the socks he was holding, and shut his eyes, reaching blindly for the wardrobe door.  Lights pulsing hotly to music.  A thick rank fug—cigarettes, dope, beer, sweat, more cigarettes.  Mick has his arms round a girl, his hands slick.  The girl is young, way too young, younger even than Sarah, and there’s a cold lake of dread under her mask of makeup and sophistication.  She’s loaded.  Mick grinds his body against hers, halfway there already.  A pulse begins to beat in Jesse’s temple.  No way, he thinks.  The scene flickers under the strobe: on off on off on off.  Rough, familiar hands hold his head.  It hurts.  God, how it hurts.  A hot charge of red and yellow flames.  This time no hands will hold him.  He whips his head round and breaks loose.  Rage like a piston drives him across the room.  He wrests Mick from the girl, throws him down, kicks him viciously in the groin.  Mick screams and writhes in pain.  The bass shrieks some ugly coruscating chords.  Jesse kicks Mick again.  Most of the couples don’t notice, though a few close by fall back and stare at Mick’s contortions.  The girl moves forward uncertainly.  What’s wrong, Mick?  she asks.  Are you OK?  Jesse bends down close to Mick’s head and says, I told you I’d be watching.  The pattern flares again across the screen: redorangered lines bleeding into one another, leaving behind a wake, an afterimage of pain.

Shaking badly, Jesse clutched the wardrobe door till his nausea subsided, then stumbled into the bathroom and leaned over the toilet.  But the relief of vomiting wouldn’t come.  A few dry heaves, some bitter spit, and sweat cold on his face and chest.  He continued to shiver.

Open the window, he told himself.  You need some fresh air.

Slowly he straightened.  It was difficult to will his movements.  He was dizzy, and his eyes weren’t focusing properly.  The toilet tank, the shelf piled with fluffy white towels, the framed photograph of a seascape, the shower stall—he couldn’t hold them in place, they doubled in front of him, slid apart, blurred.  He squinted, trying to bring the world back into true.  His head felt insubstantial, disconnected from the rest of his body.  With fumbling hands he closed the toilet lid, sank down upon it, and lowered his head between his knees.  He remained there until the need to pee, and sudden overwhelming thirst, brought him to his feet.  He found that he was able to stand now, if unsteadily, and to see.

After drinking from the tap he raised his eyes to the mirror.  His pupils were dilated, his skin an underwater greenish white.  He was afraid, deathly afraid—more afraid than he could remember since the fire.

The night was quiet—chilled silken water, and the world despatched.  Was the house still standing?  Or had it disappeared as well?  And he alone, always and forever alone.  He picked up the water glass, held it above the washbasin, released it.  It shattered against the enamel.  For a moment his hand hovered over the glittering shards.  Alone.  He watched his image waver and dissolve in the mirror.  Alone.

Sarah kept a stash of chocolate in her room, Jesse knew.  He wiped his eyes.  The basin was unimportant, he’d clean it later.  Using the tiled wall, then the doorframe, then the bedroom and passage walls for support, he made his way to Sarah’s room.  He could barely depress the handle to open the door.

‘Sarah.’

She didn’t answer.

Alone.

He could see the outline of her body curled under the duvet, her back to him, arms and legs wedged close to her torso.  Her hair lay across the pillow like a dark shadow on snow.  Jesse approached the bed quietly.  Some chocolate.  And at most a hand—a fingertip—on her hair.  Why was it so cold?  He was shivering again, and his palms felt moist.

Sarah, he thought.  ‘Seesaw,’ he whispered.

She stirred but didn’t wake.

He stumbled a little before reaching the bed.  Sarah rolled over and opened her eyes.  She stared at him for a moment, then switched on the bedside lamp.

‘Jesse, what is it?’  She took in his state.  ‘Sit down,’ she ordered.

He lowered himself to the bed and hugged himself, still trembling.

‘Can I have some chocolate?  Or something sweet?’ he asked.

Without questioning him, Sarah rummaged in her drawer.  She handed him a half-eaten chocolate bar.  At first his hands shook too hard for him to peel back the wrapper.  Sarah took it from him again, broke off a piece, and put it to his lips.  He closed his eyes, letting the chocolate melt slowly on his tongue.  The taste sent a rush of sensation along his nerves, as much pain as pleasure, reminding him of frozen extremities as they warmed by the fire.  A thin line of spit dribbled from his mouth, which Sarah gently wiped away with a finger.  After that first bite, his desperation abated a little.  He ate another piece, and another, his whole attention focused on the chocolate.  Sarah gathered up the duvet and draped it over his hunched shoulders.  He felt the sugar reach his stomach, enter his blood stream.  This was better than any drug high, he thought.

Sarah unwrapped another bar of chocolate, then licked her fingers.  ‘Eat it slowly, it’s my last.’

‘Do you want some?’ Jesse asked.  Now he felt enough in control to share.  Now he could smell the lavender skin cream, not just the chocolate.  Now he noticed her breasts.

Sarah shook her head.  ‘Are you sure you’re not diabetic?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure.’

‘Then why—’ She broke off as a thought occurred to her.  ‘Who have you been healing?’

‘No healing.  Just bad dreams and hunger.  Thirst.’

Sarah was quiet for a long moment.  ‘You know, Jesse, I really thought you were different from all the other blokes.’

He tried a grin.  ‘My sort of weirdness isn’t different enough for you?’

‘I prefer weirdness to lies.’  She pushed aside the tail end of the duvet.  ‘I’ll fetch you some water.’

Chagrined, Jesse fiddled with a strip of foil from the chocolate bar, then looked up as Sarah rose.  She wasn’t wearing any bottoms, not even a pair of knickers.  Jesse blushed and averted his gaze, while Sarah, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort, headed for the bathroom.

‘Do you parade around like that in front of everyone?’  The words shot out of his mouth before he could stop himself.  Jesus, he thought, what an idiot you are.

Sarah chose to treat it as a joke, or almost.  He’d never been backstage in a dancer’s dressing room.  She stopped and pirouetted theatrically in place.  ‘Why, don’t you like what you see?’

She was smiling, but her throat was tight, and it cost her an effort not to rush straight into the bathroom and slam the door.  He might as well have asked if she fucked everyone.  Were they back to square one again?

There was no missing the hurt in her voice.  Say something, Jesse told himself.  An apology.  An explanation.  Anything.  But for someone who loved words, he couldn’t figure out what to say—or to do with his hands, his eyes.  After a few moments of silence, she muttered a word he couldn’t hear (or didn’t care to) and walked with dignity into the bathroom, her back a slender Viking mast.  She was certainly beautiful enough: her body moved with a lissom grace that made him want to groan.  He tried not to look at her as she left.  He didn’t quite succeed.

She returned with a glass of water, wearing a white long-sleeved man’s shirt, probably an old one of Finn’s.  It was buttoned to the neck, and paint-stained.  She handed him the glass without a word, then fetched her quilt from the chest, spread it behind him on the bed, and crawled under it.  She turned on her side, back to him.  He drank the water.

‘Sarah,’ he said.

‘I’m tired.’

‘Please look at me.’

‘Go to bed, Jesse.  It’s late.’

He set the empty glass down on the bedside table.  Carefully.  He wouldn’t beg, would he.

‘Please,’ he said.

She twitched her shoulder, but Jesse thought it was a hesitant, a conciliatory, a tender—a remarkably expressive—twitch.

‘Sarah, I’d like to—’ he stopped, not knowing how to go on.  He could tell that she was listening.  He heard it too, the lisp of snow on snow, silk on silk: new wings unfolding, tremulous and fragile.  Still moist.  Easily damaged.  The scent of lavender intensified.

He cleared his throat, but his voice stayed furred with trepidation like the fine plushy down on the inner thighs of a tulip, an orchid.

‘Can I stay?’

Slowly she shifted to face him.

‘With you,’ he said.  He was having a little trouble breathing.

Her eyes were huge and deep and full of light.

‘Are you sure?’ she whispered.

He nodded.

‘No regrets tomorrow.  No guilt.  No recriminations.’

‘I’m sure.’

She smiled then, and air rushed past him as the wings beat once, twice with tremendous power.  He yanked off his T-shirt, followed by his jeans and boxers, for once dropping them onto the floor at his feet.  Sarah lifted the quilt, and Jesse lay down beside her.  With a soft rustle the blanket of lavender fluttered, then settled over them both.