Chapter Twenty

For two days Jesse watched Sarah conceal her bruises from the family, but when she gasped as he brushed against her side accidentally, he lost his temper.

‘If you won’t let Meg have a look at you, then go to a clinic!’ he snapped.  ‘You might have some broken ribs or internal injuries.’

‘No,’ she said, turning away from him.

‘And what if you’re pregnant?’

‘Wrong time of month.  Now back off.  I’m OK.’

He grasped her by the arm and swung her round.  Again she stifled a cry of pain.

‘You are not OK.  Any idiot can see it.  And your parents would too, if they weren’t so busy.  And mostly if you didn’t hide away all of the time.  They’re going to notice sooner or later, you know.’

Sarah folded her arms across her chest and refused to speak.

‘In fact, Meg already has, I reckon.  She’s been asking some questions.’

‘You haven’t said anything?’ Sarah asked in alarm.

He shook his head.  ‘I still don’t understand why you won’t tell them.’

‘Finn will murder Mick and his mate.’

‘Nonsense.  Rapists belong in gaol.  He’ll go to the police.’

‘You don’t know him the way I do.  After Peter died, he went mad.  Literally raving mad for a while.  Haven’t you ever wondered why there are no photos of Peter in the house?  Finn tore up every single one.’

‘Then tell Meg.  She’s a psychiatrist, for god’s sake!’

‘That makes it worse.  You should’ve seen her play shrink with Peter.  I bet if they’d left him alone, he’d be here right now.  Or at least alive.’

‘Maybe.  And maybe you’re blaming the wrong people.’

With a sharp intake of breath Sarah reached for her plait and began to twist it round her finger.  She turned away from Jesse’s unsettling gaze.  He’d never understand, she thought.  The worst mistake I’ve made.  Maybe I’ll ever make.  Damn right, Seesaw, she could almost hear Peter say.  I wanted help.  I wanted to come back.

Would Jesse be here if Peter had returned?

He’d always been a great one for secrets, Peter had, though it had first become excessive in secondary school, and really excessive after his friendship with Daniel, which her parents hadn’t much liked.  Especially Finn, and once the questions started up Peter would flatly refuse to divulge where he was going and what he was doing.  But even way back when she’d been too little to say her own name, she’d call herself Sasa, and it had stuck, and one day Peter had turned it into Seesaw.  ‘Because you’re always seesawing about,’ he’d said with a sparkle in those brilliant green eyes of his—with his lazy smile—teasing her about her constant skipping and twirling and leaping and dancing.  She remembered falling on him with her small furious fists, and his tickling her in revenge.  It had been so like Peter to make it straightaway our secret, which came to be part of their own private code.

Would she trade Jesse for Peter if she had the choice?

She shivered, then lay down gingerly on the bed.

‘I’m a bit tired,’ she said, closing her eyes.  Her face was paler than usual.

‘You need a doctor,’ Jesse repeated helplessly.

He began to pace back and forth before the window, his bare feet making very little noise.  Matthew was one matter, but to help Sarah would be to open a Pandora’s box about which he was deeply uneasy.  Sarah could be treated by any competent GP and would almost certainly heal within weeks, at most a month or two.  There was no need to interfere.  And he would be putting himself in a position of real vulnerability.  He didn’t want to be anyone’s medicine man, not the Andersens’, not even Sarah’s.

He was debating with himself whether to speak openly with Finn about Sarah’s condition when a soft noise like a kitten’s mewling, abruptly cut off as its neck was snapped, made him swing round.  Sarah had changed position; she was now lying on her side, legs drawn up and hands gripped between her knees.  Her eyes were still shut, her lips thin slashes of bloodless flesh, her brow rigid and puckered.  She was breathing shallowly, trying to conceal her pain.

He cursed himself and crossed the room in a few strides.  ‘I think I can help you if you’ll let me.’

She opened her eyes.  ‘Help me?’

He watched her, not trusting himself to elaborate, until she groped for his hand.

‘Do you remember how quickly Nubi’s break healed?’ he asked.

Without moving, Sarah seemed to sink further into the pillow.  She barely nodded, not taking her eyes off his face.  He could sense her dismay.  The words refused to form on his tongue, however wildly they scrambled through his head.

‘Are you telling me you had something to do with it?’ she asked at last.

He assented, his face wary.

Sarah’s eyes filled with tears.  Disconcerted, already regretting his impulse, Jesse reached out to remove a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth.  Only then did she let go of his other hand and turn her head aside so that her voice, when she spoke, was muffled by the pillow.

‘I hate this,’ she said.

Jesse lowered himself to the bed.  He rubbed his hands along his jeans, listening to the swishing sound until his palms became uncomfortably warm, then squeezed them together as if flattening something—a ball of raw unpalatable dough, perhaps.

‘Never mind,’ he said.  ‘Forget I mentioned it.’

‘Is that your solution to everything?’

‘I get carried away sometimes.’

‘No,’ she said, suddenly furious.  She whipped round and raised herself on an elbow.  ‘You run away.’

‘Sarah—’

Her cheeks were wet with fresh tears.  Jesse was surprised that they didn’t scald her face, so angry was she.

‘If you don’t want my help, just say so,’ Jesse said.

‘Who said I didn’t want your help?  It’s your hiding everything I can’t take.’

They stared at each other till Jesse gestured lamely and dropped his eyes.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, not entirely sure what he was apologising for.

‘I’m not afraid of what you are, Jesse.’

‘Then why are you crying?’

‘You idiot, I’m crying because you keep turning each of those weird and wonderful and impossible things you’re able to do into a stone—a huge heavy stone you add, one by one, to the wall between us.  All I want is to walk on the same side as you, but how can I?  You won’t let me.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Didn’t it ever occur to you that it might be easier if you shared this stuff with someone?’

Jesse gazed at his hands, his throat tight and closed, his face shuttered.

Sarah waited till the silence became as incontrovertible as DNA evidence in a court case.  Then she dug her fists into her eyes, the way Emmy used to, sniffed, and wiped her face with the duvet.  Jesse handed her a tissue, which she accepted, though not his help to sit up.  She preferred to grimace, hold her ribs, and stubbornly work her way into an upright position, her pillow jammed behind her lower back.  Jesse watched her gather her dignity about her shoulders like a prayer shawl, and struggled with his own tumult of anger, and bitterness, and longing.

‘All right,’ she said.  ‘Don’t talk to me, if you won’t.  Just get on with it.  My chest hurts.’  Her tone now matter-of-fact, ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Relax, that’s all.  Don’t fight me.’  His voice dropped to a whisper.  ‘Forget about me.’

The open window drew Sarah’s gaze.  For a moment she scented the wind whipping across the prow of a longboat, took strength from the vast sweep of the sea, the dazzling blue of the sky, free of cloud.  ‘You really don’t know me yet, do you?’  Her Viking blood flushed her cheeks; her smile, shaky at first, reached her eyes.  ‘If you did, you’d understand the reason why I’m a good dancer.  Lots and lots of people have talent.  But I practise till my feet bleed, if I must.  I never give up.  Never.’

Sarah had a hairline crack in her breastbone and considerable bruising, but no serious internal injuries.  Jesse ate his way through several bars of chocolate—Sarah always kept a stash in her room now—while he returned gradually to realtime.

Afterwards Sarah fell into a healthy slumber and dreamt of the icy fjord waters and limitless sky and tracts of pine forest near her grandmother’s home.  Somebody was felling trees in the distance, and she could smell the heady resinous bite to the air as she and Peter chased each other, laughing, into a subjunctive future.