For the first week of December I slept like a curse.
My eyes moved beneath my closed eyelids and I saw nothing, was nothing, but the rushing darkness and the pressure of the steel mattress springs that dug into my spine.
My life did not seem to be my own, and as I stumbled into the disarming light of the kitchen my hair curled closely around my eyes, stretching fingers into my mouth, just to hold the words in.
There was an itch again, a stubborn pulling on my kneecaps, and I collected notebooks feverishly, burying myself in words that I had forgotten, people who I had dismissed.
There was a maelstrom of sentences whirling inside of my skull, things I had only now realised that I needed to say. And the truth of that struck me somewhere hard, that only now, when it was all too late, was I brave enough to take action.
So I wrote it down instead.
I knew this was a mess, the inside of my chest was testament enough to that, but the words came easily, neatly onto the white pages that I lay out before me on the wood of my floorboards.
They were like old friends, nodding to me as they passed. They cleaned up the edges of my past year, made the rainy days brighter, my words wittier, my thoughts more inspired.
It wasn't a diary, it was nothing of the sort, diaries tell the truth and this, this was my book of lies.
In this story things hurt less, and I always, always said the right thing.
Noah was there, but I didn't ache for him as he ached for me. On these scuffled pages he sighed and watched me whenever I left a room, he slighted Michael Harriet and only spoke to me. There were no silences.
There were no ghosts.
And sometimes, just sometimes when I lay back on my bed and pale light of the streetlamp pooled on the skin of my bare stomach my words seemed more believable than any of my past year.
With eyes half closed I traced lines over my cheeks, to my mouth, and I could almost feel him, almost taste the way that he would taste.
I had read the books, could do the maths.
I was a lost cause.
Noah's mother wanted me to finish sitting for her. She rang the house, the sound of the phone waking me from down the hallway. Around my head was a halo of ink and paper, and my whole bed crackled as I got unsteadily to my feet, my legs stiff and awkward.
Her voice was soft down the line, more cultured than my mother's slow drawl, and I blinked sleepily at the crack in the ceiling as I listened to her, my fingers a tight white where they clutched the phone to my ear.
She listed the things that she needed to fix, the amount of time she thought it would be until she finished the painting, and I nodded my head in reply, forgetting that she couldn't see the gesture.
There was only one thing that I wanted to know, and the words felt like lead as they dropped from my reluctant tongue.
"Will Noah be there?"
I could hear my heartbeat, my toes digging into the wooden floor, and Noah's mother paused before answering.
I told her I would be there in half an hour.
I sat for Noah's mother often after that, the first painting stowed in its place of honour, propped up against a birdcage on one of the old couch cushions, my painted reflection staring balefully back at me.
I enjoyed her company, her soft voice and her softer eyes and, after the first few sessions, I stopped being scared that Noah was going to burst into the room at any second.
She told me things about Noah that I had never thought to ask him and he definitely wouldn't have told me himself.
He had only ever told me things that only half made sense, and the sudden revelation that his favourite colour was yellow came with a slight flutter of my heart.
I didn't want to feel like this about him, not when I had said all that I could, but the temptation was intoxicating, his mother never asking questions, just offering up trivialities like a trail of bread crumbs, always leading me back to her front door.
I was going in circles, eating my own head, but I didn't care, not if I could forget everything in the presence of this woman who was so much like him and yet not.
And it felt like another small battle won in the bitterest corner of my heart, the memory of his face as he had left the class to meet her like an inky prize.
He still had me, but now I had him too.
He was waiting outside his house for me on the twelfth, his fingers trailing in the dirt by his pale ankles.
He looked up at the sound of my approaching footsteps, and when his blue eyes met mine I managed to stop myself from turning and running back home, but as he blinked slowly up at me I realised that I couldn't move any closer either, the slight curve of his mouth making my heart stutter.
There was a bruise around his right eye, the skin of his cheek left in motley pallor, and I sucked in a breath as he stood, taking careful steps towards me.
There was more grace to his limbs than I remembered, the gawky too-pale boy from my story guttering hopelessly in comparison to the reality.
He stopped in front of me, and I let the air escape my lungs, looking everywhere but him, the sudden purity of his expression too much for me to bear.
"You never said goodbye", his voice was soft and I bit my tongue, staring fixedly at his mother's white petunias.
"Neither did you."
Beat for beat.
He sighed and the sound of it made me want to cringe with the wretchedness of it all, his shoulders too defeated, his voice all too willing to be heard.
"I didn't think-"
He stopped quickly, as though anything he had to say could possibly make this feel any worse, and I moved my foot on the concrete of the footpath before changing to topic.
"How did you get that bruise", I tilted my head up to look at him and he shifted on the spot, his mouth dipping low on one side, his face turned away.
"My mum hits me"
"No she doesn't" and I was angry again, my face twisting into hateful lines, even as his eyelashes shuddered over his cheeks.
He stood still and breakable, his head tilted away from me, hiding the mark from sight, as though he could make me forget its existence, and there was a fire burning inside of my lungs.
I wanted to scream, tear him down in the middle of this sleepy street, make him hurt and burn with rage like I was.
But the sight of his long nose pinkening with sunburn stopped me in my tracks.
"Why do you lie to me?"
I wasn't sure why I needed to know, and when he looked back at me there was a troubled frown on his face, no answers left in his eyes, all of the blue leaking out.
I knew this silence, knew this tightening of his jaw, and this time I was the first to turn away, my treacherous legs moving once more.
"Michael Harriet", his voice rang out loud and clear, the name making something inside of me twist around, "he wasn't- he didn't turn out to be quite who I thought he was".
He sounded uncertain, childish in the midst of this whirling anger and I breathed out deeply through my nose before turning to look at him once more.
He stood there, faltering and pale in front of me, a stain from another boy's fist colouring the whiteness of his cheek and I allowed myself a slight smile.
"I could have told you that", and I could spare no more for him, not when he blinked with sudden comprehension.
There was nothing more that I had left to give, and I was numb, walking back down that road, the sun burning brightly above my head.
There was nothing in this heart of darkness, no room for the moon, no room for me, and when I stepped through the door of my bedroom it was to find the pages of my story collected into a neat pile, an application form resting lightly against the cotton of my pillowcase.
And as I wrote my name across the top of that crisp white sheet it didn't matter than I had no more heart to give, it didn't matter that I had no ending to write.
I was finished, this was all finished.
I lay on my floorboards, one foot folded over the other, my story in one hand and the application form in the other.
I had not returned to Noah's house after that day I had met him in the street, too cowardly, too afraid to even imagine where we might go to from here.
His mother had rung the house a few times now, and I had ignored the calls until my mother picked up the phone instead and I hid in the toilet, my ear pressed hard against the wood of the door.
It was impossible to imagine that it could have turned out like this, after all of those aching, careful years when I had watched him.
It was cruel that he could have turned into this, something so breakable, so falteringly naive in his own wisdom.
He wasn't real enough for this, he was only a blurred figure in the corner of a photograph, and suddenly I wasn't certain that I was real enough for the both of us.
The application form stared up at me, its promise of a future, of options, weighed down by a heavy hand on my heart.
I thought of him, how he had lain on my bedroom floor that first night, how his fingers had held onto my ankle, and a cloud of dust flickered up in front of my eyes when I breathed out harshly through my mouth and tucked the pages back beneath my pillow.
It wasn't my story to tell.
And still it had no ending.
I met him again at the supermarket, his tall frame a looming shadow at the end of the frozen food section, a bag of peas held aloft in one hand like a peace offering.
His bruise was fading, turning a sickly green around the edges, and his blue eyes were dull beneath the fluorescent lights above us.
He opened his mouth, as if to speak, and I waited twitchily, my thoughts straying back to the secrets that I had left untended on the crumpled sheets of my bed.
There was an old woman who pushed past me, her face wrinkled in a smile and I nodded to her, turning my back on the still silent Noah.
The silence rode like a cloak over my shoulders, and the man at the counter spared me no second glance.
When I got home the pages were not as I had left them, they were straightened, laid out bare and inviting atop clean sheets, all of the edges tucked in, and I balled my hands into fists.
I waited for one of my family members to laugh, to give themselves away, but they didn't.
At dinner time they all met my eye, their smiles just as real as they always were, and soon I had forgotten about the threat of it, straightened papers fading away with the hurried desperation of Christmas looming just around the corner.
Grass seeds were sticking to the dark hairs on my legs, Jacobs head disappearing in and out of the swaying reeds in front of me, and I held on tightly to the cloth bag my mother had given us.
I was wary of snakes, every footfall watched by a careful eye, and the vanishing act of my brother's head made me nervous.
There was not much left to this year now, Christmas decorations slowly filling the dusty windows of the houses along our street, and my mother's usual stress over our home's appearance had left us banished into the great wilderness, Jacob's sulking face burning under the midday sun.
I felt a drop of sweat roll down the knobs of my spine and sighed out long and low, shading my eyes.
The tree was ahead, a grassy silhouette against the afternoon heat and a smile lit my mouth.
It was easy to believe that I was still a boy when I walked along this path.
Nothing changed in a place like this, nothing.
When we reached the roots Jacob found a witchetty grub and we lay it down on the ground to watch it curl in confusion by our feet, its bristles like short copper wires.
Jacob asked if they had eyes and I shrugged in reply, happy in my own ignorance.
I was helping my father make the Christmas pudding when I heard my mother's excited shriek from down the hallway, her discarded shoes hitting the wall in twin thuds before her footsteps thundered along the floorboards towards us.
My father raised an eyebrow in question at me and I shrugged just as she burst through the kitchen doorway, hair a mess of flyaway curls.
"You're not going to believe this!" she was gasping through panting breaths and she took the glass of water that my father handed her with a grateful smile.
"Oh God, even I don't believe this!" she closed her eyes briefly and collected herself, pushing the hair back from her sticky forehead.
I smiled at her and she grinned back dizzily, brandishing the rolled up newspaper in her hand.
"Thom you won! You won! "
I felt the smile drop from my face, confusion taking its place, and my father grabbed me by the shoulders, hugging me quickly.
My mother pushed the paper into my hands, my fingers limp with bewilderment as I accepted it, and there was sweat pooling in the indent of her collarbones.
"Look!" her finger stabbed at the inky words and I stretched the paper out on the kitchen table, the sultanas that had been glued to my fingers with pudding mix hitting the stained wood like delicate footfall.
My head was a mess of hurried thoughts, my eyebrows furrowing in confusion as I stared at my name, printed as it was in front of me.
Thomas Khurana first place in the acclaimed annual Young Writers Competition.
"Oh I'm so proud of you!" my mother was being hugged by my father, and I frowned at them, at my mother's sudden noise.
"It must be a mistake", she laughed at my statement and I shook my head at her. "I didn't enter this competition."
She smiled at me, her eyes crinkling, and with a drop of my stomach the realisation his me like a fist.
"I entered it for you", she grinned up at my father and he hugged her closer to his side, "I found a piece of writing that you had left on your bed and Thomas, I never knew you could write like that!"
Horror was slipping into my veins, a horrid dark surprise that was growing with every word my mother spoke and she blinked at me, her expression slightly puzzled.
"Aren't you happy? You'll have all sorts of scholarship opportunities now, not to mention the huge grant that you won as a prize."
I tried to smile but as I stared down at the damning paper in front of me, it was all I could do to stop the bile rising in my throat.
There was once a boy I knew who said that he had ghosts in his mouth
"And they even printed the story in the arts section!" my mother kept talking excitedly, not realising the dread that was souring my breaths.
He had hair as black as ink, as soft as fur, and sometimes when he laughed it echoed inside of his mouth.
"Just wait until I tell your grandma, she'll be so excited."
My mother was bustling around the kitchen, hurrying to the doorway but I stayed exactly where I was, my head heavy on my neck.
His father didn't exist, his mother was a fixture, and his heart was left to beat alone in the shadow of his ribcage.
I closed my eyes at her questioning tone, unable to face her, she knew me too well.
"Thom, have I done something wrong?"
He was everyone he could possibly have ever wanted to be, and everybody knew it.
"I saw it lying there on your bed with the application form and I thought- did you not mean to send it?"
Except for me.
I couldn't do it, I couldn't say a word, and the hand that she reached out to stop my escape brushed harmlessly past as I pushed through the doorway.
My secret was gone.
The shack was exactly as we had left it before the holidays, the corrugated iron walls a hot white in the midday sun, and I hurried inside, pulling the heavy door closed behind me.
I would not go home, days spent in horrid anticipation of his willowy figure walking down the road towards me piling up in crushing mountain above me, and the ache that was spreading along each of my fingers and toes served only to make me tired, my heart hard within my ribcage.
I had not realised how precious those lies had been until I had lost them and now, with Noah vanished and my words not solely my own I had been left, strangled in my own solitude, my own ineptitude to say anything right.
The fever was back, turning my eyes blind as I sagged against the nearest wall, biting my knuckles to stop the tears from coming.
Because I would not cry, not now.
And even if I did, I would not have been crying for him.
He found me eventually, and the thought struck me as slightly odd. Had I expected him to come looking?
The sound of his bare feet crunching over the bark strewn ground woke me from my stupor, and for a long moment I froze at the mouth of the open door.
His face was troubled, his eyes darting up to meet mine in a mixture of relief and surprise before I slammed the door closed between us.
He ran, as though he would be able to stop me in time, and the sounds of his gasping breaths were loud through the swollen wood.
He pressed himself against it, me pressing back in retaliation and I heard him exhale in a loud gust.
I didn't say anything and he tried again.
"Your mother said that you had left home, that you hadn't told her where you had gone, only that you probably didn't want to see anyone. So why did you choose here?"
And the truth struck me like a fist in my chest, because why had I come here? Why had I hidden in the one place that I had known he would find me?
I heard him slide down the door, the weight of him lessening against my shoulders, and a small cloud of dirt crept beneath the doorjamb to colour my toes.
I breathed quietly through my nose, as though I could convince him that I wasn't really there at all, but as the sun lit up my left kneecap I knew he wasn't fooled. I was too real suddenly, all of my papery existence flaking away with every second that he remained.
His voice was careful through the wood, and I blinked, the edges of my lashes catching slightly on my cheeks.
"I'm sorry for making you feel like this."
And I felt a rush of anger, the memory of his head thrown back, toes curling. All of those silences coming back to haunt us, those stupid fucking ghosts.
But the beating of my heart stopped me.
"I'm sorry for ignoring you, and for not speaking to you."
I let my head hang forwards on my neck, my shoulders digging back harshly into the wood of the door, and I imagined him with his ear pressed against it on the other side, desperately trying to hear anything, anything that would convince him that this would all turn out to be okay.
And I couldn't make this noise for him, wouldn't, because I wasn't even sure it was my noise to make.
The silence was stretching between us, just as it always did, and I breathed it in, holding it tightly between my teeth.
I didn't want to say anything, scared that I would speak words that would make him vanish; terrified I would speak words that he already knew too well.
I didn't want a happy ending, I just wanted him, and I wasn't quite certain that he understood that.
"What are you doing here Noah", my voice was steady when I finally spoke, my heart thundering up my throat, bleaching my words fragile and glassy in the careful afternoon light.
And for a long moment he didn't answer, only sighed long and slow.
I pictured the way his face would look, awkward with misused emotion, and closed my eyes, because if he couldn't answer this I knew it would be the end of us.
There are always rules to play by.
"I read your story in the paper".
And his words made my knees buckle, not from surprise but out of a damning acceptance. I had been waiting for this moment for days now, lying stranded across my confining bed sheets, cicadas drone making it seem as though my ears were full of bees.
I had practised my replies in the bathroom mirror, toothpaste caught in the side of my mouth, and still I had no answer for what he was silently asking.
There were too many questions caught between us, too many things we couldn't quite bring ourselves to say, and still I didn't want to be the one to say it.
"I guess I should be saying congratulations", there was a wary cheerfulness to his tone suddenly, as though he wasn't quite sure that the sentiment would stick. "Best young writer award huh? Mum cut it out and stuck on the fridge."
He laughed, but it sounded strained and he stopped a little too quickly.
I stared at my treacherous kneecaps and tried my best not to bite my lip, even though I knew he couldn't see me doing it.
"open the door Thom", and there was a sudden thump by my left ear, as though he had pushed his forehead against the door, and I stretched my fingers out carefully, touching the wood above where his head rested on the other side.
"Please open the door."
I didn't move and he sighed again, an old sigh, a weary sigh, a winter time sigh.
"I don't know what I have to do to make this right. I don't know what you want me to say." I imagined the self depreciating look on his face, his tone clouded with helplessness. It didn't suit him.
And slowly I shifted away from the door, my bones trembling in lost resolve, my fingers gripping the dirt as I had once gripped my mother's hand.
The sun was trickling down over the wood, the mossy surface stained green and black, and in that moment I realised something that stole the breath from my lungs, the light from my eyes.
It wasn't his problem to fix, his ending to correct.
It was mine.
I stood with shaky legs, a strange maelstrom brewing in the pit of my stomach, and my fingers hesitated on the handle of the door, the sound of him getting to his feet making me grit my teeth.
If I couldn't do this, if I couldn't say it now I never would, and I knew that for certain now. If I didn't love him now it would be too late.
Some endings couldn't be re-written, but as I pulled the door slowly inwards and he blinked owlishly down at me, dirt on his cheeks, I realised that this one could.
He looked wary, and I realised how strange I must have appeared, hair a mess, eyes shadowed with lack of sleep, and his hand was careful when it reached up to touch the side of my cheek.
I flinched a little, but I didn't pull away and so neither did he, the fingers slipping up to tangle in the curls by my temple.
"What did it mean, your story-"
He stopped himself again and I blinked, the words hanging heavily on my tongue.
I could say this, I would say this.
I looked up at him, my lips parted, ready to speak the words if only I could squeeze them out, and he blinked back slowly before I saw his eyes widen with sudden understanding.
I had to look away, the chill of his palm against my cheek too cold for me to comprehend, the lashes of his eyes longer up close. I couldn't bear to see the thoughts that would be washing over his face because I knew that they would be. His vacant expression didn't serve him as well now as it once had.
"Michael Harriet said, but I didn't really believe him and-"
I closed my eyes, gritting my teeth and his fingers moved, his other hand reaching out to trace the line of my eyelashes, his breath touching my face.
"That was really for me?"
And there was such wonder in his voice that I found the courage to open my eyes and look at him, his blue eyes wide and clear when he looked back.
"It never had an ending."
The words stuck on my tongue, and the breath stilled in my mouth as one of his fingers touched the skin behind my ear lightly.
"So we'll make one."
And his words were perfect, just as they always were, so much cleaner than mine, purer, the vowels lying crisp on the skin of my cheek.
And then his free hand was beneath my chin, tugging my head upwards and his mouth was catching messily on my own.
It wasn't much of a kiss, his fingers too tight in my hair, his lips not quite touching, but it was enough for my poor heart, and I gasped against him.
I opened my mouth to say something, raised my hands to push him away, readied myself to make my last mistake but then he kissed me again and my bones were no longer quite my own.
"you wrote that for me", his nose was pressed in beside mine, his mouth brushing against my own with every word he said and I opened my eyes, his own colouring my vision blue.
"Yes", and then he swooped in again with a funny laugh, his teeth bumping against mine, his hands clumsily perfect where they held me still by the ribs. His kisses were unpractised, as bad as my own, but they were earnest, and beautiful.
We stood there, two boys too faded to be quite real, and his cheeks were pink, his nose long and straight.
"Michel Harriet said that he hated me."
His eyelashes trembled and I held his face carefully in my hands, unsure of how real any of this was.
"Michael Harriet's an idiot."
And even as he laughed I made a prayer in my heart, a thankyou that would not vanish for a long time, a candle lit to a pale haired saint.
He opened his mouth to say something else and I stopped him, leaning in and covering his lips with my own.
"You know those ghosts?" Noah's voice was quiet, the crisp cotton of my bed sheet whispering beneath his breath.
I could feel my heart begin to pound, familiar dread colouring my veins, and his hand curled around my right wrist, his eyes bright in the darkness.
His legs were tangled in mine, the sound of my father's snores loud through the thin walls of my bedroom, and his fingers traced my ribs as he continued.
"There never really were any", and my head jerked up off the bed sheets in surprise, his teeth white and curved like the moon.
"I made it all up, to make myself seem more interesting."
And perhaps I should have been angry, I should have felt hurt or ridiculed, but the laughter that tumbled from my lips was real, Noah's hands grasping my cheeks and pulling me close as he kissed me.
I couldn't stop, the absurdity of his truths making my head swim, and he began to laugh too, his hands pulling on my hair.
"Stop Thom! Sh! You're going to wake the whole house up!"
December ended with two inky heads crowding one pillowcase, two noses touching, and a pale hand over one trembling heart.