The boy next door.
It’s a terrible cliché, isn’t it? The one you eventually realize is The One after having your heart pulverized by an assortment of bad boys. We’ve all been there. Things were a little different for her though. She realized he was The One before she’d even met any bad boys, let alone had her heart pulverized by one. And in her case The One happened to be very much gay. That pretty much blows the cliché out of the water, don’t you think?
From the day his family moved into the house next door that was slightly nicer and slightly bigger than hers, he was the centre of all that she did. They were seven years old.
She was the one to make the ﬁrst move – surprisingly forward for such a shy little creature. She’d been watching him for half an hour through a hole in the bottom of the fence, studying him to make sure he wasn’t the type of boy who pulled the wings off ﬂies or anything like that. He wasn’t. He was the type of boy who would lie ﬂat on his back in the middle of the lawn to make sure the sky above was still the same sky he’d left behind in Manchester. She didn’t know what he was doing at ﬁrst, of course. In fact, she thought he might be dead. Just my luck, she thought. Emily’s moved to the other side of the world and a stupid boy moves into her house and goes and dies.
She brieﬂy considered throwing a stone at his head to check his aliveness, but decided it was probably more sensible just to ask.
‘Excuse me?’ She was a very polite little girl because she’d been brought up by two very polite parents.
There was no response from the possibly dead boy, so she raised her voice. ‘EXCUSE ME! Are you dead?’
The boy slowly turned his head so he was looking straight at her face peering through the hole in the fence. His eyes were the same colour as the sky and his hair was golden like . . . gold.
The boy narrowed his eyes. ‘No, I’m Kai. Are you dead?’
The girl laughed. ‘Of course not!’
‘Good. We can be friends then.’
The girl liked the sound of that.
It was a good start. And the middle was good too. But the ending? Well, the ending left a lot to be desired. She would have written it differently, if she’d had a say in the matter. Every good story deserves a happy ending – it’s a basic rule of storytelling.
The boy next door certainly shouldn’t die.
I miss Kai more than I can say. It’s not something that can be put into words; it’s too big. There is a gaping black hole in my life and it’s all that I can do not to get sucked into it and disappear forever. He meant everything to me. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s really not. We took ‘inseparable’ to a whole new level. It wasn’t even a week before Kai’s dad took a couple of slats out of the fence so that we could wander between the gardens as we pleased.
Mum thought it was sweet at first – two peas in a pod, that’s what she called us. For the first few years we were actually three peas: Kai, me and his little sister, Louise. She was a gap-toothed, blonde-bunched little ray of sunshine – following us around everywhere whether we liked it or not.
There’s a really cute picture that must have been taken when Kai and I were about eight or nine. It was Halloween and Kai was supposed to have been dressing up as a wizard but he wanted to look the same as me. He made a better witch than I did. He had green face paint, warts made out of Rice Krispies and a robe that wasn’t made from a black bin liner. His dad had even made him a real, proper broomstick. Louise was dressed as the pinkest, sparkliest fairy you could ever imagine, brandishing a wand at Kai like she was trying to ward off his witchy evilness. That photo used to occupy the red frame on my bedside table, before I replaced it with one of just the two of us – Kai and me – a few years ago.
I wasn’t jealous that Kai managed to outshine me every single Halloween. I wasn’t jealous that people were drawn to him in a way they were never, ever drawn to me (or to Louise for that matter). I didn’t even know how to be jealous of Kai. I think I was a little bit in awe of everything he did.
Kai was clever and funny and kind. I was ten years old when I realized I wanted to marry him. My idea of married life might not have been entirely realistic, since it involved us living in adjacent houses. I didn’t get as far as picturing us having children, because where would they have lived?
I was devastated when Kai and his family moved house the day after my tenth birthday, even though the new house was only a four-minute walk away (four minutes and twenty-three seconds at normal walking pace, Kai proudly informed me the day after the move).
It wasn’t till I was eleven or so that Mum started to worry about me spending every second of every minute of every day with him. It was around then that she stopped us sleeping in the same bed (eliciting total outrage from me and mild indignation from Kai. He never really got outraged about anything). She wouldn’t tell me why it wasn’t OK for us to share a bed any more, and I was so cross I didn’t speak to her for three and a half hours (until she coaxed me downstairs with the promise of Nutella on toast).
‘Aren’t there any girls at school you’d like to invite round for a sleepover?’ Mum asked one day in the car on the way to the supermarket. She glanced at me quickly before returning her attention to the traffic.
‘What about that Jasmine girl you used to talk about?’
‘What about her? She’s so boring. All she talks about is horses and hair, and it’s not like her hair’s even that nice. It’s so long it makes me feel a bit sick.’
Mum reached over and tugged at a stray lock of my hair. It was way too short – not a good look for me, but I didn’t care back then. It was practical. ‘There’s nothing wrong with long hair. Louise’s hair is lovely, don’t you think? You know . . . I think you’d look really pretty if you let yours grow out a bit.’
I stuck out my bottom lip and crossed my arms over my chest. ‘You mean I don’t look pretty now?’
Mum managed to raise an eyebrow at me without taking her eyes off the road. ‘You, my dear, are the prettiest girl in the world. You just don’t know it yet.’
A week before my thirteenth birthday (four days before his thirteenth birthday), I asked Kai if he thought I was pretty. I’d wanted to ask him for the longest time, but I’d always chickened out at the last minute. I was worried he’d make fun of me.
We were lying on his bed watching a DVD. He sat up and made me do the same. Then he held his hands up as if to frame my face. He told me to look straight at him and not smile, so obviously I couldn’t help but laugh.
‘Stop that! This is a serious question and it needs a serious answer!’ He narrowed his eyes and nodded slowly.
‘Just answer the question, you idiot!’ I pulled a face that was anything but pretty and I waited . . . and waited.
‘OK, I have deduced the following . . . you have impressively symmetrical features. Your skin is clear and looks healthy even though you hardly ever go outside. Your eyes are pretty. Your nose is a very fine example of the genre. Your hair is . . . well, the less said about that the better. Your lips are a perfect medium and your teeth are reasonably straight. In conclusion I’d say that, yes, you are pretty. Congratulations.’
I grabbed a pillow and walloped Kai across the face with it. ‘Thanks for that, Einstein! I wasn’t expecting you to be so . . . scientific about it!’
Kai laughed and said, ‘I thought you’d appreciate a bit of objectivity.’ (Kai was always using long words.)
I wouldn’t meet his eye and I was suddenly burning up with embarrassment. ‘Jem? What’s up? I said you’re pretty! You should be pleased . . . Is it the hair thing? Look, I’m sorry I said anything. Your hair’s fine. Really. Honestly. Have I ever lied to you?’
‘I don’t know . . . have you?’
I should have stopped there to spare us both any further embarrassment. But I didn’t.
‘OK then, tell me truthfully – do you think I’m pretty?’ I still couldn’t bear to look at him.
‘I said so, didn’t I?’ His voice was soft.
‘I think you’re beautiful, Jemima Halliday.’
I had to look to check he wasn’t making fun of me. His face was serious and I took this as a positive sign. ‘Would you like to kiss me?’ I must have been feeling particularly brave that day.
I’m not sure what kind of reaction I was expecting, but it wasn’t hysterical laughter. He stopped laughing when he saw the look on my face. ‘What’s so funny?’
‘Sorry. It’s just . . . I thought you knew.’ He was sort of wincing now.
‘Knew what?’ I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘That I’m gay.’
I’d had no clue whatsoever. The thought had never ever crossed my mind. Very-nearly-thirteen-year-old boys were not gay. There were gay men on the telly and stuff, but they were grown-up men. The only gay man I knew in real life was a random cousin of Dad’s, and I’d only met him once. He danced with me at a family wedding, twirling me around the dance floor until I nearly puked. Then he danced with his ridiculously good-looking boyfriend, which was the first time I’d ever seen two men dance together.
I tried to act cool with Kai, like people telling me they’re gay was an everyday occurrence. I shrugged and said, ‘Oh yeah, I totally knew. I was just messing around.’ I could tell Kai wasn’t buying it, but he let me off because that’s the kind of person he was.
So my crazy dream of marrying Kai went straight out the window. But I never lost the certainty that he was the perfect boy. The perfect boy for me anyway. I just tried not to think about it, because it made me ache inside.
Only four people knew about Kai being gay. His parents knew and were totally cool with it. I knew and was totally mixed up about it. Then Louise found out and was very definitely totally not cool with it.
I was never quite sure how Louise found out; Kai refused to tell me. But things changed between the three of us almost instantly. She didn’t follow us around like a little lost puppy any more. And although I’d always acted like her constant attention annoyed me, I actually missed it. I could tell Kai did too, but he didn’t like to talk about it.
I only realized Louise wasn’t OK with the whole gay thing when she caught me and Kai ogling some shirtless guy on the Internet one day (Kai was doing most of the ogling, I was merely agreeing with everything he said). She rolled her eyes and made a sound in her throat that could only be interpreted as one thing: disgust.
Kai quickly closed the browser window, blushing like he’d been caught doing something seedy and shameful. I was baffled. ‘What?’ I asked her.
She flicked her hair (an annoying habit she’d acquired since starting secondary school) and said a sullen ‘nothing’.
‘It didn’t sound like nothing.’ Kai put his hand on my wrist and told me to leave it. I shook him off. ‘Louise? Is there something you’d like to share with the group?’ This was my new favourite catchphrase; I’d picked it up from my English teacher.
Louise sighed and twirled some hair between her fingers, acting as if checking for split ends was more interesting than talking to me and Kai. ‘It’s, like, gross.’ This was something else Louise had picked up in the last few months – a completely new way of speaking that drove her parents crazy.
I asked her what was gross, because I genuinely had no idea what she was on about.
She sighed again, even louder this time. ‘Boys liking boys. Becky’s dad says it’s sinful.’
I’d never heard Louise mention Becky before, let alone Becky’s dad. I laughed. ‘Are you for real?’ The looks between Kai and Louise answered my question. This ground had clearly been covered before. ‘What does Becky’s dad know about anything anyway?’
Louise narrowed her eyes at me. ‘He’s, like, a really important businessman. He drives a BMW.’
‘Good for him.’
The sarcasm was lost on her. ‘I know, right? Anyway, he said it’s probably just a phase.’ Louise looked shifty all of a sudden.
I felt Kai’s grip tighten around my wrist but he still said nothing. So it was left to me. ‘What’s probably just a phase?’
‘Kai being . . . you know . . . bent.’
My temper flared. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘You take that back. Right now.’
Louise stuck out her bottom lip. ‘Will not, and you can’t make me.’
I pushed my chair back fast and Louise backed away, but Kai’s hand was still clamped to my wrist. ‘Jem, leave it. Please. She doesn’t understand. It’s OK. Really.’
She was smirking, knowing full well that her brother would protect her even though she was the one who was attacking him. The gap-toothed, cute-as-a-button, only-slightly-annoying little sister had turned into someone else – almost overnight, it seemed. And I wasn’t sure I liked this someone else. At all.
Kai said it didn’t bother him. He said she was young and would come around to the idea eventually.
My argument that she was only a year younger than we were and that she shouldn’t give a toss if he was gay because HE WAS HER BROTHER fell on deaf ears.
She did come around to the idea eventually. She stopped saying stupid things in front of me, at least. But that might have had something to do with the fact that Louise and I started studiously ignoring each other – as if by some unspoken arrangement. I couldn’t forgive her for being horrible to Kai, and she . . . well, I was never quite sure why she began ignoring me. Maybe because I started dying my hair and wearing black and listening to decent music and she turned into a plastic, popular person. It was as if some kind of mystical divergence had occurred, leaving Kai in the middle, loving us both, wishing everybody could just get along. He never did get his wish. He never got a lot of his wishes.
And now he won’t ever get his driving licence. Or buy alcohol in a pub. Or vote. Or fall in love.
Kai will do none of these things. All because of what they did to him.
Excerpted from Undone by Cat Clarke. Copyright © 2013 by Cat Clarke.
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