One day when I was five, I thought the sky was falling.
It was late autumn, and Miles and I were walking home from school. The frosty Melbournian air carried with it the chill of the coming winter, fogging our breath and turning our bare fingers numb and pale. I looked up at the steel-grey sky and swallowed nervously, wondering if we would make it home before the heavens split wide open.
My brother didn’t seem to share my worry. He strolled along the cracked footpath beside me, a skip in his stride as he told me about his day. But I couldn’t focus on his stories, so great was my fear of the oncoming storm. I might have jumped out of my own skin if it wasn’t for Miles’ hand on mine.
We were a block from the safety of our house when thunder rolled overhead. The swollen clouds released their burden with a near-audible groan, and suddenly I was struck by a thousand pinpricks of shocking, biting cold.
I screamed and tore my hand from my brother’s, sprinting away on my skinny little legs as if I could outrun the assault from above.
“Carter!” Miles yelled. “Carter, come back here!”
But I was too petrified to stop, let alone turn around. There was only one explanation for what was happening: the sky was falling. The sky was falling and I had to get to the house before I was crushed beneath its almighty weight.
Miles barked a word that would’ve earned him an earful from Mum before he took off after me. Being five years older and considerably taller, he caught up before I got too far. He grabbed my shoulders, jerking me to a halt in the middle of the now-slick path. “What the hell, little bro?” he demanded. “Why did you run like that?”
“We have to get home, Miles. The sky is falling!” Struggling in his grasp, I tried to shield myself from the celestial shards that stung my skin like needles, but it was useless. I was trapped.
“The sky…?” Miles glanced up, frowning, but after a moment the confusion cleared from his face. “The sky isn’t falling,” he said. “It’s just hailing.”
My bottom lip was quivering, so I bit it. I tasted blood. “H-hailing?”
“Yeah.” Miles cupped his hands together and leaned down to show me what gathered in his palms. “See? It’s just ice. It’s so cold today that the rain has frozen solid into hail.”
Sure enough, all he held were a few tiny spheres of hard white ice. Not pieces of broken sky.
“Oh,” I mumbled. My cheeks grew warm.
“Besides,” my brother added, “even if the sky was falling you wouldn’t need to be scared. You have me, little bro, and I’ll protect you.” He squeezed my shoulders and smiled, and everything was right with the world once more.
We ran the rest of the way home hand-in-hand.
Miles teased me about that day for years. My embarrassment over the incident faded with time, but I never forgot that feeling of overwhelming panic, the paralysing helplessness I felt when I thought the sky was collapsing.
That was how I felt right now.
I was chatting with Tiffany Johnston about her summer when he sashayed into the classroom. There was no other way to describe his rolling gait as he followed our teacher inside. With a confident flourish, he set a pile of school diaries on the front desk and turned to survey the thirty-odd faces before him.
I stared, the words I’d been about to say caught in the back of my throat.
The boy looked like a punk rocker playing dress-up in school clothes. His hair was a riot of colours so garish it hurt my eyes. It was impossible to determine its natural shade beneath the gelled spikes of lime green, electric blue, hot pink and fluoro yellow, streaked through with black and purple. A number of silver facial piercings, clearly against regulations, glittered with defiance against his pale skin. Even his uniform was a disgrace. It was several sizes too small and hugged his slender frame obscenely.
Anger simmered in my gut, laced with that memorable dread. Who was this guy, to think he could flounce in here like he owned the place and break every dress code the school had? Beneath the table, I clenched my fists until my knuckles ached.
And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to tear my eyes away.
“Morning ladies,” he drawled to the girls in the front row.
They broke down in a fit of giggles.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the heavens weren’t going to implode because some insolent new kid had disrupted the flow of my carefully ordered life.
The boy glanced upwards, and across the room his blue-grey eyes met mine. An icy finger ran down the length of my spine. Why was he singling me out from the crowd? I was hardly the only guy gawking at him, but the boy held my gaze for an eternity. His eyelashes were long and dark in a way that bespoke cosmetic enhancement, and they brushed against the elegant sweep of his cheekbones when he blinked—no, winked. Oh God, why was he winking at me?
I flinched at the loud hiss in my ear and managed to wrench my gaze from the walking disaster at the front of the room to glare at my best friend. “What?”
“That kid,” Jake whispered. “He’s pretty camp. Has to be gay, right?”
“And nothing.” Jake leaned closer. “Kennedy is going to make life hell for him, though. I can tell you that right now.”
I winced. Jonah Kennedy and his gang of equally small-minded thugs were barely tolerated by anyone outside the footy field in winter, but that never discouraged them from harassing their chosen victims. And Jake was right—the new kid may as well have painted a target on the back of his too-snug shirt.
I could already sense the disgusted glower that Kennedy, slouched against the rear wall between a pair of sagging bookcases, was casting in his direction.
But that wasn’t my problem. I might have a reputation for helping out the new kids and standing up for the down-and-outers, but this boy was a train-wreck just waiting to happen. He was full speed ahead towards the edge of a cliff and it was too late to slam on the brakes. Far too late.
He’d be more trouble than he was worth.
“Good morning everyone, and welcome to your first day of year twelve!” The teacher’s chirpy voice cut through my less than gracious thoughts. “I trust you all had a nice summer break and are now ready to buckle down and study.” The statement was met by a chorus of groans. “It’s only one more year, guys,” she laughed. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
Jake scoffed. “Yeah right.”
“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Miss Osbourne,” she continued. “I’m your homeroom teacher, so if you need anything throughout the year, please don’t be afraid to come and see me. Mr Fielding, the head of year twelve, is also available for those who’d prefer to speak to a male member of staff.”
At last, she gestured to the boy. “We have a new student starting with us this year. Obviously, he hasn’t read our dress code yet.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” he said with a shrug. “I wasn’t aware there was one.”
His audacity made the hairs on the back of my neck stand upright.
Miss Osbourne gave him an admonishing look. “You have until Monday to comply with the rules set out in the school diary. That gives you five days to fix your hair.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed.
For a second I thought he was going to protest, but then he pouted. “Fine.”
“Good. Now, why don’t you tell the class a bit about yourself?”
He heaved a put-upon sigh, as if she’d asked him to scrub the floor of the boys’ toilets with a toothbrush. “Well, folks,” he said, “the name’s Remy Montrose. I’m eighteen years old, but don’t ask me to buy you beer because the answer will be no.” His lips curved upwards in a sardonic grin. “I moved here from a sunny little town near Byron Bay with my parents and my sisters. My maman is French and cooks a mean soufflé.”
He placed a hand over his heart, that grin stretching wider. “As for moi, I like long walks on the beach, sipping mojitos while watching the sun set, and sharing romantic candlelit dinners with gorgeous men.”
Jake snorted. He wasn’t the only one.
“Fucking fag,” Kennedy growled.
I tensed, but the boy—Remy—either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore the insult. All he did was slide his eyes across to Miss Osbourne and raise one slender brow. “Too much information?”
“I think that will do, thank you.” The faint flush on her cheeks was the only sign of her displeasure. “I expect everyone to make Remy feel welcome. Do I have a volunteer to show him around and help him settle in?”
A hush fell over the room. The ticking of the ancient clock above the whiteboard resonated like a bassline in the sudden absence of sound. Moments passed, and the silence grew longer, louder. If I hadn’t been watching Remy, I never would have noticed the way his expression went taut.
I was hardly surprised by the reticence of my peers. They may have snickered at his grandiose self-introduction, or admired his blatant flaunting of the rules, but no one wanted to be seen associating with someone that was so obviously…different.
None were prepared to single themselves out from the pack, not for his sake, so they left him to stand there on his own, slowly suffocating in the stillness.
I remembered how that felt. I remembered it all too well.
Remy bit his lip, and something inside my chest gave way.
I raised my hand.
Miss Osbourne blew out a short breath. “Thank you, Carter.”
My heart pounded and my palms were slick with sweat, but no one batted an eye. This was the type of thing I did, after all, and despite my misgivings I couldn’t leave Remy to the tender mercies of Kennedy and his mates. I wasn’t that cruel.
Kennedy’s hateful gaze drilled a hole between my shoulder blades, but I thrust all thoughts of him from my mind. Jake and I shuffled across, making space for Remy on my other side as he sauntered down the aisle towards us.
Remy slid into the empty chair and flashed me a smile so brilliant I was momentarily blinded by it. “Thank you, mon chou.”
“No worries,” I ground out, tamping down irritation that he presumed to give me a pet name. Sure, I’d offered to help him, but we weren’t friends. I didn’t know him, and he certainly didn’t know me.
Miss Osbourne got to work passing around our diaries and class timetables, and chatter soon smothered the lingering echo of silence. Remy propped his chin in one hand and zeroed in on me. “You’re the school captain, right?”
“Um…yeah.” I ducked my head so my hair flopped over my face, concealing my discomfort. I was proud of my new position, especially since I’d been elected to it, but the extra attention would take some getting used to. Forcing a smile, I offered him my hand. “I’m Carter Cantwell.”
Remy’s palm slid into mine, cool against my clammy skin. His fingers were long and nimble, like a guitarist’s, or a painter’s, but his knuckles were rough with callus. Surprised—I’d expected his hands to be as smooth and polished as the rest of him—it took me a moment to notice when the pad of his thumb brushed over my wrist.
I jerked my hand away, the tips of my ears burning.
“That speech you and the girl captain made at the assembly this morning was amazing,” Remy mused. “Seriously entertaining. I almost wet myself when you—”
“It was all right.”
Remy didn’t need to know that all the witty lines, even mine, had been written by my co-captain. Humour wasn’t my thing, and I was just relieved I got through the damn speech without stumbling.
Jake jabbed my shoulder. “Don’t be so modest, mate. You and Katie killed it.” He leaned across me so he, too, could shake Remy’s hand. “I’m Jake Brenner, best friend to the fearless leader of our glorious institution. You’re in good hands with this one.”
“Hmm, I can see that.” Remy chewed on his lip ring and peered at me through his thick lashes. Up close, it was obvious that he was indeed wearing makeup. It was understated, just a dash of colour on his lips and liner around his eyes, but it suited him. Quite well.
I was staring again.
Annoyed, I turned my attention down to the timetable Miss Osbourne had just tossed onto my desk. That was what I needed to be focusing on. School. Classes. Learning things that would get me through the year with flying colours.
Transposing the schedule into my new school diary absorbed me for a time, and then I busied myself writing a list of the tasks I needed to complete over the next few days. I wrinkled my nose at the list—it was already alarmingly long.
When the bell rang for the start of recess, Jake shoved his chair back and raced out the door as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels…leaving me all alone with Remy. Mentally cursing my best friend, who had the patience of a six-year-old on Christmas morning, I rose with a little more decorum and ushered Remy from the room.
“Thanks for offering to show me round,” he said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“No, seriously. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. I could tell.” He sighed, shoulders lifting in a sheepish shrug. “I know I’m a bit much. I just can’t seem to help it. I thought for sure I’d be left to fend for myself—again—but then in you swooped to save the day.”
Heat crept up my neck. “Everyone deserves a chance.”
Remy blinked. “Carter Cantwell, you are my new hero. My undying gratitude is yours.”
Great. His undying gratitude was the last thing I needed. “You’re welcome,” I said. It sounded like I had a rock lodged in my throat.
We entered a dimly-lit breezeway. One wall was crammed full of old lockers, their deep blue paint chipped and peeling, exposing the tired, rust-flecked metal beneath. Remy pressed closer to my side in the confined space and I fought back a shiver. Having him so close was unnerving—I could feel the heat radiating from his body, spreading goose bumps along my arms.
For a moment I couldn’t breathe, but then the corridor ended and we emerged onto one of the school’s two football ovals. My lungs expanded again. I spied my friends in the distance, already sitting in our usual spot beneath the giant gum tree at the edge of the field. The summer hadn’t been kind to the old eucalypt; its bark was sloughing off everywhere and several small branches dangled precariously from its trunk.
I needed to speak to someone about that.
“Oh my god, Jake, you’re so tanned!” Paige exclaimed as Remy and I approached. She grabbed Jake’s forearm and lined it up against hers, gaping at the way his sun-darkened skin contrasted with her porcelain complexion.
“I take it you enjoyed Vanuatu,” said Katie.
“It was hot and wet,” Jake quipped. “I don’t know why my parents had to take us there in the middle of cyclone season. We got put on lockdown in the resort during a storm not once, but twice.”
“Sounds like a real hardship.”
Jake scowled. “Lauren made me sit with her while she had her hair put in those little braid thingies. It took bloody ages. Can you believe I had to hold my fifteen-year-old sister’s hand like a primary schooler?”
“My baby sister is still a primary schooler,” Remy announced. “I hope you don’t hold that against her.”
All eyes snapped to him.
“Everyone,” I said weakly, “this is Remy Montrose.”
“Hello!” Remy waggled his fingers in the most ridiculous imitation of a wave I’d ever seen.
Stifling a grimace, I nodded at the long-legged, blonde-haired beauty who also happened to be my co-captain. “Remy, this is Katie McKinley, and the guy she’s sitting on is Spencer Douglas.”
Spencer smiled shyly. He and Katie had been together for almost two years now. Sometimes it still surprised me how well they fit, even though they couldn’t be more different. Katie was larger than life, bubbly, confident, a sun around which the rest of us lowly planets had no choice but to orbit. Spencer was the complete opposite: gangly and awkward, quiet, like the still, dark space between the stars.
I gestured to the last member of our group, but Paige was never one to let others speak on her behalf. “I’m Paige Wu,” she said, grinning in a way that might have been charming if she didn’t show quite so many teeth. In a decade of friendship, she hadn’t changed all that much. She was still tiny, still a firecracker, and her main goal in life was to confine her overbearing parents to a pit of endless torment, just as it always had been.
Remy gave the angel-faced devil an extravagant bow. “How do you do, Paige Wu?”
Paige’s jaw dropped.
So did mine.
A football shot through the centre of our circle, cutting short whatever Paige had been about to say. It bounced hard off Spencer’s knee and rolled to a stop not far from Remy. As he bent to pick it up, I turned, searching the field for its owner. My spine went tense when I saw who was jogging our way.
Kennedy screeched to a halt when he noticed Remy cradling the ball and glared at him with thinly veiled revulsion.
“Here you go, man,” Remy said, before throwing it back towards Kennedy.
I almost groaned, even before it fell short and landed at Kennedy’s feet with a pathetic thump. Kennedy’s lip curled. “Are you kidding me?” he demanded, sounding honestly offended.
“He’s from up north,” Jake was quick to interject. “You know, where they think rugby is real football?”
Remy crossed his arms. “Excuse me? Rugby is the only real type of football.”
“That would be AFL, mate.” The look Jake turned on Kennedy was pained. “See what I mean? The poor guy has probably never heard of a handball in his life. Cut him some slack.”
Kennedy spat on the ground. “He’s a fucking fag.”
I cringed. There was no ignoring the insult this time, not when it was said right to Remy’s face. My insides twisted as I grasped for something appropriate to say, but Remy’s tongue was faster.
“Well, you know what they say. It takes one to know one.” His tone was casual, pleasant even, but his smile was sharp as a blade. “I’m sorry to break it to you, mon chéri, but you,” he pointed a finger, “are not my type.”
Kennedy’s face darkened to a disturbing shade of puce. If he were a cartoon character, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see steam billow from his ears. He puffed up, preparing to say something that was no doubt as spiteful and tasteless as ever.
Things would only go downhill from there.
“Jonah, that’s enough,” I said. I couldn’t let any more of that poison spill from his vile mouth. “Take your football and go.”
He stared daggers at me. My skin crawled, but I stood my ground. I knew he wanted to avoid a repeat of our last trip to the principal’s office just as much as I did. He was on thin ice after being suspended twice last year, and the last thing he needed was to be causing a stir on the first day back.
Kennedy spat another large glob of sputum onto the grass. I braced myself, but he scooped up the ball and stormed off without another glance in Remy’s direction.
“Oh man that was priceless!” Jake crowed. “Did you see the look on his face?”
I swallowed and put my hands in my lap so nobody saw how badly they were shaking.
“I saw,” said Remy.
Jake draped an arm around his shoulders. “Don’t let him get to you. He’s just a dickhead bully with absolutely nothing going for him.”
A smug quirk sprung to Remy’s lips. “Yeah, I’ve met the type: alpha male with daddy issues who’s so deep in the closet he’ll never see the light of day.”
“You think Kennedy’s gay?” Spencer gasped. “No way!”
“He must be compensating for something with that kind of attitude.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” I said again.
Jake rolled his eyes. “Fine. You always have to do the right thing, don’t you Carter? Even defending the likes of that waste of oxygen.”
If only it was that simple. Kennedy’s attitude left something to be desired, yes, but none of them knew what I knew. None of them had seen the bruises down Kennedy’s back like I did last year—right before he exploded at me and got himself suspended the second time. Things were always more complicated than they seemed.
“Moving on, are you really gay?” Paige asked Remy.
She shook her head. “Not at all. There just aren’t many people who are out at this school. I mean, in our year there’s only Jamie Ray, but he’s an antisocial jerk who spends most of his time in the music building playing his cello.”
I thought it wise not to remind her we depended on Jamie and his cello for our string quartet, where Paige and I played the violin.
“It’s not really that surprising,” Katie said. “There are still plenty of bigots stuck in the Dark Ages out there.”
I took a bite out of the apple I’d kept stuffed in my pocket, wishing they’d change the subject. It wasn’t that I had a problem with gay people—I got along just fine with Jamie Ray, and couldn’t care less about his orientation. But the thought of what my mother would say if she overheard this conversation made my stomach squirm.
“Hey!” Remy’s excited shout snapped me back out of my head. “We’re having a housewarming party on Saturday. You guys should totally come along. If it’s hot we can swim in the pool.”
“You had me at ‘party’,” said Jake.
“You had me at ‘pool’,” said Katie.
“A chance to escape Mr and Mrs Wu?” said Paige. “Count me in.”
Spencer murmured his agreement.
I met Remy’s questioning gaze. That was a mistake. Those big, blue-grey eyes looked right through me, probing my tranquil surface to tease at the maelstrom beneath.
They were all watching me now, faces expectant, pleading. My heart beat faster and sweat beaded under my arms. “Uh, sure,” I said. I wanted to tug at my collar but I kept my hands in my lap. “I’m working on Saturday morning, but I guess I could come over later in the afternoon.”
“Excellent!” Remy beamed.
The vice around my chest loosened. My friends went back to speaking with Remy, laughing at his clever jokes and complimenting him on his outrageous hair. Paige asked him what other body parts he had pierced, and his only response was an impish grin.
I closed my eyes and took a deep, steadying breath.
Remy Montrose had walked into my life less than two hours ago, and despite my intention to keep my distance, it appeared he was here to stay. I’d tried to pull on the brakes, to stave off disaster, but I still saw his train nosediving straight off the edge of a cliff.
Only now I was stuck on there with him.
© Rebecca Alasdair 2019