By midnight it is freakishly hot inside Red Room. Seriously. I do not know how Rain hasn’t melted yet. The air-con is overloaded as usual and there are now so many people squeezed into the tiny club that I’m breathing in their sweat, their beery stink. I’m in a tee-shirt and jeans, and I’m still feeling like a witch in water. At least I’ve made my traditional midnight switch to energy drinks so that I don’t end up passed out in the toilet or on a bench. This way I get pre-diabetes to go with my eczema.
Rain’s been staring at every tarted-up emo boy who’s wandered in tonight, and it’s beginning to more than piss me off. Stupid hair, stupid me. I don’t even know what I was thinking. Of course it wasn’t going to work. You don’t get to tell broken people you’re the only one who can fix them. Repeat after me: I am not an Elastoplast.
I’m all on edge watching the people shuffling on the dance floor. The place is so tiny that it can’t hold all that many people, but somehow it manages to be bigger on the inside, like a magic castle, and I keep seeing more and more new faces arrive. None of them appear to be Caleb, and more importantly, no-one seems to be sporting the latest in Irene-nightmare club-casual—a pair of wings and a set of baboon-bright teeth.
I sigh, and take another swig of my drink. Way too paranoid, Irene.
“Nice,” Rain says. He’s looking at a man with long black hair and slanted eyes. Even in the crappy light of the club, I can see he has the kind of sleek skin that makes him look like he’s been modelled out of a tin of Nestle caramel. Time to cut this potential romance short. It’s obvious I can’t compete. I look around as a blast of cooler air briefly touches my skin. Someone’s opened the side door off the raised dance floor, so I grab Rain. “Come on. I can’t breathe in here.” We head for the open door before the staff wise up and close it again. I shove my way though the crowd. Fresh air, a bit of cool breeze on my body, that’s all I need now. We slip through the doorway and squeeze our way onto the little metal fire escape. A couple of people have had the same idea, and they sit on the iron steps or on the concrete downstairs, panting.
An older man looks up at us as our feet hit the first rung.
I don’t win. I swear dead man stalking is everywhere I go. Not dead, Irene, just…uh…really unconscious.
He recognizes us too, raising one hand in silent greeting. Caleb has that skinny look like he’s living on his nerves and his own body tissues. Rain is hopping down the steps toward him, muttering excuse me’s every time he has to press past someone.
I grab at his sleeve and haul him back. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“What?” Rain gives me his best I-am-totally-innocent expression, eyes wide.
“What-what?” I mimic. “I mean, why do you want to talk to him?”
He frowns. “Irene. Are you blind?”
Oh, right, and this is it. It’s not like Rain’s ever made any secret out of his penchant for tall skinny men with hard faces. Tall, skinny older men. But still. “He’s like…fifty.”
Rain’s frown smooths away and he laughs. “He is not—are you jealous?” He shakes his head in mocking disbelief. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I’m not jealous, you tit. I just think he’s too old for you.” And a freak. I shove my hands in my pockets. I’m the only freak Rain gets to like.
Rain presses his face right next to mine, and licks my ear. Not in a sexy way, in a really-gross-brother way. “Jealous,” he whispers, loud enough that it makes my ear hurt.
“Drunk,” I hiss back.
And he doesn’t deny anything, just steps away further down the stairs and grins at me.
“I hate you,” I tell him.
“You do not.”
“Okay, fine, I don’t hate you. I just hate you a little bit right now.”
But he’s already gone, pushing through the tight-packed group of people on the stairs. Bee-lining his way to the previously-dead Caleb. I sigh, and follow. Caleb’s just a person. And he’s about to get hit full force with Rain’s secret weapon. There are few who survive when Rain has decided to turn on the charm. All people fall before him.
Caleb lifts the brim of his hat as we approach. His eyes still have a flat black quality, but up close, I can see he’s a fair bit older than us, but yeah, not fifty. Mid-thirties, I guess. Still old. Lines are gathered in the corners of his eyes.
An electric itch has begun to burn just under my skin. I scratch one arm, then stick it behind my back. It’s ignore the itch, or have the whole place think I have fleas or scabies. And scratching just makes it worse. If I give in, by the time I get home the insides of my arms will be weeping and scaly red. The itch gets worse as I get closer to Caleb, like my body’s warning me. Caleb’s not to be trusted. It’s the kind of thing my mother believed—that our bodies can act as warning signals. She was also a fruit bat. So. Yeah.
Caleb blinks as I stare at him and his mouth curls in slow sneer.
I back away, just a little. and the prickle begins to fade.
What. The. Hell.
I can’t explain what’s going on whenever I’m near him, but I sure as hell don’t like it. Caleb is not Mr Normality. Not that I can explain that to Rain without sounding more than a little touched. Best thing would be just to stay here and keep an eye on the twit, make sure he’s not, I dunno, kidnapped, or whatever it is that the walking dead do to pretty, vacant, idiot boys. I sigh and look away from Caleb, deciding it’s better to watch Rain instead. The bare electric light makes him look unnatural and haloed; his features washed out to a photocopy-paleness. A smudge of nose and mouth, two smears where his eyes should be. I make mental notes for my painting, sketching him down in my thoughts. This is the most obvious of Rain’s weapons—he is freaking beautiful.
I kinda want to see if Caleb notices how Rain gets more beautiful when he wants someone, like it’s a skill he can turn on when he feels like it. I’m a spectator at some bizarre game of tennis, and no-one notices me.
Caleb looks at him with an intensity that I recognize from myself. Chalk another up to Rain’s magnetism. He’s unnaturally pretty, and because he has that fragile waifishness to him, people always want to coddle him, buffer him in cotton wool so that he never splinters. We treat him like he’s not real.
My energy drink is too sickly-sweet, too warm, and I sip it slowly.
Rain’s settled himself in place, and his charm is working. Already Caleb is chatting to him like they’ve known each other for years, making small talk. He has a throat-rattling growl, gravel in a cement-mixer. He moves his long-fingered hands as he speaks and under the bare light, it’s almost as if I can see skeins of gold following the movements. After-images. I shake my head and they fade a little. It’s hypnotic to watch, and the part of me that obviously needs to be locked away in a small padded room thinks magic.
It’s probably just some weird trick of the light, but it seems the gold threads grow brighter, dancing like a subtle net over Rain, as Caleb draws closer to him.
Nervously, I edge back toward them, ignoring the itch so I can hear what they’re saying.
They’re talking music. Meaningless conversation, but Caleb is already leaning in close, his head bowed over Rain’s. And Rain, with his innocent mouth, is watching him, his grey eyes wide.
I’ve got a bad feeling, and while I’m really good at ignoring stuff like that if it suits me, this time I have this urge to get myself and Rain out of here, far away from Caleb. That, and I really don’t want to watch Rain playing this game, selling little bits of himself to get whatever it is he thinks he can.
“They’re playing my favourite song,” I say. “Let’s go dance.”
Rain drags his gaze off Caleb long enough to flick me an uninterested glance. “You go,” he says. “I’ll come along just now.”
What he means is, when I’m gone, he’ll break out the big guns. He’s already hooked Caleb with his surface sheen of naivety, soon he’ll be reeling him in. He just doesn’t want to do it while I’m watching.
Damn. I do actually like this song. And there’s no reason to torture myself by watching Rain play out his little line while Caleb keeps shooting me these mocking looks that say I know what you’re thinking, with his hands dancing magic all over Rain’s skin.
There’s no such thing as magic. And if I keep telling myself that, it might just be true.
I’m gone. Off to lose myself in the press of bodies and the drum-machine beats. Whatever happens between them, I refuse to think about. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.
I dance longer than I mean to. Even to songs I don’t really like or know. Eventually I’m going to have to go back. Rain has all the cash, and my drink ran out ages ago.
When I stumble back outside, I don’t see Rain, and my heart stops for just one panicked second before I spot him sitting on the concrete downstairs, in the shadows.
His one hand is tangled in Caleb’s long black hair—hair that hides Rain’s face like a curtain. I feel nauseous. It never takes Rain all that long to get what he wants. He must hear me coming down the iron stairs, because he pulls away and looks up at me. Rain grins and raises a hand to beckon me down. I have to button up all my insecurities, zip them away. I push the prickly fear down under the surface and let myself look easy, relaxed. It’s harder than it sounds.
“Enjoying yourself?” I say, before I can stop the words.
“Yeah, actually.” He has no shame.
Next to him, Caleb leans back against the wall, he gives me a thoughtful look, appraising.
It’s really cold out here now. Noticeably, unseasonably cold. Maybe it’s the sweat cooling on my skin. I shiver.
“Here. Sit.” Rain pats the ground. “Caleb bought you a drink.”
He did too. Obviously he’s one of those smooth hunters who knows the value of keeping the best friend happy. I take my drink from Caleb and sit cross-legged on the concrete. Music is pounding in my ears, buzzing away at my brain like a legion of bees. My drink is icy, cold enough to kill the unpleasant sweetness.
“Rain’s been talking about you,” Caleb says. He’s got a mocking smile. Just the same as the one in my painting. “You’re an artist.”
“Kinda.” I shrug.
“Caleb says we should go back to his place.” Rain’s not looking at me, but at the ground instead. He’s playing with the frayed laces of his trainers because he bloody knows.
“Uh, why?” I say, and inject as much arch loathing as I can into my voice. It comes out sounding petulant instead, and I cringe inside.
“Just to chill.”
I’m too tired to fight with him, and I know the high mood is just a reaction from his down—swing earlier. And if I say no, Rain’s going to go anyway, and then I’m going to worry about him all night. So I nod. “Yeah, sure.”
Caleb and Rain are sitting close, their thighs pressed up next to one another, knees overlapping. Caleb smokes black herbal cigarettes, they smell like fish heads and petrol. So vomit-inducing that even Rain doesn’t bum any off of him.
I tap out a Stuyvesant for Rain, and Caleb leans over to light it with a silver Zippo, battered and plain. He lights mine next, and the flame is blue and black at the base. As he moves in to hold the Zippo for me, a wave of cold air hits my face, biting into my skin like a thousand needles. I look into Caleb’s face, and he winks once at me like we’re sharing a secret joke.
My hand shakes, the red cherry shiver of the lit cig the only give-away. I’m not leaving Rain alone with him. I don’t care if everything that’s been happening in my life is just some prolonged hallucination, I don’t trust this
“You should show Caleb your art sometime, I’m sure he’d be interested.” Rain is trying to keep the conversation going, but his voice sounds a little desperate.
“Really,” Caleb says. “Rain is right. I’m always interested in art.” I can’t place his accent, there’s a tinge of something there, not quite American, but like maybe he’s spent time there. His voice drawls a little, catches on vowels like a burr in a dog’s coat. He stubs out the last of his herbal cig and stands, looking down at Rain, his hand held out.
As he pulls Rain to his feet, I see the moment frozen under electric light. Shadow and snow. My mental camera clicks, saving the image for another painting. Rain is shining, beautiful, and his hands and face are so white. Chiaroscuro. I swallow the last of my drink and stand to follow the couple through the Red Room with my cigarette still in hand. Outside the stars are distant and faint in a smog-black sky. I feel like I could be swallowed up by all this immensity of nothingness, disconnected from reality. It’s achingly lonely, like hearing a radio in another room.
Rain is standing at Caleb’s car, head tilted up as they kiss. He’s holding Caleb’s shoulders, and Rain’s face is cupped by those narrow hands. Shameless. I want to sit down in the middle of the car park and cry. I don’t know why it hits me like this, I think it’s the empty sky. I don’t even want to finish my cig, and instead just flick it off toward the fence. It tumbles through the air like a tiny meteorite, glowing red, then disappears.
“I’m going to drive with Caleb, all right?” Rain calls to me. He’s leaning against the walking dead man, one arm slung about Caleb like he’s hanging on to a prize he’s won at a tombola. Sometimes, I really wonder if Rain actually has any grey-matter in that thick skull of his. “Irene?” Rain says again.
“Yeah, fine. No problem.” I’m already pulling my car keys from my pocket and heading past them to the street. On the plus side, my dad’s car is exactly where I left it. I unlock the gorilla-lock just as the horned car pulls out past me, the scraped and painted side passing in a swirl of hallucinogenic colour. Caleb flicks his lights.
So I’ll follow them in the Beetle, even more an outsider. As I pull away, something makes the scraggly bushes shiver. There’s no wind and my heart leaps into my throat. I accelerate after Caleb’s monstrosity of a car, and when I finally dare to give a nervous look into my rear-view mirror, I see a hunched shape standing by the bushes. No, not one, several. I swallow and take deep breaths.
It’s getting harder to write these things off to an over-active imagination and a crazy mom.