The Disappearance of James H___

By Hal Duncan

1. The New Boy

There is a new boy at the school. He sits at the desk where Brown once sat, and carved his name in the wood with a pocketknife's point, and was caned for it; but he is not Brown. He is green. His eyes flash emerald and jade, the colour of gemstones and jungles, foreign seas and forest serpents. He sits where Brown once sat but the master does not notice, nor order him to read from Homer, nor snap his name as he gazes out the window. As he turns to look at me, languid, smiling in his sly silence.

2. A Fob Watch

We watch the fifth formers in the cloisters, all tall enough to wear tailcoats, dandies in top hats, thin cigars in their mouths. I have studied the way they stand, perfected the slouch—both knees bent a little, one shoulder slightly higher than the other, one hand jammed into a pocket. But I still need my fob watch to strike that pose, to be fetching it out to check the time, not simply, self-assuredly louche. So Scottish in my reserve.

—Why do you want to be like them? he says.

—I do not want to be like Brown, I say.

3. In the Dormitory

He takes off the starched collar and the bum-freezer jacket, unbuttons his shirt. In his white breeches and shirt open to the waist but still tucked in, he looks like some prince kidnapped by pirates to serve as cabin boy, or some pauper taken in by a kind doctor, scrubbed clean to wear a lost son's clothes. Half-dressed, he seems half-costumed. An actor changing between scenes. His nightshirt lies on the bed, long flowing white as if he is to play Juliet. But it is my cheeks that are blushed and virginal. He removes his shirt. His breeches. His drawers.

4. Never Never

—Shall I play the pipes for you, James? he asks. Shall I play a hornpipe that'll make you jig?

The others lie asleep in their dormitory beds while I sit on the edge of mine, watching him in the moonlight, the way it throws the shadow of his cock's-comb shock of hair on the wall behind him, spikes on either side like horns. In the shadow his peter rises to his jutting chin, cocky with his cocked head, cocked hip.

—Come with me, he says quietly.

—I can't, I say.

A whisper:

—Come with me.

—Never, I say. Never never.

5. A Roasting

—What happened to Brown? he asks.

I look at the empty bed where Brown lay sobbing from the pain and humiliation after Flashman was done.

—Flashman gave him a roasting, I say.

I picture them holding Brown to the roaring fire, turning him, laughing. But that is not how it happened, not how it happened to me. I picture them stripping him, spit-roasting him between them, fingers twisted in his hair, holding his head down, fingernails digging into his hips. That is what the fifth form do here, why Flashman left in disgrace.

—How savage, he says. How truly beastly.

6. A Crocodile Tear

He lies on top of the bed, on top of the empty nightshirt, knees curled up to his chin, arms wrapped around them. His eyes glint green even in the moonlight. He does not sleep, does not close his eyes and sleep, only bats his lashes slowly closed and open again, once, twice. It seems a considered, reptilian action, as inscrutable as the tear that trickles down his cheek. A crocodile tear.

His shadow rises on the wall behind him, pads across the floor to my bed. I pull the covers back, and the darkness climbs in to my embrace.

7. Morning Will Not Find Us

—Let me help you sleep, the shadow says. It is only when you sleep that we can disappear into your dreams.

His shadow curls to fit my form. I feel its breath warm on the back of my neck, its arms wrapped round my ribs, one hand over my heart, the other sliding down into black, curly hair. I feel safe with his shadow as my cloak, so close, so tight it seems within rather than around me. To disappear. . . .

—But in the morning . . . , I say.

—Morning will not find us here, it says. We must go looking for it.

8. Lush Green Vines

We sail on oceans uncharted, gliding through the night by constellations we invent. We hunt the morning, the rising sun, but for him it is the morning of yesterday, I think, for me the morning of tomorrow . . . tomorrow. We hunt it as something we desire and fear, and the dawn we find is a beach of azure sky above, golden sand beneath us, flesh hard between us, edged by lush green vines and veins. I kiss—

—I'm not like that, he says. I'm not a . . .


—Every time you say that, I whisper, a little part of you will die.

9. Lions and Tigers and Bears

Adventurers on this island, we explore its reaches and its recesses. We glimpse beasts in the forest and in ourselves—the pride of lions, the camouflage of hidden tigers, and the vicious, swinging hook of a bear claw—but he laughs at them all. I strut in the frock coat and tricorn hat that is his shadow. He crows like a cockerel in the green rags of my lust, legs spread wide, hands on his hips, up on a rock. A statue on a pedestal. He darts from my grasp, teasing.

I brood. Will he play games with me forever?

10. The Lost Boys

—Come with me, I say.

My hand reaches out for him, to wipe the tear that is always on his cheek but that only I ever see, to grasp the smooth skin of his shoulder with gentle strength. To hold him so he knows that we are both lost, with each other. To touch. To do unspeakable things to his flesh.

—Never, he screams. Never never.

His blade flashes a wide, panicked arc through air, through skin and bone. I fall to my knees, clutching a bloody stump.

It is the hook in my heart, however, which hurts the most.

Hal Duncan lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he works part-time as a computer programmer to support his writing habit. His first book, Vellum, will be available in the UK from August and is due out in the US in 2006.