This World

There were three.

It occurred to him that there could be more, but there, right in front of him, that was three. Michael stepped back and narrowed the frame.

"Are you sure that's far enough, Michael? Have you got everyone in?" Mrs Farthing called.

"Uh-huh," Michael said, spitting the words out over his tongue. This business was harder than it looked. He set it to five seconds and dove in front of James, Torin and Sam. The shutter clicked, the film rolled. Farthing went to collect the camera.

"Did you do it?" James asked.

"Of course I did. Do you think I would so rashly abuse my privileges? We are now the entire Class of '76," Michael said in a husky voice.

Torin was jumping up and down on his toes. "Okay, guys, let's move. Torin's bored."

"Of course he is," James drawled. "Torin –" He pointed to make sure Torin knew who he was talking to. "You – go – lake – jump in."

"Michael." Sam was tugging on his sleeve. Michael turned.

"What?"

"Did you get me in?"

"In what?"

"The picture, am I in it? Is it all four of us?"

"No, I got the hot brunette next to you. What are you on?"

Torin was back from the lake. "Acid. And whiskey. What hot brunette?"

"Don't give him that stuff, Torin," James said irritably. "He gets weird."

"That was my bet. Any takers?" Torin pulled out a pen and rolled up his sleeve.

"If it's gonna be acid it might as well be tequila," Michael said. "Start with an a, stick with the a, that's my motto."

"Always the poet." James didn't approve.

"Too many syllables. Pick something shorter," Torin said, scratching the words across his wrist. "James?"

"Knowing Sam, it's probably ginger beer."

"That's not even illegal, loosen up."

"Change it to rum." Michael peered over Torin's shoulder. "Is that aesthetic enough for you?"

"I suppose. Okay, Sam."

Sam was sitting on the ground picking grass. "What?"

"Are you deaf? What are you on?"

"You know, between you and Michael it's a wonder my self esteem isn't completely shot," Sam said. James nudged Michael.

"He's hedging," he whispered.

Torin slapped his forehead. "Am I going insane, or is this child a cunt to the enth? Sam, we are betting on you. Someone is going to make money. This is very important, because at least one of us is broke. Are you sober?"

"Of course I'm sober, what do you take me for?" Sam squawked.

"He's doing his voice. His lying voice." James chewed thoughtfully on a scone.

"Do you think so?"

"Sure. Torin, smack him."

Torin smacked him.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"Don't lie, Sammie, you're no good."

"I'm not lying."

James made a vague hand gesture in Sam's direction. "Did you catch it that time? His voice cracks in a strange way."

Michael thought about it. "Yeah, I guess it does."

"Will you guys help me?" Sam was practically panting under Torin's glare. James opened his hands, palms up.

"I'm the broke one here, Sam, I can't afford to lose."

Michael tightened his eyes. "Really? Are you broke? I thought you said you'd pay me by tomorrow."

"Sure, I'll have it by then."

"If you're lying," Michael said, "I will hurt you. I will seriously harm you."

"I know you will, Michael, calm down. I'll get it back to you."

"Where'd you get that scone?" Torin said, looking around. "Let's go get some scones."

"Aren't you going to finish interrogating our victim?"

Torin grabbed James and Michael by the collars and dragged them down. Crouching in front of them, he said, "Here's the plan."

"I take your money."

"Sam, what have you drunk today?"

"Uh – orange juice. Ginger beer."

"I take your money," James said again.

"I spiked it," Torin said. "With whiskey. And made him drink it."

"That's cheating," Michael said.

"That's forethought. Listen to my plan. James, you get more scones."

James pulled a bag out of his pocket and counted. "Is seventeen sufficient?"

"Perfect, thanks. Michael – you know your part in this."

"Where am I going to get all the spoons?"

Torin shook his head. "That's Plan Fergus. This is Plan…um…B."

James said, "Original," and passed around the scones.

"Michael, find that brunette."

"I was talking about Olaf. It's called a bitter irony," Michael said. "Or do you mean the one on the right?"

"No, not that one," Torin said hastily. "Find a different one."

"Should I lock her up when I catch her?"

Torin missed the sarcasm. "I don't care. You think of something, you're the Prefect. Innovation and all that. Sam, go do something."

"What?"

"Go, homework, something, I don't care. Go with Michael."

Sam got up. "I think –"

Torin snapped his fingers together, signalling quiet. "What is this voice inside my head saying, do you think?"

"Go fuck yourself?" James suggested.

"No, listen," Torin said, cupping a hand around his ear. "Could it be – why yes, it is! It's telling Sam to go fuck himself!"

"What would it have been if I hadn't given you the idea?" James asked. Torin shrugged.

"I'm not the Prefect. Go, Michael. Go, Sammie. James, we have words to exchange."

Michael and Sam disappeared, and Torin flopped onto his back. Now that they were gone Torin could relax. He was somewhat tense by nature, but less so with James. He collapsed sideways to get a good look at James' face. "Any news from your lady friend?"

James didn't show any sign that he'd heard Torin at all, except to say, "Sure."

"Well?"

James drew a letter from his pocket, opened it, straightened the paper and cleared his throat. "Dear Mr Parker," he read. Torin whistled.

"Mr Parker, look at you," he said. James fixed his mouth into a smile.

"We are pleased to inform you that you have a place at our Academy of Football and Crime -"

"The what?"

"Will you let me finish? A place for you – I read that already. You've thrown me off."

"What academy is this?"

"Are you deaf?"

"Heroin and French vanilla ice cream," Torin said. "I confess."

"What the hell has French vanilla ice cream got to do with it?"

"It makes me kind of crazy. Tell me about this academy."

"They teach you how to transgress, and then you play football."

Torin splayed a palm across his chest. "Me personally? How lovely. If there was such a thing I'd have come across it, so shut up and tell me what you're doing with your life. I'm not in the mood to be hoodwinked this afternoon."

"Both those things at once?"

"Shut up when you're done. I thought you were going for the police force."

"Yeah."

"So, are you in?"

"I'm in."

"Am I in?"

"Did you apply?"

"Did I what?"

James stretched out against a nearby tree and closed his eyes. "Let me tell you something about the world, Torin, and how it runs. Everything doesn't drop into your lap as soon as you wish for it."

"It doesn't?"

"No. It doesn't."

"Prove it."

James exhaled, loudly. "Okay, wish for something."

"All right." Torin shifted so that he was on his back again, folding his hands behind his head. "What next?"

"What'd you wish for?"

"If I tell you it won't happen."

"That's only birthday cakes. When you're proving things you have to be open or you'll never get anything done."

"Yeah, but you're the one who thought – well hello there," Torin said.

"Heddo, Todin."

James opened his eyes. There was a very tall, very blonde eleventh year by the name of Greta perched on Torin's stomach, giggling as he pretended to gasp for air. She pushed him, somehow managing to wind her fingers through his hair at the same time, and Torin glanced over at James.

"My wish is granted, more or less. What next?"

James pressed his fingers to his eyes. "Okay. Torin. Let me tell you something about the work world."

"It's run the same as the world? That's great, I'll swing by headquarters in August and see what they've got open."

"You're going to die alone."

"I don't know about that," Torin said. "Greta, will you let me die alone?"

"Off corse not," she said. "Zat vut be awful."

"Mm," Torin said. "Has anyone ever told you that the letters in your name spell Great?"

By the time Torin and James got back to the common room Michael had completed his task. Greta, fortunately, had returned to her own dorm. Torin slid into a seat next to Christabel Lark and put an arm around the back of her chair.

"Hey there."

She stood up to remove his arm, and then sat back down. He raised his eyebrows.

"Okey dokey, I can see Michael hasn't shifted his taste a jot. I'm going to go visit Pearl E. White."

Christabel snorted and turned back to Michael, who did not approve of such girls. Pearl was extremely flaky, something that Torin could commiserate with. Christabel glanced toward James.

"Are you going to sit down or what?"

"Who bit off your shoulder?" James said. He followed Torin to the girls' dorm and peered up the stairs. "Is she coming?"

"Eventually, yes."

They waited a few minutes. Pearl came down.

"Hi."

"Hi," he said, rather glibly he thought.

"What do you want?"

"Are you hungry?"

"Not really. Why?"

"Do you want to go to the kitchens?"

"I'm not hungry," she said.

"What about Shawville?"

"No, Torin," James said warningly. Pearl was intrigued.

"Shawville? How?"

"Just a little secret of ours," Torin said, tapping his nose. "Go on, James, you know you've done it."

"Yes, but that was –" There was no way around it. "Pearl isn't very trustworthy."

Pearl covered her mouth with a hand, her eyes filling up with tears. Torin put an arm around her shoulders.

"Shh, honey, I know you are. This is very secret, though. If anyone finds out we'll be in a lot of trouble."

"I'd never tell a soul," she whispered.

"Yes she would."

"James, go. Find someone to bring along or study or something, I don't care."

James was thinking what to do about a girl when a tenth year came up to him and watched him until he turned to look at her. Her hair was red and her coat an awkward shade of blue. He winced and looked away.

"Can I help you?"

"You're going to Shawville? That's great, I needed to get there anyway. Let's go." She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him after her.

"Whoa," he said, slowing her down. "What are we doing?"

She was practically examining him through thick lenses. "I'm out of whiskey. Come on."

"Torin!"

He was lying in the stairwell, his skin transparent, a crowd watching him die. Clementine dropped to her knees beside him. "Torin! What the hell did you do to yourself?"

He didn't move. She punched him in the gut. "You fucking asshole. What do you think you're doing?"

James tried to drag her off, but she was fighting like a wildcat and punching at Torin. He let out a hacking cough and was breathing, almost.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" she said into his hair, pulling him close. He got up the strength to lift an arm, shove at her.

"Get off me," he said. She backed away.

"You're alright?"

He pulled himself upright and slumped so that his head was supported on his knees. "Sure. Get out of here."

She turned to go. James blocked her way. "What are you playing at, you filthy bitch? Are you trying to kill him?"

"Leave off, James," Torin said, and retched. He threw up on the floor. James moved to help Torin up. He got shakily to his feet and looked out from under his hair to see the corridor packed with wondering faces. He waved a little sheepishly.

"Hi, guys," he said. "Please continue to your classes as the moment has passed and is no longer interesting. Where are we going, James?"

"Hospital wing," he grunted.

"No."

"Dorms, then."

The redhead strolled beside him, perfectly at ease. James walked a little behind her, wary.

"Could you not get here on your own?"

She glanced back, and he was startled at the intensity of her eyes. Green wasn't usually so vivid, nor the pupils so small. "No. Torin blindfolds me."

"Were you together?"

She laughed and didn't respond.

"Okay," James said, "why did he let you come, then?"

"He doesn't date below the elevens, you should know that. He lived down my street."

"Oh yeah? What's your name?"

"Smith," she said.

"Huh."

James was quiet for a moment, and then said, "Were you that nutter who –"

"Yep," she said. "I got him hooked."

"What?"

She stopped and waited for him to catch up. "What are you, lesser than me? Stay where I can see you."

James was gritting his teeth in frustration. "You're his – dealer, then?"

"No," she said, "I'm his contact. I find him bars, I find him losers on the street who'll put up with him. He has a lot of money, you know. They're not hard to get when you'll pay."

James stopped walking. "Go home, Smith."

"What, and think about my wrong-doings? I need money too, James."

"I don't want to know why you know my name, but I sure as hell want to know you'll be out of my sight in the next thirty seconds, and won't be back in it for a very long time."

"Cute. I know you because Torin pointed you out as the guy we needed to not be a junkie, and who could not know that Torin was."

"I do, though."

"His fault, not mine."

James didn't argue that. "When did you meet him?"

"You mean when did I start showing him around? My mom died when I was ten."

"And you were…"

"Don't know where you're going with that. Broke? Yes. Living under a bridge?" She wrinkled up her face. "Not quite. It leaked and was very unpleasant. I camped out on his stairs until his father tripped over me."

James was sympathetic with that one, having endured a similar experience. "How did you get into school?"

"Torin," she said. She didn't seem to mind him knowing, so he didn't mind asking more questions.

"You don't care that you're living off someone who isn't remotely related to you?"

"I give, he gives."

"You're sick."

"I'm alive," she pointed out.

"That's fairly obvious. Unless you're a vampire. Are you a vampire?"

She threw her head back and squinted to the sun. "Yes. Yes I am."

"Go home, Smith."

"Don't have one, remember?"

"Go away, then. Do you have money?"

"Enough for my whiskey."

"No wonder you live in the streets."

"We all have our demons," she said, taking one of his hands before he had time to recoil and tipping a pile of change into it. "I'm underage."

"I'm not buying."

"Then I'll drag Torin away from Pearl and make him do it. One way or another," she said. He put the handful of coins into his bag.

"What would you do if I made you a savings account?"

"Sue you for theft. Give me back my money."

"Do you not know about investments?"

"Don't know don't care."

"You give them money and leave it there, and then when you come back there's more."

"Neat-o. Convert someone else." She said as an afterthought, "Give me back my money."

James found Torin snogging Pearl at the back of the one and only bar in town that was not in the least reputable. He sat down at their table and waited for one of them to notice. Torin was fairly quick about it.

"You came!"

"How long have you know that Smith girl for?"

Torin stiffened up and said, "I don't know, four years? Five?"

"Do you trust her?"

"With my life." Torin put a hand to his heart and grinned nervously.

"Which, apparently, she's saved at least once to my knowledge. Can you tell me why that is?"

"Her spidey senses tell her when to be there."

James leaned in until he was closer to Torin than Pearl was. "Or maybe because you wouldn't be overdosing without her there. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want you to get involved."

"I'm involved. What are you going to do about it?"

"Talk to you when I'm not keeping Pearl waiting."

"Pearl can wait. How long have you been a junkie?"

Torin didn't know how much Clementine had told him, so he said, "Heroin or crack?" and prayed.

James spoke very softly. No one could possibly overhear. "How long?"

"I don't know. I don't remember."

"Why not?"

"Weed, maybe."

"Weed."

"Yeah, like grass, like marijuana. It kills your memor –"

"How long, you fucking cokehead?" James landed his hand on the table, and Torin jumped.

"Christ, James, don't –"

"How long?"

"Was it before I knew you?" Clementine was there too, Torin could see her standing behind. He shook his head. "Five years in July, then, James. He got me into this school, remember?"

"I thought you said your mom died when you were ten."

"I didn't suddenly know everyone in town. Use your head."

James took a deep breath and spoke to Pearl. "We have to go now. I think you should come with us, but then you'll have to leave us alone."

She nodded and detached herself from Torin. He was not overly pleased.

"Why must it be now, James? Could you not wait half an hour? Had you not figured out that on some level, maybe I was a little bit fucked over?"

"Sure," James said. "Which way did you come?"

"Through the mirror."

"Through the looking-glass," James said. "How quaint. We'll have to take it back, or Pearl will know almost as much as we do."

Michael was sitting on his bed. Torin went to join him. Michael looked interestedly at James, whose knuckles were white from clenching them so hard. Clementine stayed by the door.

"Who's that?" Michael nodded in her direction. She waved and smiled as Torin said,

"Clementine Smith."

"Torin's dealer." James spat the words, and Michael lifted his eyebrows.

"Really. That's nice."

"Torin has been on cocaine and heroin for the past five years."

"Okay." Michael wasn't responding. James looked at him.

"Do you not know what that is?"

Michael made an impatient noise. "Of course I do, James. Everyone does it."

"I don't. You don't. Sam doesn't."

"I have. Sam has. If you haven't I don't see how you could have missed it, buddy, because this is the nineties, everyone –"

James grabbed his hair with his hands. "You don't care, do you? You don't give a shit if your friend is collapsing in the halls, making a complete arse of himself –"

"That's nothing new," Michael said with a laugh. James seized a chair and flung it across the room. Michael got up; Clementine moved forward to get it.

"James, what the fuck –"

"You don't care that your best friend is a junkie! How can you not care? Do you want him to die?"

"He will anyway, sooner or later," Michael said. "If it's not this it'll be AIDs, or what, old age? Get over it."

James tried to calm down a little. "You're out of control, Torin, you need to –"

"Fuck this," Torin said. "I don't need anything. Get off my fucking bed, Michael."

"It's my bed and I'm not on it."

Torin shut the curtains. James yanked them back open. "I don't think so."

"Yeah, well, I do."

"We're dealing with this, Torin. Right now."

"Do whatever the hell you want, I don't care. I'm going to bed."

"Michael, why is he doing this? Is it his parents? I thought we got him out of there. I thought he was going to be all right."

Michael shrugged. "He might have tried to get off, I don't know. Why bother, though?"

"You don't get it, James," Clementine said, putting a hand on his arm. "You've got a nice life, as far as they go. I don't know what his problem is –" She gestured to Michael "- but I'm on the streets, Torin has no one, everyone's got plenty of excuses. You'll be fine, and you'd do better to ignore it."

James walked away.

Torin was lying awake half an hour later when Clementine crawled in next to him and rested her head on his arm, eyes fixed on his face. He didn't take his gaze from the canopy of the bed. She touched the bone over his eye.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah."

"Will he get over it?"

Silence.

"Do you want to go get stoned?"

"Yeah."

"Okay."

"Let's go, then."

"James is still out. He'll know when he gets back."

"He never noticed before," Torin said. "Where's Sam?"

"Sleeping."

"Is Michael here?"

"Yeah."

"Will he come?"

"I don't know. I'll ask."

Clementine slipped out and went to stand over Michael. She touched his face, and he opened his eyes. "We're going out. Do you want to come?"

"No, I'll hang around here. Have a good time."

"I don't imagine we will."

"Have a good time," he said.

Torin was crumpled at the foot of the stairs, skin a sickly blue. Clementine dropped to her knees beside him. "Torin!"

He didn't move. She punched him in the gut. "You fucking asshole. Torin!"

A crowd was gathering, yawning and grumbling about the noise. James came down and grabbed Clementine.

"Fuck you," he said. She punched Torin again. James let her go. Torin was breathing, coughing and retching but breathing just the same.

"What the hell did you think you were doing?" she said. "When are you going to stop?"

"Get off me," he said. She didn't budge.

"Stop, Torin, stop, you've got to stop." She held on to him, stroking his hair. He kept fighting her.

"Get off me. Get out of here."

James pried her off and pushed her back. "Get up."

"Leave off, James," Torin said. He tried to get his feet under him and swayed, levered himself up the wall. James stayed back.

"Hi, guys," Torin said, looking around. "Hi."

"Hospital wing," James said.

"No." Torin was shaking his head, trembling from head to foot but not relenting. James grabbed him by the arm.

"Hospital wing," he said.

Farthing stood in front of the four of them.

"Can you explain this?" She held up the photograph of the four of them, underneath etched Class of '76. "Michael?"

"I'm sorry, Professor."

"Torin?"

He didn't seem to notice. Farthing pursed her lips and turned on Sam.

"I would have thought –"

"I didn't know anything, Professor, I swear!"

"Detention, Sam. James, I suppose you didn't know either," she said sarcastically.

"I knew."

"And?"

"I'm very sorry."

"You're with me this weekend, all of you, first thing Saturday, first thing Sunday and I'm letting you off easy. You've gone far enough with your silly pranks."

Michael mumbled something, and Farthing pointed to the door. "Out. First thing, don't forget."

They filed out. Torin straightened up a little. "You owe me."

"What?"

"You owe me money, I won that bet."

"What are you, broke? Need a fix?" James said. "Couldn't you plead a favour from Clementine?"

Torin shook his head. "She cut me out. I need money."

"No," James said.

"You did cheat," Michael said fairly.

"I won," Torin said. Sam reached for his bag.