3. To have sweet dreams, okay?
The boy pounded on his bedroom door for twenty minutes before going away. By then, Winter's furious yells had turned to whimpers, and then he'd simply sobbed. It was all pretty disturbing.
Ren gave it an hour after that, flicking through one of Tusc's dog-eared poetry books as he swigged whisky from a banana-shaped hip flask with her name on. There were fingerprint stains on each page of her book and biscuit crumbs in all its creases. A little piece of Tuscany, right there with him, soothing all his anger away, until his brain just buzzed with righteous irritation. Harry and Winter were owed words or light strangulation. Ren was just about drunk and pumped enough to most graciously provide.
So party time?
Ren pulled the nesty tangles out of his hair and knuckled the sleep from his eyes. Then he pulled on his rattiest woollen jumper, the burgundy one with the pippy little ash burns and the chewed-down sleeves. It smelt of bonfires, though it had been weeks since he'd last sat making s'mores with Tusc on her veranda.
He texted her – Miss your face off – then he shouldered open his bedroom door and stepped out into the weird-ass itchy world of his little brother's birthday party, draining his hip flask for strength as he slunk past a couple making out against the washing basket. Their fingers clenched in the rough of dirty towels and Primark underwear, drawing out little Vs of shadow.
Harry's friends were a different species to him; hyperactive, loud and bitchy. Ren's natural habit was to drift from place to place and occasionally find things to smirk at, but these people bounced like bunny rabbits. It was as hard for him to be like them as it was to sprout wings and fly from this town, but he tried anyway. Validation was the shit, after all – especially for a lonely prick of a narcissist with five shots of whisky in his belly.
A pair of girls shimmied past him as he made his way to the sitting room. They stank of weed and vodka, and he laughed and ducked in. Scott had really gone overboard on the decorations there – the room dripped with streamers and silly string, like party vomit. Harry was sitting by the stereo, nursing a margarita as Scott doctored the evening's playlist. Harry smiled as he looked across his empire – a smallish room with mushroom-coloured curtains and a group of lacrosse boys huddled around an X-box 360. He was the most glorious king of everywhere, from his perfect side parting to his shiny brown brogues.
Ren sat by those feet, nicking a strawberry Chupa Chup from the coffee table and sticking it into his mouth.
"I'm planning your murder," Ren said.
"Please." Harry groaned. "Dad says if we get blood on the carpet, we're grounded. Being dead is fair enough, but grounded is just cruel, wouldn't you say?"
"I say fuck the shagpile and fuck you."
"Woah." Harry bit his nails. "Fuck the shagpile. Dude. What's brought on this horrific slump?"
Ren rocked back against the couch, crunching on his lolly as Scott slapped on some One Direction and pretended to be ironic about it.
"Blonde guy," Ren said. "Sat on me."
"Shit..." Harry drawled, smirking.
Ren glared. "Dick." He twisted the lollipop stick between his teeth. "Pretty shitty of you to tell that blonde guy about Winter."
Harry snorted and sipped his martini. "Dude, you are going to have to clarify."
Ren turned. "Don't deny it. Blonde guy. Sunglasses. I woke up and the creep was fucking straddling me. He said he was Winter. How would he know about Winter unless you'd told him? He – he said I killed Alex. Twat!"
"Straddling?" Harry snorted. Then straightened his face. Then frowned. "Huh?"
Bloody hell... Ren's tightened his fists until his nails hurt his palms. Sometimes he liked Harry, but the guy spent half his time being okay and the other half grating. Trivialising his waking-up-with-a-weird-guy-in-his-bed experience? Sort of especially grating.
"He's talking about Jack." Scott sat on the arm of the sofa, a sweating bottle of beer dangling between his fingers. Clearly not a Jack fan; he was speaking like his mouth was full of ulcers.
Harry's face screwed up, lips pursed. "Ooh. Yeah... I guess I might have told Jack about the whole Winter thing... I guess..."
God, Ren wanted to slap him.
"Honestly, I can't remember." Harry peered at his margarita and swirled it. "Guess I'm drunker than I thought." He laughed goofily, which was normal, and took ten seconds to stop, which wasn't. When he was done, he leant forward with his elbows on his knees, sloshing his drink down his arm. There were actual tears in the corners of his eyes. A little trickle of snot ran from his pink nose. "I reckon Jack's in the...the food place. Kitchen. What did I tell him? Can you ask him? Can you tell me?"
Ren had never seen his little brother like this before. All...unrefined. He wasn't quite sure what to do with him.
Harry giggled again, and Scott, who seemed a most miserable little bunny rabbit indeed, pried the martini glass away from his hand. Harry looked up at him, brown eyes full of betrayal.
"Oh. That was like my favourite drink ever!"
Scott ignored him. "He's only had three." He opened his mouth to say more, but his pink lips couldn't make their way round the words, and simply hung open in a little 'o'. He dug his hands deep down into his pockets as the stereo boomed with cheesy pop music, tolerating Harry as he yanked at the hem of his Spider-Man jumper. "I don't like Jack," he said finally, like he was muttering something grand and profound and entirely unexpected.
"Oh, so he is a prick then?"
He shrugged and cleaned his glasses. "I only just met him today. He just – he makes me feel weird."
"Snap." Ren finished his lolly and gnawed at the stick.
"Like he's staring at me when he's not even looking." Scott's brown eyes were full of weird, childlike sincerity, and he held Ren's gaze until a particularly vicious jumper yank from Harry pulled him straight off the arm of the sofa and onto Harry's lap. Then, Harry's twisted giggles filled the air all up again.
"Hey Scotty," he yelled, jabbing his fluffy minion in the ear. "You're a real hoot, aren't you?"
The kitchen spluttered with the smells of booze and burnt toast. People were dancing, laughing, drinking from plastic cups with lipstick round the rims. But the room had a split personality; while it buzzed near the entrance, only one person stood over the other side, like everyone within a two metre radius of him would die a horrible death.
Ah, that would be the infamous fucktard creep with white-blonde hair and indoors sunglasses. At least his nipples weren't out anymore; he'd found a T-shirt from somewhere with a picture of a teddy bear on it. It, like him, was softly illuminated by the fluorescent glow of the open fridge. The light caught the ends of his pale hair, made them luminous. He looked so alone in the world, and Ren blushed at the thought of stepping out into that region of empty space between them, confronting him in front of everyone. Confronting him about unwanted intrusions in the dark? Fuck.
Ren cringed and poured himself a triple whisky and coke, which tasted mostly of shit and shame on account of the cheap-ass bottle Harry had bought for the night. He watched Winter as he tried to figure out what the hell he felt like doing.
Winter was eating. A pack of bacon was carefully opened, a single rasher peeled away and torn apart, square by square. The boy nibbled the meat, peeling his lips back from clean white teeth, and there was something hypnotic about it. It was the sort of mildly irritating shit, like a person who sniffed on the train, that you couldn't help listening out for. Wanting, even.
Err. Yeah. Fuck, he was drunk. Ren shook his head.
But whatever. Winter. He relished that bacon. Enjoyed it all, nibble by nibble. Blonde hair swung in front of his eyes, and he pushed it back from his face and turned.
A pale, angled face pulled a tiny little smile that told lies about the way worlds worked. It nuzzled into Ren's shoulder and told him the Earth was flat, and people were good, and razor-sharp cheekbones couldn't cut you dead. Ren felt like he'd been slapped. He turned, scratching his neck and feeling the same weird-ass disgust he'd felt when he'd seen the knife growing out of the green-haired girl's wrist.
That feeling. Was it something that hung around Winter like greasy fucking miasma? Was that why Scott didn't like him? Why everyone gave him space? The feeling told Ren that every outfit Winter owned had blood on it, that he was the type of boy to sleep with his nails in your neck. When he glanced back, Winter's smile had grown. It was now so alarmingly wide and cute that Ren laughed awkwardly and went back to hiding in his drink. Laughed, then frowned, because Winter was grinning right at him, and everyone could see, however hard he tried to ignore him. Winter was weird, and Ren was weird too, but Ren could at least pretend not to be. And then he could be quiet and cool and privately dream of Tusc and the beach without getting other people's attitudes all up in his face.
Oh hi, Ren? Aren't you weird and sort of starey, and didn't you once kill that guy?
No thank you.
He rolled his eyes and turned to a girl by his side, who was cute and had a nose ring which sparkled as she smoked zeros. Probably, she was the most awesome person he'd seen in the last hour, and he actually remembered her name from one of Harry's other little shindigs. The Most Awesome Daniella. One of her stripy socks was pulled up to her knee, and the other dangled from the smoke detector.
He chewed on his jumper. She tilted her head. "Hey, Buke, what movie would you watch if your eyes were going to get gouged out right after? Rich says Avatar." She pulled a face and nodded at her hulk of a boyfriend. Ren remembered him from a Harry party too; Rich had gotten himself wankered and pulled off a perfect rendition of Let It Go. Tusc had been there and loved them both, so Ren had too, by osmosis. Plus, Dani played clarinet in the school orchestra or something, and Ren had to respect that due to his short-lived stint on the oboe. An even more short-lived stint than his current kidding-himself hobby of being on the school basketball team. He wasn't good; he was just tall.
And look, by the way, Winter was eating lettuce leaves now. Who ate lettuce at a party? The boy was a little eyelash in the corner of Ren's eye. He shot another sunshine smile, even though Ren was clearly ignoring him and being above him and everything in the world.
After five more minutes, The Most Awesome Daniella was replaced with more alcohol, with Fred and Jules and Whit and then maybe even Dani again, it was hard to tell. The night practically skipped over its own feet in a hurry to be over, and Ren didn't mind feeling time and wine and conversation. What else was he going to do? Go upstairs and be alone with all his insomnia?
But too soon, it was around three AM, and the kitchen held just him and Winter and his hours of missed sleep. It was the sign he needed to go over to the fridge-boy and confront him and stuff, but his feet were so heavy, and the room was too quiet and cold and suddenly three times bigger than it should have been.
Fuck it. Ren stuck a frown on.
Winter frowned better. "Why do you care so much what people think of you?"
Ren stumbled. Not literally. It was more of an annoying little mind stumble where all the words he was going to say fell down the back of the sofa of his brain or whatever.
"They don't like you anyway."
"I don't care." He did. Even though it was bloody Winter, who he was pretty sure was an evil son of a bitch with no valuable opinions, he was hurt. He'd always tried to be nice to people. He deserved to be liked.
"Anyway," Winter said. "I –"
"Jack?" Ren blurted.
Winter raised his eyebrows, looking surprised. "Yeah." He adjusted his sunglasses and blushed. "Hey? Ren? Can I – can I give you something? A say-sorry present? See, I've been out of town, and I only just found out the full story about Alex, and I feel really terrible about breaking into your room, and saying you murdered him." He smiled nicely and gestured at one of Mum's heavily annotated newspapers, opened on the sideboard to a page describing Ren's failed rescue. "Why didn't you tell me you tried to save him?"
Ren scowled. "Oh, right, so you knew Alex died, but you didn't know any of the details."
"Exactly." Winter smiled. "Innocent mistake!"
Winter kept smiling. It was awkward. "So..." he said after a few seconds. "My grandma gave me this excellent recipe. It'll have you sleeping like a baby." He perused the fridge, pulling out everything he hadn't eaten, which was a watermelon, eggs, ketchup and orange juice. "Plus a bit of nutmeg..." He hurried to the spice rack and rummaged through it. "Have you had fun at the party, by the way?"
Ren paused. "Wait, how do you know I'm having trouble sleeping?"
"Massive eye bags," Winter said with a little shrug, cracking eggs into a bowl and separating the whites. "Massive."
"You'd have them too if you had to worry about strange boys crawling into your bed at night."
"Is that a joke?" Winter pulled a whisk out of the cutlery drawer. "Ha, ha, ha?"
Ren still scowled.
"Oh. Grand." Winter grinned and punched the watermelon beside him. There was a crack as it split open beneath his fist. He chopped out chunks and dropped the pieces into a glass full of half-whisked egg white. He sloshed a dash of orange juice into the mix, then flavoured it with spices, frowning as he measured out the exact proportions.
It took about five minutes. And Ren wasn't exactly sure what to do. Or why he was even still here. And just as he was thinking of leaving, Winter held out his creation, looking coy.
Ren stared at it. It somehow didn't look too bad, but still. He held up a hand. "Night."
Winter frowned. "Look. I'm an arse. I'm sorry. The whole upstairs thing was just a big misunderstanding, and I feel like shit for it. But this will help you for sure. Just one little sip..."
Ren pulled his jumper close around him. Someone must've left a window open or something, because it was hella chilly and shit, and his arms were covered in tiny bumps.
"C'mon, man," Winter begged. "Let me help you!"
Ren sighed. "If I drink it, there'll be no more jokes about Alex, okay? No more pretending to be Winter. Your name's Jack. Harry told me."
Winter chewed on this for a few seconds, before nodding slowly. "Okay...? I promise."
Ren didn't really believe him, but the boy was weird and broken, and part of Ren actually felt sorry for him – he was clearly desperate and lonely.
So he sipped.
Winter beamed and leapt forward with his arms out, but Ren backed off before the hug could hit. Then, it was just uncomfortable, and Winter was shying away, brushing off his arms. He looked down at the floor. "You'll probably want it again," he said. "If you do, I'll be in the Bluebell Wood for the next three days. After that, I'll be gone forever."
Ren stared at him. "You are not Winter."
"Why can't I be?"
Ren's cheeks flushed. "Because people don't just appear when you wish for them! It's – it's not real."
Winter – fuck, Jack – tilted his head. "But I'd like to believe in that. I'd like to hope it were true. I think the ability to wish is quite a lovely one, René."
The boy took off his glasses and opened his darkly-lashed eyes. They were large and unfairly puppy dog-esque, and Ren suddenly understood the whole sunglasses thing, because while Winter's right eye was amber-coloured, the left was white and dead. The guy was half blind.
He touched Ren's arm with fingers that felt like frozen meat. "Stay safe," he said, good eye gleaming. "And sleep well."
It was the sun on Ren's cheek that woke him the next day. Streaming through the window in gold lines, lint dancing along its long planes. He looked up the ceiling, feeling a small smile tugging at his cheeks. His eyes felt so open, his body was heavy and warm. The smells of bacon and toast drifted into his room, and he felt the happiest he could remember being. When he glanced at his surfboard, he was almost tempted to use it again. Maybe later? Or...not. Either way, though, normality was starting to return, and he almost didn't feel guilty about it – and he maybe didn't feel bad about being alive while Alex wasn't. Maybe Winter was right – it was okay to hope. Everything would be good again. Or as good as it ever had been.
He went through his Saturday as he would have done any other Saturday – minus the copious amounts of surfing and Tuscany – meaning, he went through his Saturday watching Columbo in his underwear on the sofa, playing Gameboy as Harry made a half-assed attempt to tidy up the party mess with Scott before Mum and Dad got home. Ren made pasta for the three of them, although he had to send Harry down the shops to pick up ingredients because Winter really had gone to town on their fridge. Ren and Scott had to make conversations happen while he was gone. Most of them went along the lines of 'Jack's a weirdo dickhead', although maybe that wasn't quite right – like Ren had noticed yesterday, the boy was more broken than malicious. Like he maybe just didn't quite understand people.
"You're too nice, maybe," Scott said, peering over Ren's shoulder as he levelled up his Charizard.
"I'm too everything."
"I would have chucked him out of my house," Scott said. "No one comes into my bed without an invite."
Scott was very young and very geeky-looking. He didn't want to be prejudiced, but. Yeah. The guy was most certainly a virgin. Not that Ren really gave a shit; Ren was young and most certainly a virgin too.
"I don't think he meant anything..." Ren said finally. "He wasn't trying to...do anything. He's just...very..."
Scott sniffed and pulled his hood up. "Make it learn fire blast." And that was the end of that.
Scott and Harry spent the rest of the day playing X-Box together. It was sweet really – like aww, a new friend for the little brother. Every few minutes, Harry would kindly jab Scott in the ribs, or proclaim his undying hatred for him, just like Tusc used to do to Ren.
They played until Mum and Dad came home. It was around eleven, and the parentals were arm in arm and cooing sweet nothings at each other in a most disgusting manner indeed. Ren's parents were...uh...fiery? They'd argue and roar like rival dragons for days, then would go on one of their little mini-breaks and...yeah...probably fuck like mad... And they'd come back like this. Melting like marshmallows into each other's arms. Wearing cheesy matching stripy jumpers. Pawing.
Dad draped Mum over one arm and planted a long kiss on her mouth that made her laugh and squeal. He caught her around the middle and whispered into her ear about – um...shopping lists or EastEnders or something, obviously.
Harry bobbed over with a big smile on his face, being a slightly insane little wannabe aristocrat who was worryingly immune to this sort of thing. "How was Paris?"
And Dad spoke in very bad French about how the food was good, but the romance was better. And yeah, Ren had to escape all of that as soon as possible.
And then he was in his room again. Reading for two hours, and then...trying to sleep. Closing his eyes. Waiting for things to work until they just...didn't.
It was five AM. He'd dropped away from the world once, but then he'd dreamt of bluebells that sank roots down his throat and up his dick, and he'd woken up in a cold sweat, with his sheets soaked. He'd lain for hours like that, until the sun started to come up, and he'd felt all the hope and positivity inside him, crumbling down, bit by bit. Fuck it.
He stumbled downstairs and raided the fridge for the leftover orange juice and watermelon. He'd seen Winter make the juice; he could do it himself. Nutmeg. Uh... bits and bobs. Spices. He knew it was stupid when he was doing it, but when you're sleep-deprived, you can convince yourself anything's worth a shot. In the end, the drink looked pretty much the same as Winter's. And tasted...yeah...pretty good. But when he went up to bed and lay down beneath his sticky duvet, his breath felt tight, and his eyes were wide open, and he knew he could lie there for hours and it wouldn't do shit.
And Sunday was just a wasted day of drooping in front of the telly as his parents flitted about the place like happy fucking unicorns. Hours blurred. Day became night. Night started to become day again. He found himself in rooms he didn't remember entering. Found himself stuffing his feet into his trainers at five AM, and quietly slipping out of the house and into his car. Early birdsong flittered through the air around him as he started his engine.
He knew where he was going, but he didn't admit it to himself until he pulled up outside the shack in the bluebell wood, and flopped out into half-frozen flowers and air that coloured his breath white.
He couldn't believe he was doing this. The shack would be empty – of course it would – it was pre-dawn, for God's sake, and even if that Jack-Winter person was weird enough to take the whole I-am-that-dead-guy's-ex-boyfriend joke far enough to come here, no-one – no one – would do that sort of shit at five in the morning.
But maybe, if he was here, he could help Ren sleep. Maybe – maybe –
Fuck, it was crazy to even think it. But his feet crunched through frost as he approached the shack. And above those crunches were the quiet little sounds of a boy talking to himself. And – what was that? A cat?
Damn... Ren pressed his ear against the door, closing his aching eyes, and he listened.
"...How many ways do I love you? I think...seven. One, I love your stupid face. Two, I love your stupid hair. Three, I love the little fart noises you make with your mouth while you're sleeping."
The door creaked open and Ren fell forward with it. A black and white cat mewled and hopped over his feet, before slinking off into the woods.
"It worked, didn't it?"
Winter sat huddled up and wrapped in blankets, clutching a ginger cat to his chest and surrounded by hundreds of flickering gold candles. Maybe it was just the light, but the boy looked sick – pale as death, with dark shadows beneath his eyes and in his cheeks. His bad eye was covered by bandages, and the amber right one was big, pink and watery.
"I've tried so much medication," Ren wheezed. "But – your drink – it was the only thing – It made me feel normal again."
Winter smiled and cuddled his cat closer. Ren wondered if he was planning on eating it. "I know."
"How are you here?" Ren spluttered. He nudged the metal wish box with his foot. "Did you actually know him? Alex?"
"We fucked," Winter said with a shrug.
Ren closed his eyes. He had no idea whether he believed him or not, but he was too damn tired to care. "He said to give you a message. Tell you he loved you. And to be careful. The girl who killed him, I think her name was Frog. I told the police, but –" he shrugged. "I don't think Frog's her real name, you know?"
When he opened his eyes again, Winter was still and smiling, as if Ren's words had simply washed over him like warm seawater. "Do you need my help, Ren?"
"Yes, I – I need your help."
The pale boy's smile grew. "Shake on it?"
Ren reached out a hand warily, flinching as Winter's ice-cold fingers tightened around it. That disgusted feeling was back again, like sinking sand, dragging him down into someplace cold and dark, until he was up to his stomach, stuck fast.
"Well good," Winter said, peering at his hand, "because look at me, René."
He did, taking in all the broken oddness of him. Winter was a creepy doll in an evil toyshop, head lopsided, amber eye curious. As Ren watched, a thin line of blood trickled from the boy's nose and ran down his chin.
"You need my help, Ren. And I...I sort of need your help too."
"Oh." Ren wasn't sure what else to say. "What – what kind of help?"
And Winter smiled the most evil smile Ren had ever seen, full of teeth and sharp angles. Ren giggled awkwardly as metaphorical quicksand reached his head and filled his throat. He suddenly felt that every preconception Scott had ever had about Winter was absolutely correct. Never give anyone the benefit of the doubt.
"I'll give you sleep, sure." Winter leant forward, allowing the ginger cat to scamper away out of the door. "All I want..." he said. "Is one little kiss."
Oh. Oh! Oh.
Winter got up, stepping over the candles and tossing the blanket to one side, regardless of the fire risk. He took Ren by the arm and dragged him outside.
"We're taking a walk, by the way."
Author's note: Well this took like a thousand years. Fuckkkk. Usually I take a couple of days out before posting, then edit it, but I really didn't want yet another weekend to go by without an update – so maybe there are random ugly typos in there, just waiting to be found. Cookies and milk to everyone who's followed/favourited/reviewed this strange and wonky thing, the support is so so appreciated, you would not believe! Lots of characters in this one. Are they distinct enough? Anyone who should be thrown into a fire? Let me know! 3