The morning after the incident with Chris and Nick in the woods, Chris wasn't at the bus stop when the school bus arrived. On the journey home that afternoon, Tom was alone when he got on the bus in Moreton. After we greeted one another with a smile and a nod, Tom surprised me by sitting next to me on the back seat. Judging by the looks he got from the older students on the other end of the seat, he also surprised them. If he hadn't been Brian's brother I'm sure they would have done something about the younger boy's invasion of their territory.
There was a brief silence, during which he studiously ignored the glares cast in his direction then Tom spoke quietly, presumably so that he wouldn't be overheard.
"Chris wasn't in school today, so I phoned him at lunch time."
I wondered why he sounded so concerned about Chris missing just one day of school and why he should express his concern to me. Although I couldn't answer the first question, it occurred to me that perhaps he had come to regard me as someone he could talk to. That thought made me happier than I would have predicted just a few weeks earlier. Then I wondered if Chris's absence was related to his experience in the woods the previous day. However, my musings were interrupted when I noticed that Tom was looking at me expectantly. Only then did it occur to me that he was waiting for a response to his statement.
"Is he okay?" I asked.
"He said he just had a stomach ache."
"Nothing serious then," I said, relieved.
"I don't think so, but..."
He didn't go on to finish the sentence so I prompted him.
"But unless he's really ill he usually phones me if he's going to bunk off school. And the 'stomach ache' excuse is usually what he tries on his mum when he wants to take the day off."
"Does that work?" I asked, knowing that my dad would insist I saw a doctor before he'd accept such an excuse for me missing school.
"As long as he doesn't use it too often," Tom said and smiled. "His mum's a bit soft like that, especially after his dad died."
I hadn't known about Chris's dad, and this piece of information made me realise that I knew almost nothing about him.
"What happened to his dad?"
"Accident at work about five years ago. A steel beam came loose from a crane and fell on him."
"Ouch," I said without thinking.
Tom gave me a frowning look before he responded. "Ouch, indeed. But then you must know what it's like when a parent goes out one day and never comes home."
Even if I hadn't been preoccupied with controlling the emotions raised by his words I doubt that I would have known what to say.
"Anyway," Tom continued, "I'm pretty sure Chris was lying about the stomach ache."
"Well I know him so well. We've been best friends since we were tiny, and our mums used to baby-sit for one another. I can tell when he's hiding something."
"Everyone has secrets," I said. "Maybe there are some things people don't want even their best friends to know."
"I know that," he retorted, apparently a little irritated by my statement of the obvious. "And I know that Chris doesn't always tell me everything. He has a right to keep some things private, but if it's something bad enough to keep him off school then I'd like to know."
"Considering what he has to put up with," I said wryly, "I'm not surprised he needs a day off occasionally."
"Yeah, but he's stronger than he looks and he can put up with the usual crap. I'm worried that something not-so-usual must have happened."
Of course, I suspected that I might have witnessed this not-so-usual event. However, even if I'd been sure that was why Chris had stayed home, I'd promised him that I wouldn't tell anyone about the incident with Nick, and as far as I knew, 'anyone' included Tom. In any case, our conversation was terminated as we approached our stop, and when we got off the bus, Tom immediately went to Chris's house
Usually when I got home from school I had a snack and then either started on my homework or watched TV while I waited for Dad to get in and start heating up whatever Mrs Crawford had prepared for our dinner. That evening, about an hour and a half after I'd arrived home, I was in the living room watching the news on TV when the doorbell rang.
Because we lived in such a rural location and some distance from the village, we rarely had visitors and the only people who came by without advanced notice were Mrs Crawford and Brian. Thus, when I went to open the door I fully expected to see Brian, but instead I saw Tom standing on the top step and still wearing his school clothes. This took me completely by surprise because he rarely came up to the house. In fact, apart from the time he helped me move my bedroom furniture, he'd been in the house on only a handful of occasions, and on all those occasions it was to see his mum.
"Hi," he said, smiling shyly.
"Erm, hi," I responded. With my mind still clouded by surprise I added, "Your mum's not here."
"I know," he said and his smile broadened. "I just saw her when I dropped my bag off at home. Can I come in?"
"Oh, yes of course!" I said, embarrassed that I hadn't invited him in before he'd asked.
Not having much experience as a host, it was only after we were seated, he on the sofa and I on one of the easy chairs, that I remember my manners and leapt out of my seat.
"Sorry, I should have asked," I said. "Do you want anything to eat or drink?"
"No, thanks. I just came to talk to you."
"Oh?" I said, sitting down again.
I don't know why, but for some reason I was so nervous that I found myself gripping the arms of my chair.
"I just had a long talk with Chris, and I wanted to come and thank you."
"Thank me?" I echoed.
Actually, my apparent stupidity was not only a result of my nervousness but also because I was stalling for time. Having no idea what Chris had told Tom, I had no idea what I could say without breaking my promise. Although Tom's expression was one of mild amusement, possibly at my obvious discomfort, his eyes were firmly fixed on me. I'm sure it was only an illusion brought on partly by his unusual eyes, but it felt like he was trying to read my mind or see into my soul.
"Yes," he replied, "for rescuing him from Nick yesterday."
"Oh, that," I said, trying to give the impression that the incident had completely slipped my mind.
He laughed in genuine amusement, and his gaze became less piercing, allowing me to relax a little.
"Chris told me you'd promised not to tell anyone, and it's good to see that you keep your promises," he said, causing me to blush. "But don't worry, I already got him to tell me everything."
"So he didn't have a stomach ache then?"
"No, but he's got a sore bum," he responded with a grin.
I was startled by such directness from someone who was, in my experience, always so reserved. Not knowing what to say, I just sat in silence hoping my face didn't look as red as it felt. Then just as I thought my blush was fading, his expression became more serious and his next words caused me to blush even more.
"Ya know," he said, "what you did was very brave."
"I'm not really brave," I said, trying to make light of it. "In fact I was so scared I almost puked. Nick's a big lad, so I'm really glad he decided not to make a fight of it."
"Just because you were scared doesn't mean you're not brave. And apart from the fact that you risked being hurt by Nick, you're brave for risking your reputation by helping out the local queer boy."
He studied my face closely as he said the words 'queer boy', apparently assessing my reaction. Whatever he saw, my reaction was unrelated to those words because I was too busy worrying how he might react if he found out how close I came to running away and leaving Chris to be raped by Nick.
"Reputation?" I said eventually. "As a newcomer I didn't know I had a reputation to risk. Anyway, after what he did, I doubt that Nick would want to say anything, and I'm sure that you and Chris won't."
As I said that, my heart sank as it suddenly occurred to me that if Chris decided to report Nick, maybe to the police, then I might be called in as a witness.
"No," Tom said, "Chris wouldn't tell anyone. It was hard work getting him to talk even to me."
The sense of relief I felt at his words made me relax back in my chair as he continued speaking.
"Chris told me you were very nice to him when you walked him home afterwards, even though you know he's gay."
"I always try to be nice to people. Unless they give me a reason not to be."
"So you don't mind gay people then?"
His question took me by surprise and made me tense up again. "Erm, no. Of course not. Why should I?"
"Most of the village lads despise gays," he said with a hint of bitterness, "and they don't need a reason to do it. Even my brother's like that. Remember you asked me once why Brian and I don't get along, and I told you it wasn't just about the box I got from Miss Victoria? Well Brian despises gays just like the rest of them, and he's always trying to stop me from being friends with Chris."
"Maybe he's not quite so bad as you think," I said. "Maybe he was just worried about your reputation..."
"Hah!" he interrupted me, anger adding to the bitterness in his voice. "That's no excuse for the way he treats Chris. He has no right to make someone's life a misery just to protect anyone's reputation."
"Not just yours but your whole family's," I said, feebly trying to defend Brian who was, after all, a friend.
Tom went quiet, and his angry expression began to fade as he became more thoughtful. His eyes, now less piercing but not less bright, stared into mine, until he eventually seemed to reach a decision.
"Yeah," he said, "that's the only reason I don't let people know about me. Dad's so concerned about his precious reputation that he'd go ballistic."
It took a couple of seconds before I realised, or at least thought I realised, what he'd just said. However, I wanted to be sure before I said anything else.
"Let anyone know?" I asked.
"That I'm gay as well," he said, giving me a look that was half defiant and half fearful.
"Oh," I said.
The tone with which I delivered my favourite all-purpose word was intended to be as neutral and emotionless as possible. However, my thoughts and emotions were in complete turmoil. There was a kind of elation at finding out that the object of so many of my sexual fantasies was also gay. There was a hint of jealousy when I thought that maybe he and Chris were boyfriends. There was an urge, quickly suppressed, to say that I, too, was gay. Then there was an illogical feeling of resentment that he had, probably unknowingly, put pressure on me to tell him about my sexuality.
"Is that all you've got say?" he said, sounding disappointed. "Just 'Oh'?"
"Sorry," I replied, feeling guilty. "It's just that you took me by surprise. It's still sinking in."
"Surely you're not really shocked, are you?"
"Shocked? No, I don't think shocked is the right word," I said unhelpfully. Before he could respond, I added, "Presumably Chris knows. Have you told anyone else?"
"Chris and I came out to one another almost three years ago, but apart from you, the only other person I've told is my mum."
"Your mum? When? How did she react?"
"A couple of years ago," he said, the corners of his lips lifting into a smile. "She wasn't happy about it at the time and made me promise not to tell Dad."
"Is she happier about it now?"
"Not exactly ecstatic," he replied dryly, "but she's got used to the idea, and she's always been very protective. She says her main worry is my happiness and that it will be more difficult for me to find true love."
His last few words were said in a tone that implied he was quoting something that his mother had repeated to him several times.
"So," I said hesitantly, "you and Chris aren't boyfriends?"
For a fraction of a second he looked startled, them he burst out laughing.
"Good grief, no! Whatever made you think that?" he said when he'd suppressed his chuckles. "He's my best friend, but we don't fancy each other. We grew up together. It would be like incest."
"So you, erm, never did anything together? Like mess around?" By speaking aloud the question in my mind, I think that I shocked myself more than I shocked him. Whatever the case, we both blushed deeply.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" I stuttered. "It's really rude of me to ask such personal questions. It's just I've never talked to a gay person like this before."
"S'okay, I don't really mind. The only person I've talked to like this is Chris, and of course he's never asked me that."
We sat in silence for a few seconds, recovering from our mutual embarrassment, and I thought that he'd decided not to answer my impertinent question.
"We did, ya know, examine one another's tackle when we were little," he said, breaking the silence, "and made comparisons when we started growing down there, getting hairs and stuff. When he discovered how to produce cum, he showed me, and we did it together for awhile, then we just stopped."
"Oh. I see," I said.
Actually, I wasn't sure that I really did see, but at the time it seemed like the right sort of thing to say. I crossed my legs to hide the erection produced by my thoughts of Chris sharing his sexual awakening with Tom, and as surreptitiously as possible looked over to see if there was a bulge in Tom's school trousers. Unfortunately, the loose fitting trousers and his posture conspired to hide any indication of arousal. Still curious, but also nervous of offending him, I dared to ask another question.
"I thought that Chris and Nick would hate one another. Did you know they were doing stuff together?"
"Not until tonight. And they weren't doing stuff together, as such. Nick was just using Chris to get blow jobs, but he never even touched Chris."
"So why did Chris let himself be used like that?"
"He told me that it started a couple of months ago, when Nick started blackmailing him."
"Couldn't he get out of it somehow?" I asked. "After all, once Nick had got Chris to suck him off, he was in a position to be blackmailed as well."
"Apparently Chris found he enjoyed it and didn't really want to get out of it. Until yesterday when Nick tried to go too far."
"Did Chris tell you what the blackmail was about?"
"Yes, but that's his secret, not mine, so I can't tell you. If you really want to know, maybe you could try asking him."
Even if I hadn't run out of questions to ask, I would probably have stopped there. Firstly because I didn't want him to think I was interrogating him and secondly because I was afraid that I might give away too much about myself if I showed a lot of interest in their sexuality. In any case, just then we heard Dad arrive.
"I'd better get going," Tom said, standing up.
We emerged from the living room into the hallway just as Dad was taking off his coat. He quickly hid his surprise at seeing Tom and greeted him warmly.
"It's good to see that Mark's started inviting his friends up to the house," Dad said to Tom. "Hopefully we'll see you more often in future."
Tom gave me an amused look, and I'm sure we both had the same thought. The fact was that I'd not invited Tom, but neither of us would tell my dad that. Dad then asked Tom if he was staying for dinner, but he declined, saying that his mum was expecting him home.
"Thanks again," Tom said as I opened the door for him to leave.
"Thanks for coming," I responded politely. Then I quickly added, "Ya know, you can consider yourself invited to visit anytime."
He grinned and nodded, then set off down the drive. As he disappeared into the darkness I found myself wishing that he'd stayed for dinner and hoping that he'd come again soon. Also, I half-regretted the fact that I'd been too cowardly to tell him I was gay when he was being so open about himself. He'd trusted me with his secret, and I wondered why I couldn't have shown equal trust?
Maybe I'd just missed the best opportunity that I'd ever have to open myself up to someone I cared about. That last thought jolted me, because for the first time I realised, or perhaps just admitted to myself, that I really did care about Tom. Indeed, the fact that I cared about him so much made me very uncomfortable.
After Tom left, a worrying thought occurred to me, and that thought kept returning to haunt my mind for some time afterwards. Mrs Crawford knew Tom was gay, and ever since it became clear we were going to move into Prospect House she'd seemed very keen on Tom and I becoming friends. I wondered if that meant she suspected that I, too, was gay. On the other hand, perhaps it was merely that she thought that, being a 'city boy', I would be more tolerant of him if I discovered his sexuality.
My concerns were compounded by the fact that Tony had suspected I was gay, and he probably now knew it. Therefore, it occurred to me that if Mrs Crawford suspected as well, then maybe I was subconsciously giving out signals that others would also detect. Although I kept telling myself that the 'city boy' hypothesis was much more likely, my usual paranoia prevented me from completely dismissing the other possibility.
In a way, I envied the fact that Tom had felt able to tell his mum about his sexuality. There was do doubt that she would make it easier for him if other members of the family found out. Sometimes I wished that I could just tell my dad I was gay. However, Tom was in a much easier position than I, because he had a brother and lots of cousins. I was an only child, Dad was an only child, and Auntie Kath had no children. Both my dad's and my mum's family lines would come to an end if I didn't have offspring. So I imagined that the knowledge I was gay would be devastating for my dad and my gran.
When I went to bed that night I'd hoped for, and half expected, to hear the tapping that would begin one of the intense erotic episodes. That didn't happen, but I did have a pleasant time imagining myself in Chris's position, growing up with Tom and comparing physical development. In the early hours of the morning, however, I was made to pay for my pre-sleep pleasure.
The nightmare started as usual with the escalating feelings of sadness and loss, and that was followed by the heavy weight on my chest and tightness round my throat. Then, instead of immediately blacking out as I did on the previous occasion during Tony's visit, I experienced a combination of the sensations of choking and falling. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of this choking fall, I lapsed into blessed unconsciousness.
The sound of my bedside alarm dragged me back to wakefulness, and I immediately became aware of having a very sore throat. Swallowing was extremely painful, and my neck was tender and very sensitive to touch. However, when I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror my throat and neck seemed perfectly normal and unmarked. On the other hand, my eyes appeared sunken and there were dark and puffy pouches under them. As well as the soreness of my throat, all my joints ached, and I felt totally exhausted. I certainly didn't feel fit enough to go to school, so I didn't bother dressing and just put on my dressing gown so I could go and tell Dad I needed to take the day off.
As soon as he saw me enter the kitchen, Dad commented that I looked awful, and when I tried to respond I could only produce a squeaking croak. He took my temperature and looked at my throat, and although they both appeared normal, he told me to go back to bed. A few minutes after I crawled back into bed, he brought me some tea and crumpets with jam. Before he left, he told me to try and sleep and said that if I felt any worse I should call him or get Mrs Crawford to call him. Although I was quite hungry, swallowing anything solid was far too painful, so I just licked off the jam, and I managed to sip my tea only after it had become tepid. Then I fell into a deep sleep.
A little after eleven o'clock I was awakened by a gentle knocking on my bedroom door, and presuming it was Mrs Crawford, I tried to say 'come in' but my voice was just a rasping broken growl. I doubt that she heard me, but after another gentle knock she came into the room carrying a glass of what appeared to be home-made lemonade. I sat up, taking care to hold on to the duvet so that it still covered me up to my neck.
"Now don't try and say anything, pet," she said as approached. "Your dad stopped by on his way to work and said you were off ill with a bad throat."
"Here," she said, handing me the drink, "I made this for you. It's from an old family recipe. It has lemon, honey, and special ingredients from our Tommy's herb garden. Guaranteed to make your throat better."
The liquid in the glass was warm and smelled of lemon with a hint of something like a patented cough medicine. Although the smell wasn't unpleasant, I was reluctant to drink it, not only because swallowing was still painful but also because I'd always detested the taste of honey. However, Mrs Crawford was looking at me expectantly, so I felt obliged to have a sip. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it tasted much better than I expected.
"There," she said with a satisfied smile. "It's not so bad, is it? Now you sip the rest of it slowly and I'll go back to making you a nice chicken broth for later."
At the mention of the broth I realised how hungry I was, and my stomach rumbled. As she turned to leave, I had a thought.
"How's Tom?" I asked. Well, that was what I intended to ask, but it came out as a combination gargle and croak.
"What was that, pet? You really shouldn't be trying to talk, you know."
As there was nothing to write with in easy reach, I felt very frustrated at my inability to communicate. Then I had an idea. If my voice was the problem then maybe I could bypass it by whispering.
"How's Tom?" I repeated in a whisper. My idea worked, and my feeling of triumph was disproportionately huge for such a minor victory.
"Oh, our Tom's in bed as well, with one of his migraines. He had a really bad nightmare last night and woke us all up with his shouting." She paused and frowned thoughtfully before she spoke again in a more concerned tone. "Over the last couple of years he was having them less and less, and I really thought he was growing out of it, so I hope they don't come back like they used to."
She sighed then continued a little more cheerfully, "Still, at least he'll just have a migraine for a few hours, but he'll be right as rain by tea time. Now, you remember to sip that slowly, and I'll expect to see it all finished by the time I fetch your broth."
When she left I did indeed sip all of the lemon drink, not only because Mrs Crawford's commands were not to be ignored lightly, but also because it really did seem to be soothing my throat. Furthermore, my mind was distracted from the drink by thoughts about Tom's nightmare. Yet again we'd both had nightmares on the same night, and it was difficult to convince myself that it really was mere coincidence. Because he'd had them long before I arrived at Prospect House, the idea occurred to me that maybe something about the house itself, rather than something about me, was a common causal link.
Just after lunch, while I was catching up on some sleep, Dad phoned Mrs Crawford, and although she reported to him that I was improving, he still decided to come home early that evening. By the time he came home I was feeling much better, though my throat was still sore and my speech was still confined to whispers. After asking how I was and taking my temperature, Dad concluded that I probably just had laryngitis. He also decided that as I was apparently recovering there was no need to see a doctor, especially as the nearest doctor was at least fifteen minutes drive away. Though he didn't say so, I think that his decision was also influenced by the fact that the following day was a Saturday, so in any case I wouldn't be going to school.
While our evening meal was heating up, the house phone rang and Dad answered.
"Oh, hello, Tony," he said. "Yes, but he's getting better. Just a second."
"It's Tony," he said, turning to speak to me. "Think you can talk to him?"
I nodded, stood up and went over to take the phone from Dad.
"Hi, Tony," I croaked, my voice breaking.
"Hi yourself," he replied. "You sound terrible."
"How's this then?" I whispered.
"Well, it sounds better, but I can only just hear you. Anyway, don't bother trying to talk. I heard you were ill, and I'm just phoning to make sure you're okay."
"Yes. I just got an email from Brian. Anyways, now I know you're not at death's door, I won't keep you talking. Just email me later, okay?"
I whispered my agreement then we said our goodbyes and hung up.
For our dinner, Mrs Crawford had prepared a shepherds pie in which, she assured me, there was nothing lumpy or hard enough to hurt my throat. She proved to be correct, and although there was some pain when I swallowed, it was not sufficient to counteract the effects of my hunger, so I managed to eat a generous portion.
While we were still clearing up the dishes after dinner, the doorbell rang, and Dad went upstairs to answer it. A couple of minutes later, he returned, accompanied by Brian.
"My, you are popular tonight," Dad commented cheerfully. "Here's someone to see you. Why don't you be a good host and offer him something to eat and drink while I go and catch up on some work."
Dad went back upstairs, and Brian grinned and spoke before I had the opportunity to say anything. "No need to do your host thing. We just finished eating, and I'm not thirsty. Anyway, Mum told me you can't talk much, but I just wanted to come and see how you are."
"Just a sore throat," I whispered.
"Well, I hope you're better by Monday," he said, "cos I was stuck waiting for the bus this morning with just Chris to talk to."
"You talked to him?" I croaked, my surprise making me forget to whisper.
"Well, we said hello," he replied sheepishly. "And when he asked where you and Tom where, I told him. That's about it, really."
I didn't say so aloud, but it occurred to me that their conversation, though short, was a lot more substantial than the brief greeting they usually exchanged even when Brian acknowledged Chris's existence at all. When I asked how Tom was, Brian informed me that his brother had almost completely recovered. For a few minutes he chatted about various topics, and I made occasional whispered comments. Then he told me he had to go and get ready for a night out with the twins and a couple of other friends.
When he left, I wondered if Tony had asked him to come and see me and if Brian would later be sending an emailed report of his visit. On reflection, I found that the possibility of their collusion didn't irritate me as it might have done in the past. Instead, I felt a warm glow that Tony, and maybe even Brian, would care enough to bother colluding.
The following day, Saturday, the weather was cold and grey, with a light but drenching drizzle precipitating from the low clouds. I looked out of the kitchen windows while sipping my breakfast tea, but the wooded hillside was invisible in the mist, and I couldn't even make out the far edge of the rear lawn. However, despite the gloominess of the day, I was in very good spirits. My throat was much better, with only a slight tenderness when I swallowed, my voice was almost back to normal, and I felt cosy and safe inside the house.
Around mid morning I was on my bed, reading a sci-fi novel with my head and shoulders propped up on pillows, when the doorbell rang. Knowing that Dad was working in the old library, I didn't bother to go down to open the door, though I did stop reading and listened to what was going on downstairs. Although I could hear Dad speaking to someone who had the voice of a younger male, I couldn't make out the words. The conversation was brief, and when I heard someone approaching my room a few seconds later, I deduced that it was either Dad coming to report or a visitor coming to see me.
Sitting more upright, I looked expectantly at the open doorway, but the footsteps in the hall hesitated then stopped. It occurred to me that the visitor was either nervous or was unsure which room to go to, so that ruled out my dad. As Brian wasn't the nervous type, and both he and Tom knew where my room was, I was intrigued. I was just about to get up and investigate when the footsteps resumed. Then Chris appeared in my doorway. As he'd never been to the house, at least not since I'd moved in, and as he wasn't exactly a close friend, I was somewhat surprised to see him.
"H-hi," he said hesitantly. He seemed to be embarrassed, and just stood there, smiling sheepishly.
"Hi," I replied. Feeling a little vulnerable in my recumbent position, I swung my legs off the bed and sat perched on the edge.
"Your dad said it was okay to come up?" Although worded as a statement, it sounded more like a question. He made no move to cross the threshold into my room, so I assumed that he was waiting for my permission to enter.
"Come on in, then, and take a pew," I said, gesturing vaguely toward the nearest chair.
I tried to sound reassuring, but I, too, was a little nervous and not completely comfortable with this surprise visit. He came a couple of feet into the room, but then stopped and made no further move toward the chair.
"It's just that, erm, Tom, erm, said I should come to see how you are."
"Tom told you to come?" I said, feeling a little confused.
"Yes. Well, I mean I wanted to come when I heard you were ill. But, erm, I didn't know if it would be okay. But Tom said you wouldn't mind."
His words came out in bursts separated by hesitant pauses, and at the end his voice trailed off and he looked down at the floor. The fact that he was so nervous made me feel a little embarrassed. After all, it's not as if I was some ogre. Still, I thought to myself, he had taken the trouble to visit, and my duty as host was to try to put him at ease, even if I, too, felt uncomfortable.
"Of course it's okay," I said reassuringly. "It's good of you to come, though I'm really feeling much better now."
"That's good," he said, looking a little happier and more at ease.
"Oh, he's fine now. I just went to see him, but he was getting ready to go into Newcastle with his mum. He suggested I come and see how you are and said he'll probably see you tomorrow, if that's okay."
I assured him that Tom's visit would be welcome and again invited him to sit down. He accepted the invitation but politely declined my offer of something to eat or drink. At first the conversation was a little strained, but when we discovered that our tastes in sci-fi and fantasy were similar we both grew more at ease, and for the next half hour or so we chatted amiably. After we'd been talking for a while he appeared to become a little distracted, and I thought that he was about to make an excuse to leave, but then I realised that he was just working up the courage to broach a particular subject.
"Erm, another reason I came here," he said, blushing slightly, "is that I wanted to say thanks again. Ya know, for helping me out with Nick and for not telling anyone."
"That's okay," I replied, feeling a little embarrassed. "I guess you've recovered now?"
When I asked the question I was referring to the whole unpleasant experience, but his deepening blush and averted gaze suddenly made me think that maybe he thought I was talking about the 'sore bum' Tom had mentioned.
"Yeah, everything's fine now, thanks," he mumbled.
There were other things I would have liked to have asked him about, for example how Nick had been blackmailing him, but I could tell that it would probably be a long time, if ever, before we could discuss such intimate topics. Instead, I diverted the conversation by asking what he knew about Tom's nightmares. However, if he knew anything more than I'd already discovered from Brian and Mrs Crawford, he kept it to himself. Then he announced he had to go home for lunch, so I escorted him to the door.
The next day I had a nice long lie-in and awoke feeling refreshed and with my throat completely recovered. I was in the kitchen having a late breakfast and looking out at another grey, dank and misty day when the doorbell rang. Dad was, for a change, relaxing and watching TV in the living room, so I stayed where I was and let him answer. In view of what Chris had told me, I was not at all surprised when I saw Tom coming down the stairs.
"Hi, Mark," he said as soon as he saw me. "How're ya doing? Brian said you could hardly talk on Friday."
"I'm fine, thanks," I responded cheerfully. "Back to my usual self."
He walked across the room toward me, his beaming smile showing that he was happy with my news, and I must admit that just seeing him had brightened up my day. Not for the first time, I was captivated by his beautiful eyes. When he sat down at the breakfast bar he gave me a strange look, and I realised that I'd been staring at him with a stupid grin on my face.
"I'm just finishing breakfast," I said, pulling myself together. "Can I get you anything?"
"I had breakfast ages ago!" he laughed. "And it'll be lunch time soon. But I'll have a coke if you've got one."
"Help yourself," I said, waving at the refrigerator.
While he got himself a drink, I finished my last piece of croissant and washed it down with some tea. He returned to his seat and took a drink from the can.
"I thought I'd go for a walk in the woods later," he said. "Pity the weather's not so good."
"Your mum tells me you don't let bad weather stop you going out, so I'm surprised you let it put you off today."
"Oh, it won't put me off at all," he said with a grin. "In fact, I think the mist makes the woods, well, ya know..."
He seemed at a loss for words, so I tried to help him out.
"Atmospheric?" I suggested. "Romantic?"
The second of my suggested descriptions seemed to cause him a little embarrassment, and when I thought about it for a second the word also made me a bit uncomfortable.
"Anyway," I said hurriedly, "if the weather doesn't bother you, why did you say it's a pity?"
"Ah," he replied. He hesitated before continuing, "If it was nicer I thought it might be, erm, nice if you came along, That is, if you wanted..."
This took me by surprise, because his mum and Brian had both told me that Tom always insisted on being alone when he 'went wandering the countryside'. As his voice trailed off, it seemed he was deliberately trying to keep a neutral expression on his face. I looked out of the window, assessing the situation.
I was touched by his offer of sharing with me something that was obviously so private, especially after he'd already confided in me that he was gay. Also, I slightly surprised myself when I realised just how eager I was to spend more time with him. After all, up until then, Tony had been the only person of my own age whose company I really enjoyed.
"Maybe the weather's not too bad," I said. "And it might improve by this afternoon."
Although I'd said it indirectly, the return of his smile showed that he'd understood that I did indeed want to go walking with him.
"Nah," he said thoughtfully, his smile fading a little, "it will probably rain later, and even if it doesn't the trees are still dripping and wet from yesterday. And with you just being ill, you don't want to take risks. How about next weekend?"
"Yeah, that'll be great," I agreed happily.
We chatted generally for a while about school, family and similar topics, and as it became clear that we were feeling very much at ease with each other, I gradually worked up the courage to ask a question that had been on my mind for some time. Eventually, I found the opportunity to raise the matter, though I was prepared to divert rapidly from the subject if he reacted negatively.
"I, erm, I was wondering about these nightmares you have," I said tentatively. "Ya know, like the one your mum said you had on Thursday night."
The atmosphere between us became suddenly a little less relaxed, but it became more alert rather than tense.
"Yes," he said cautiously. "What about them?"
"Well, your mum said you've been having them since you were little," I said even more tentatively. "And I was wondering, if you don't mind talking about them, what they were about. Are they usually the same?"
Instead of answering immediately, he just looked at me thoughtfully, but I was greatly relieved that he didn't appear to be annoyed or even irritated. Eventually, he seemed to reach a decision.
"They started when I was eleven," he said, "and they come in two varieties, bad and very bad."
He paused, studying my expression as if to make sure I was really interested in hearing more. Although I was losing myself in his eyes, I managed to give him a small nod of encouragement.
"In the bad ones I'm in some sort of hole in the ground, and it's totally dark, but I know there are other people near me even though I can't see them. At first it's not too bad, but then I start to feel really sad, as if I've lost something, or someone, that's really important to me. Then I wake up crying."
When he mentioned the feelings of sadness and loss, I noted the similarity with my own nightmares, and a shiver went up my spine.
"That sounds pretty bad," I said, trying to hide my emotions. "And you said some are even worse?"
"Yeah," he replied and laughed without humour. "The really bad ones wake me up screaming, and the next day I always have a migraine, and I can't stand any sound or light."
He paused, and I wasn't sure if he was going to continue. Although I didn't want to push him, I tilted my head and raised an eyebrow to indicate that I'd be interested in more details.
"They start off like the not-so-bad nightmares," he said eventually, "but just as the sadness starts there's the sound of thunder, and I feel really scared. The thunder gets nearer and nearer, and I'm so frightened that I want to run away, but I can't. Then there's a very bright flash of light, a huge bang, then total blackness. I can't breath and I struggle and fight for air, but I can't move. That's when I wake up screaming."
As he recounted those details his face became paler and he seemed to be panting for breath. I felt guilty that my curiosity had caused him distress.
"I'm sorry," I said. He looked at me questioningly, prompting me to add, "I'm sorry you have such terrible nightmares. And I'm sorry for asking about them."
"That's okay," he reassured me, the colour returning to his face. "I'm almost used to them by now, and when I'm outside in the fresh air it washes away the bad dreams."
His smile returned, and he appeared to have recovered his good sprits. Not wishing to cause any further distress, I decided not to ask him if there was anything that triggered his nightmares.
"Anyway," he continued, "after I became friends with Miss Victoria, I didn't get the nightmares so often."
This, of course, raised even more questions in my mind, but again I decided that it was best to suppress them for the time being. Tom's piercing eyes sparkled, and when he spoke again I had the eerie feeling that he'd read my thoughts.
"If you like," he said, "we can talk about it more when we go for our walk. I'd feel better talking about it when we're outside. Anyway, it's time I went home for lunch."
That ended our conversation, and he departed, leaving me with a lot to think about.
After Dad and I moved to Prospect House, our relationship had started to improve. Although we still weren't as close as we'd been in the couple of years after Mum died, we were definitely getting along better than we had for a long time. However, because Dad was often busy working and settling into his new job, we still didn't spend a lot of 'quality' time together. For that reason, we both looked forward to our evening meal as a chance to catch up.
That night, however, dinner was very quiet, mainly because my mind was preoccupied with the possible connection between Tom's nightmares and my own. If Dad noticed my distraction he didn't show it. In fact, he seemed to be more interested in the number of people who'd been to see me that weekend. When we were finishing dessert, he brought up the subject again.
"I'm glad you're making new friends up here and that you seem a bit more sociable now," he said. "Before we moved, the only person you ever had round to visit was Tony."
Perhaps I was being a little too sensitive, but from his paternal tone I also had the impression that there was an unspoken message, that he'd been right to insist on moving and I'd been wrong to oppose him. Of course, if he'd actually said that, then I would have disagreed with him as a matter of principle. However, I didn't respond to his more subtle approach. Instead, I put the final spoonful of chocolate tart into my mouth.
"Anyway," he continued, "it's getting to the time of year we need to start making arrangements for Christmas."
I groaned through my food, rolled my eyes, and swallowed. Dad knew I hated Christmas, but every year he, Gran and Auntie Kath would insist on trying to get me to 'join in the spirit of things'. If things progressed as usual, this would be just the opening salvo of the battle, the big guns being wielded later by Gran and Auntie Kath.
"You mean arrange to see Gran?" I said. "I think it's best if she visits us this year. We've got much more space, and it'll be more comfortable than staying at her place."
I didn't add that it was easier for me to retreat from the 'festivities' if I was in my own home. However, I'm sure Dad had a pretty good idea what I was thinking.
"Yes, your gran and I already agreed on that. But there was something else I wanted to talk to you about."
"Oh?" I said, my multifunctional word this time expressing my deep suspicion.
"As you appear to enjoy socialising more now, and as this house would be ideal for it, I thought we'd throw a big Christmas party."
I dropped my spoon onto my plate and opened my mouth to voice my protest. However he must have guessed how I would react, and he rushed on with his obviously prepared speech before I could marshal my thoughts and put them into words.
"You can invite anyone you want. Tony can come up for a few days, and it will be a great chance for me to meet your new friends."
"But you already know them," I protested. "There's only Brian and Tom."
After I said that I wondered if I should have included Chris, but although I knew him better than anyone else apart from Tony, Tom and Brian, I'm not sure that I could honestly count Chris as a friend.
"Well, you can get to meet my friends and colleagues from work," Dad said. "I'm sure they'd like to meet you."
"I'm sure they wouldn't," I mumbled to myself.
Although he probably heard me, he chose to ignore it, continuing with what I began to suspect was a well-planned argument.
"Look, Mark," he said in his most persuasively reasonable tone, "in my new job it's important that I make connections, 'network' as they say, socially as well as at work. Having a party here would be a great way to do that. And I really would like to show off the house. And if you don't like calling it a Christmas party then why don't we call it a house-warming party?"
"Call it whatever you like," I said sulkily and stood up. "It's your house. Just let me know when you're having the party and I'll stay out of the way."
"It's your house too," Dad said pensively and a little sadly as I walked to the doorway.
Climbing the stairs, I wondered a little at my strong reaction to what Dad must see as a very reasonable suggestion. By the time I got to my room I was already beginning to feel guilty for my childish behaviour. Without bothering to close the door or switch on the light, I lay on my bed and stared up into the darkness, trying to work out why I'd reacted so badly.
Eventually, I concluded that it wasn't just my usual aversion to Christmas but also the fact that I now considered Prospect House to be my home. I felt I belonged here, and despite the nightmares and weird experiences, I felt safe here. The idea of filling the house with strangers seemed like an invasion of my privacy. Even so, I realised that my reaction had been stronger and more emotional than I would have expected of myself.
After reaching that conclusion, my eyes closed and I began drifting into a half sleep. As I did so, I had the eerie impression that someone strongly approved of my resistance to the proposed invasion. I must have dozed off for a couple of minutes, and when I awoke there was a feeling that someone was patting my head and stroking my hair. It felt almost as if I were a pet being shown approval by my owner. At first I wondered if my dad had come into my room, but then I thought it must have been a dream, because when I opened my eyes and looked around there was no one to be seen.
Afterwards, I found the memory of my hair being stroked by an invisible hand was very disturbing, and for a long time just the thought of it was enough to send a shiver down my spine. However, at the time it happened, my whole body was suffused by a warm glow and my mind seemed to be incapable of any independent thought. Had I been a cat, maybe I would have purred, but as it was I just felt extremely drowsy.
Again I dozed for a few minutes, and this time woke up with the feeling that I was being watched. Looking around, I saw my dad silhouetted in the open doorway, leaning with his arm against the jamb. With the hallway light behind him, I couldn't see his facial features, but I got the strong impression that he was feeling weary. Seeing him like that, and remembering my earlier behaviour in the kitchen, I was pricked with a feeling of guilt.
"Hi," I said, propping myself up on one elbow.
"Hi to you, too," he replied, taking his arm from the doorjamb and standing up straight.
"Look," I said, "I'm sorry I made such a fuss. You know I don't like Christmas and parties and stuff like that, but it's not fair for me to try and stop you enjoying yourself."
"Mark, let's forget about the party for a moment. Let's talk about why you have this phobia about Christmas."
I groaned inwardly and leaned back against the headboard.
"We talk about this every year," I said wearily. "And it's not a phobia. I just don't like Christmas."
He crossed from the doorway and stood just a couple of feet from my bed, looking down at me. Now that he didn't have the light directly behind him, I could see an expression of genuine concern on his face.
"What you mean is that every year I try to talk about it, and every year you either make up excuses or completely refuse to discuss it. In the past I've let it slide, hoping you'd eventually feel like opening up, but you're sixteen now, almost an adult. Some people may dislike Christmas and avoid it, but you seem to hate it so much that it makes you miserable."
This was a conversation I really wanted to avoid, but I couldn't see a way out of it. Memories of the last time I saw my mum rose up in my mind, and I tried to suppress the emotions they brought with them. I was angry with my dad for bringing these emotions to the surface and almost breaking the control I'd so carefully cultivated after Mum died.
"I've told you before," I said, trying to sound calm, "I don't like all the commercialism, false niceness, religion. The whole thing."
"And are you trying to tell me that it's nothing to do with your mum and little sister dying just before Christmas?" he asked gently.
"Well. Maybe. A bit," I admitted, squirming inside.
"Don't you think I feel the same?" he asked. "Don't you think I miss them all the time? Don't you think they're in my thoughts even more at Christmas? But life goes on."
My emotions were churning so much that I doubt that I could have spoken, even if I could have thought of an appropriate response. Instead, I looked away from him and stared blankly upward, toward the darkened ceiling.
"Before the accident you used to love Christmas," he continued, "and I know that your mum would want you to keep on enjoying it, even when she's not here with us."
Again, I was so busy dealing with my emotions that I couldn't respond, and in the lengthening silence I felt he was trying to read my thoughts. Eventually, he spoke again.
"Mark, it just happened to be close to Christmas when your mum died. You just associate the two in your mind, but there's nothing wrong with Christmas."
"Yes there is!" I protested vehemently, at last finding my voice. "Would she have gone out in the snow that day if she hadn't been Christmas shopping? People want things at Christmas. They expect things like presents, special food, and all that stuff."
I paused, overwhelmed by an anger which had no specific target but was directed at the world in general, including myself, Dad, Mum, and the whole concept of Christmas. At that stage I was as close to crying as I'd been in a long time, but as the tears began to rise, a lid seemed to slam down and shut them off. I didn't really want to talk about this, but I wanted Dad to understand why I hated Christmas so he wouldn't keep going on about it every year. After taking a deep breath, I continued somewhat less heatedly.
"That day, before she went out, I sneaked a look at her shopping list," I said, choking out the words through a tightening throat. "It was all Christmas stuff, including the Gameboy I'd asked for. She went out to get something for me, and she never came back."
I turned my back on him, lying down to face the wall. 'There,' I thought to myself, 'now he knows'. Because I'd half expected him to just go and leave me alone, I was startled when I felt the movement of him sitting on the edge of the bed, and my whole body tensed up when his hand squeezed my shoulder.
"It's not your fault," he said, so quietly that I could barely hear him. "It's not my fault. It's nobody's fault. Sometimes bad things just happen, even at Christmas."
There was a long silence, during which I felt closer to my dad than I had in a long time, but despite that closeness, I couldn't bring myself to turn and face him again. If I had done so I might have given in to the urge to throw my arms around him, just like I used to do when I was a little kid, especially immediately after Mum died. However, I was no longer a little kid and I couldn't allow myself to lower my defences. After several minutes like that, Dad sighed, gave my shoulder a final squeeze, then stood up and left the room.
The following Saturday morning was sunny but cold, and through the kitchen window I had a clear view of the wooded hillside across the crisply frosted lawn. On the previous evening, Tom and I had agreed that provided the weather was fine we'd go for our walk together after breakfast. Waiting for him to come and collect me, I was excited, but also a little nervous. Because of that, even though I was expecting him, the ringing of the doorbell made me jump as if I'd been given a mild electric shock.
Although I was well wrapped up in a thick dark grey coat and black woollen scarf, as soon as I left the house I began to feel the cold, and so, hunching my shoulders, I pushed my hands deep into my pockets. Tom, however, didn't seem to notice the freezing temperature, and his blue quilted jacket was zipped up only half way. We didn't say much until we crossed over the stream, by which time I could no longer contain my curiosity.
"I've been thinking about your nightmares," I said tentatively.
Tom slowed his walking pace and looked at me with a small, knowing smile, making me think that he'd been expecting me to raise the subject.
"What about them?"
"Do you know what causes them? What triggers them?"
"I don't know if anything triggers them," he replied, shrugging his shoulders just a little. "Mostly they just sort of happen, but sometimes I think they may be more likely to happen when I'm ill or very tired."
He came to a complete halt and gave me such a searching look that I got the somewhat paranoid impression that he was judging me to determine if I was worthy to receive more information. Then he gave a little laugh as if he'd had an amusing thought.
"As for what causes them," he continued, "it depends if you believe Miss Victoria's theory."
"What's that?" I asked, intrigued.
"Well, she knew Tommy, the relative I'm named after, and she said that I look and even sound exactly like him."
He paused and appeared to be a little embarrassed, and I wondered if he was having second thoughts about telling me any more. I was beginning to guess what Miss Victoria's theory had been, but I wanted him to confirm my suspicions.
"So," I said to encourage him, "what was her theory?"
"Miss Victoria thought that Tommy had been reincarnated in me," he said. Then before I could comment, he immediately continued, "She believed in spiritualism, you see. It was very popular in Victorian times. According to her, my nightmares were some of Tommy's memories of the war."
He looked away, as if he were worried about what my reaction might be and was afraid to see it. Actually, my feelings were so mixed that I'm not sure what he would have seen on my face. My initial reaction was to dismiss the reincarnation idea out of hand. I'd never believed in ghosts, and I even had doubts about the existence of souls. However, my recent strange experiences made me less certain about those opinions.
"Do you, erm, believe that you're Tommy?" I asked after a few seconds thought.
"No! Of course not!" he replied heatedly, frowning at me.
I was startled by the vehemence of his response, and when he saw the expression of shock on my face he calmed down and became almost apologetic.
"No, I don't believe in reincarnation," he continued quietly but firmly. "I'm me, Tom Crawford. I'm not Tommy, or anyone else but myself."
Suddenly, it occurred to me why Tom got upset when people called him Tommy.
"So if you don't believe Miss Victoria's theory," I asked, "do you have any idea why you keep getting the same nightmares?"
"Hmm, maybe. But you probably think it's daft."
"But maybe I won't, so tell me anyway. Please?" I pleaded.
"Well, it's obvious that genetically I've got a lot in common with Tommy, so I wondered if we were so similar that I could sort of pick up some sort of signal that he sent out when things really affected him. Ya know, like a radio that picks up the station it's tuned to."
"Signals sent out nearly a hundred years ago?" I said doubtfully.
"See," he said, sounding a little hurt. "I told you that you'd think it was a stupid idea."
I didn't respond immediately because I was mulling over his 'radio signal' theory, and though there didn't seem to be any logical connection, I wondered if a similar theory might explain my mini-visions. However, I quickly set aside that thought. After all, his nightmares were much more extreme than my little waking dreams, and there was at least some tenuous reason why Tom might be able to 'pick up' Tommy's most extreme experiences.
"Anyway," Tom said, breaking my train of thought, "why are you so interested in my nightmares?'
Because I'd always been accustomed to revealing as little as possible about myself, my first reaction was to answer his question with some vague generality about just being curious. However, he'd been very open and trusting with me, so my second thought was that he deserved an honest answer.
"Well," I said, "as it happens, since I moved into Prospect House I've been having nightmares that start off a bit like your not-so-bad nightmares, with the feelings of sadness, but then they get much worse than just being sad."
"How do they get worse?" he asked. "How often do you have them?"
I went on to answer his questions and describe my nightmares in more detail, but I didn't mention the tapping or the associated erotic feelings. When I told him about choking and being unable to breath, he looked startled but didn't say anything.
"So you think your last nightmare caused your sore throat?" he asked when I'd finished talking.
"Yes, I'm pretty sure it did."
"Mm. And it's odd that I had a bad nightmare that same night," he said pensively,
"What's even odder," I said, trying to lighten the mood a little by deliberately mangling the English language, "is that from what I was able to gather from your mum, you seem to have had a bad nightmare every night that I did."
"So you think they may be linked?" he asked in a tone that indicated he was reluctant to believe that hypothesis.
"Possibly. Maybe it's something to do with the house."
He frowned, and was clearly giving the matter some thought, then he appeared to reach some decision or conclusion.
"Okay," he said. "When we finish our walk we can go to my house. There's something I want to show you."
"Why not go to your house now?" I asked impatiently.
"Because I wanted you to come to the woods to see a couple of my favourite places."
Before I could respond to that, he started walking at such a brisk pace that I had to hurry to catch up with him.
I soon realised that Tom was heading straight for the hidden clearing that I'd discovered the first time I'd been exploring these woods with Tony. My curiosity was further aroused when I recalled how Tom had reacted later that day when he heard about me finding it. Although there were now very few leaves on the trees, the clearing could still not be seen from the path.
When I followed him through the gap between the trees and into the clearing, I lost my balance. This was caused partly because my foot slipped on a tree root, but mainly because I was overcome by a feeling of dislocation, instantly followed by a wave of dizziness. As I pitched forward I put out my hand to cushion my fall, and I must have also cried out because Tom turned and tried to arrest my fall by grabbing my hand in his.
As soon as our hands touched I felt a shock, like a massive discharge of static electricity, and for the next few seconds my sense of reality became blurred. On my knees, I looked up to see Tom holding my hand, but this Tom had a different hairstyle and different clothes. Furthermore, the air was warm and there were summer leaves on the trees. Although I was confused and a little disturbed by these differences, I also felt comforted by a feeling I can describe only as a sense of 'rightness'. Then I fell into blackness.
"Mark! Mark! Are you okay?"
Tom's worried voice brought me back to reality, and I looked up to see his concerned face with its usual hairstyle framed by the cold blue of the winter sky. Further inspection revealed that he was wearing his blue quilted jacket and that the surrounding trees were bare.
"Yes, I'm fine," I said, sitting up.
In truth, I felt more than fine. I felt wonderful, joyful, and as relaxed as if I'd just had the most restful sleep of my life. When I realised he was still holding my hand, I felt even happier, even though his grip was a bit too tight to be totally comfortable.
"It's a good job I managed to break your fall," he said, sounding relieved. "The ground here is frozen pretty solid."
I was tempted to ask the cliché question 'how long have I been out', but as he didn't mention any lack of consciousness on my part, I assumed the time involved had been too short for him to notice. When I started to stand up, his grip on my hand tightened, and with surprising ease he lifted me to my feet.
"Thanks," I said, looking straight into his fascinating eyes.
Though I was now standing unaided, I was reluctant to release his hand, and it seemed that he shared that reluctance, because for several long seconds we stood there face-to-face and hand-in-hand. Then, almost simultaneously, we both averted our gaze and let the other's hand drop. From the blush rising in his cheeks I suspect that he felt as embarrassed as I did.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked.
"Yes," I reassured him and laughed briefly. "Never felt better!"
He looked at me for a couple of seconds with an odd expression on his face. I couldn't tell if he disbelieved my reassurance or if he thought it wasn't really a laughing matter.
"Good," he said eventually. "I thought you'd been zapped by the static!"
"You felt it too?" I asked.
"Of course! It nearly knocked me over," he replied. "I've never felt static like that before. It must be because of the cold, dry air."
I wanted to ask him if he'd experienced anything else as well as the electric shock, but I didn't want him to think I was crazy. Instead I settled for asking a question to which I already knew the answer.
"So," I said, "is this one of your special places?"
"Yes," he replied, then with a little smile he added, "but I think you may have been here before."
I blushed and nodded my agreement, but couldn't think of anything to say.
"I'm sorry I made such a fuss when Tony mentioned it," he continued, "but I didn't know you then, and this has always been a sort of, well, very private place, even before Miss Victoria told me about Edward and Tommy."
"What about them?" I blurted out.
"I'll tell you later," he said, teasing me, "but I brought you here to share it with you and to make up for how I reacted when I guessed you'd discovered it. Oh, and I do realise it's your dad's land now, but it's still important to me, so I really appreciated it when you told my mum I could still go wherever I liked."
Making that little speech clearly embarrassed him, and I couldn't think of an appropriate response. Although I'd always tried to avoid physical contact with people, I had an urge to give him a big hug. However, I suppressed that urge, and instead returned my attention to my curiosity.
"When are you going to tell me about Edward and Tommy?"
"When we finish our walk," he said, clearly amused that he'd got me so intrigued.
We left the clearing and made our way back to the stream, where Tom again took the lead, walking at a brisk pace. After going upstream along the narrow path, he turned left and went uphill, following a small tributary. Immediately I suspected where he was heading, and a few minutes later my suspicions were confirmed.
"Here we are," he announced, stepping aside to allow me to pass him.
It was the little glade with the spring flowing from the brown rocks, the place where I'd seen Tom basking and naked.
"I really love this place," Tom said in a hushed, almost reverential tone. "It's magic."
From the way he said it, he clearly used the word metaphorically rather than literally, but it occurred to me as I looked around that it would not be too hard to believe that this place was truly magical. This winter scene, with the gauntly bare trees and the ice-frosted ground, was very different from how it had been when I saw it in summer. Even the sound of the water splashing into the pool was different, being harder and more crystalline, but despite all that, the same magical aura filled the space.
"It doesn't matter how often I come here or what time of year it is, this is always my favourite place in the whole world." Tom's words startled me, not only because they broke into my reverie but also because they uncannily reflected my own thoughts. It was almost as if he'd read my mind.
"You prefer this to your other special place?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Definitely. That little clearing is special mainly because of Edward and Tommy, but this place is mine. It's special just for me. Whenever I come here it's like..."
He paused and his brow furrowed as he searched for the right words.
"It's like the opposite of my nightmares," he continued. "The nightmares seem to drain all my energy, but spending time here is like charging up my batteries."
His voice was filled with a quiet passion, and his eyes seemed to glow with an inner fire that held my attention so strongly that I couldn't speak. Apparently misinterpreting my lack of response, the enthusiasm faded from his face to be replaced by a mixture of embarrassment and mild defiance. He sighed softly.
"I don't suppose you understand what I mean," he said, unable to hide his disappointment.
"Actually, I do understand," I said earnestly. "I felt exactly the same when I came here in August..."
My speech ground to a halt as I realised that in my haste to reassure him, I'd given away the fact that I'd been there before and that it wasn't the secret that Tom thought it was.
"You've been here before?" Tom asked, surprised and almost shocked.
"Just the once," I admitted quietly.
"Did, did you see anything?" he asked nervously.
"Just the beauty of the place."
This wasn't actually a lie, I told myself, but I hoped he wouldn't press me for something closer to the truth. Obviously I didn't want to admit that I'd seen him here, lying beautiful and naked on the rock. Fortunately, he seemed content to let the matter drop, but I could tell that he was disappointed that this wasn't my first time there. I reached out my hand and gently squeezed his arm.
"Thanks for bringing me here," I said sincerely. "It may be my second visit but it's my first visit in winter. And you're right, it is just as magic now as it was in summer. And, well, I really appreciate the fact that you shared your favourite place with me."
This little speech had already become more emotional than I was comfortable with. So I didn't go on to say what I also felt, that this special place was made even more special and magical because he was here with me.
"We should be going now," he said after a short silence. "There's something else I want to show you before lunch."
His voice was gruff with emotion, but I couldn't tell which particular emotion or emotions. He had a last glance around the glade then turned and left, with me following close behind.
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