Of all the characters in The Ceruleans, Michael is the most complex. There’s a lot going on inside him that he can’t share with anyone. He’s a doubting Judas – but no one can know that. He’s a son and a brother – but no one can know that. He’s a flesh-and-blood ghost – but no one can know that. As if these weren’t burdens enough to bear, Michael is keeping another harrowing secret about who he is. And this one he’ll take to his grave.
‘In my role as best man, I feel it’s my duty to say: you don’t have to do this.’
Frowning into the wall mirror as he wrestled with his tie, Jude said nothing.
‘You don’t, you know,’ said Michael seriously, coming up behind so Jude could see his refection over his shoulder. ‘Evangeline can’t make you.’
Sighing, Jude dropped his hands to his sides, leaving his tie dangling forlornly.
‘She’s not making me commit to Scarlett,’ he said. ‘I’m choosing to.’
Michael folded his arms. He didn’t believe that for a moment – with Evangeline, there was precious little scope for choice. But he’d play along for now.
‘But why are you choosing to commit to Scarlett?’ he said. He put a subtle emphasis on the Scarlett and watched closely for a reaction.
Nothing. Michael had to hand it to Jude: he was a good liar. Almost as convincing as Michael.
‘Because I love her,’ said Jude simply. He spun around and held up his drooping tie. ‘Will you help me with this thing?’
You don’t love her, Michael wanted to fire back. You love the other sister.
He’d known for months, since Sienna died. He’d found the pages torn from her diary under Jude’s pillow. Memories of their time together that Jude clung to, even though she didn’t love him.
Jude deserved better than to love someone who didn’t love him back. Unrequited love was a heavy burden to carry, Michael knew.
‘Want me to tie it?’ he offered.
He saw Jude check out Michael’s impeccably knotted silk tie and sigh in relief.
‘Yes,’ he said, walking over. ‘I’m all fingers and thumbs.’
Michael’s breath caught as he inhaled Jude’s aftershave, and he busied himself with the tie, unknotting it with deft fingers and starting again, taking his time to extend the moment.
‘Is everyone here?’ asked Jude, head tilted back to give Michael space to work.
‘Everyone,’ Michael confirmed. ‘Who’d dare miss such an important event?’
He saw the Adam’s apple in Jude’s throat bob as he swallowed, and his heart squeezed. He hadn’t meant to be cruel and stir Jude’s nerves. He was just so angry right now, and it kept spilling out.
‘The conservatory’s decked out like Titania’s boudoir.’
‘Queen of the fairies.’
When Jude continued to look blank, Michael tutted. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ he said. ‘Remember, Oberon?’
‘Oh that,’ said Jude. ‘I’ve been trying to forget.’
Michael tried not to feel hurt. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And he knew a lot of the boys at Kikorangi, the Cerulean school, grumbled about appearing in Barnabus’s annual play, particularly those who got the female parts. But it had been Michael wearing the wig as Titania; Jude had got to play Oberon, the king of the fairies. And he’d been magnificent playing opposite Michael.
‘Done,’ said Michael abruptly, turning away. He busied himself brushing invisible lint off Jude’s suit jacket.
‘Thanks,’ said Jude, grabbing the jacket and shrugging it on. He did up the buttons and turned to the mirror. He turned to the left, then the right, then turned around and faced Michael.
‘Well?’ he said, eyebrow crooked.
He was a charcoal drawing, Michael thought: Jude’s white face was the paper, and his black suit the charcoal.
‘You look like you’re going to a funeral,’ said Michael. He gestured to the tie. ‘With a strange polka-dot theme.’
‘Thanks,’ said Jude. ‘I think.’
Had Michael offended him? He hadn’t meant to – he was just being honest. It happened a lot that he said the wrong thing. He tried to correct it now as Jude walked across the room:
‘I mean, you look okay.’
From Michael that was high praise, but Jude didn’t seem to notice; he was trying to pin a rose buttonhole to his lapel.
‘Ow!’ he yelped.
Even from the other side of the room, Michael could sense the tiny throb of pain. He strode over.
‘Stupid pin,’ muttered Jude.
‘Here,’ said Michael, reaching out his hand. ‘I’ll heal you.’
Jude snorted. ‘I hardly think that’s necessary. Look.’ He held up his index finger and they both peered at the teeny bubble of blood on the end of it.
‘If I don’t heal it, you might get blood on your smart clothes,’ Michael pointed out. ‘Evangeline would be cross if you marred the perfection of her staging.’
Michael saw Jude’s lips twitch. Jude wanted to say something about their dear leader, that was evident, but as always he held back. Instead, he obediently held the finger out to Michael.
Michael moved his own finger slowly to Jude’s. When he felt Jude’s warm skin touch his own, for one precious moment time stopped. There was nobody but him and Jude, standing in a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window, breathing in unison. Then the light was no longer golden, but cerulean blue – a halo around their point of connection.
‘My soul is in the sky,’ whispered Michael, staring at the light.
‘Huh?’ said Jude, pulling away and examining his finger. ‘Thanks, mate. All good now.’
‘It’s a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ said Michael as Jude walked away. ‘Remember? Pyramus says it in his death scene.’
‘Not really,’ said Jude from over by the mirror, in which he was giving his appearance a final check.
Michael recited the speech:
Thus I die. Thus, thus, thus.
Now I am dead,
Now I am fled,
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose thy light.
Moon take thy flight.
Now die, die, die, die.
Michael’s final ‘die’ was lost in Jude’s laugh. ‘I remember now,’ he said. ‘That was Adam’s part. He hammed it right up, staggering about like a bad soap opera actor. Die, die, die!’
Michael was not laughing. Michael had not hammed up the speech; he’d delivered it with feeling. To lose his own light, to take flight, to die – to finally die…
Stupid, he berated himself. Jude doesn’t understand. Why would he?
‘Five minutes,’ said his friend suddenly, checking his watch. All trace of humour had leached out of him.
Michael watched silently as Jude’s shoulders rose and fell in a deep breath, and then he gave his reflection a stern look, straightened his back and turned to Michael.
‘This is the part where, in your role as best man, you tell me everything’s going to be fine,’ he said.
He was smiling, but Michael couldn’t work out whether he was joking or serious.
‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ he parroted.
‘Ha!’ said Jude. He clapped a hand on Michael’s shoulder. ‘Never play poker, my friend. You’re a terrible liar.’
With that, he crossed to the door, flung it open and strode off down the hallway.
Michael listened until he could no longer hear footfalls, and then he raised his finger. He angled it so that he could trace the outline of the small reddish stain there, and then he laid the finger gently on his tongue. Closing his eyes, he savoured the salty, metallic taste.
I’ll follow thee, he quoted silently, and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.