He's not well. You notice it the day you meet him, but that will be relatively easier to ignore compared to how unwell he becomes two hours into dallying around the acres of Wilderness.
You would wager it starts right then as you enter the festival grounds, but in reality it sneaks up on you in tiny increments. You feel it briefly in the car as the wisps bleed past his headrest and drag across the ceiling as the car speeds down the motorway. The voices go in and out like sirens but fainter, spelling out an omen of what's to come.
You'll grapple to describe what exactly is wrong with him. The first time you meet him you'll utter a quick prayer under your breath to ward off whatever residual curse clinging to him that might project onto you. But the shadows aren't clinging to him, just like the noises, they're emanating off him like solid waves. It's the strangest thing. Curses don't last that long unless they're really powerful, and they definitely don't do the things that are happening to him.
At times, he'll feel like a cracked coconut. Sensations will wash over you and you'll swear you feel the rays of sunshine against your neck inside someone's dimly-lit terrace house, smell the smell of dewy grass, hear the sounds of horses, their neighing and their hooves. It's bizarre that that should be the most frequent sound he emits. It's so...harmless.
For a long time, you'll actively avoid looking directly at him. He unsettles you and it's not just the projections—you've felt them before. You know what they are. Once when you were seven you found a dying newborn calf still clinging to the warmth of its anguished mother. Your grandmother told you to cover it in ash before the wisps drained out of its body, and so you did. They had looked like his, like billowing veils of silk paper hovering over its body. She hadn't needed to tell you what they were. You thought you knew. But meeting him you're not so sure. In fact, it's part of the reason you refuse to acknowledge what he is or what's happening to him. He shakes your foundation. If he's indeed marked by death, why is he unaffected by it? Why does everything about him scream a healthy, white, middle-class lad?
It isn't until you're at Wilderness Festival—coincidentally also the longest time you've spent in his company—that you realise that you were wrong to chalk it up to some mistake. To some weird anomaly. He is affected by it.
The louder and the more aggressive his shadows become the more subdued he gets. First, he puts on sunglasses, then stops being as animated until he slowly drifts to the back of your ever-expanding friend group. The noises grow into a cacophonous jumble, and he's wincing, rubbing his forehead and tugging his fringe upward in frustrated jerks. You're not supposed to see. You're not supposed to notice the way he's gripping his bottle of craft beer as if he's kneading release from it. And you're definitely not supposed to be the one to offer that release.
"Hey, does anyone want to head to the lake?"
His relief is palpable. "The lake? I wouldn't mind."
"Know how to get there?" You'll do this often—pretend you're clueless. You busy yourself with pulling the map from your back pocket as if you don't already know the lake is situated across the park.
"Yeah, I could use the..." he looks ahead at the group who's grown with the addition of Malcolm and Matt. The bunch of them too focused on sampling free foods to notice you're not trailing behind them anymore. "The quiet," he finishes.
And because you can't stop yourself when it comes to this boy, your worry tumbles out before your brain registers, "Everything all right?" He appears taken aback, but you're not sure, there's no telling with those sunglasses.
"You sure you want to miss The Kooks' set?" he asks, changing the subject.
"I have no idea who that is." That coaxes a laugh out of him and he takes a step closer.
"Good. I hate crowds."
You level him with a deadpan look. "Good thing we're at a festival then." The shadows mould around his face like a bridal veil, casting shadows where there shouldn't be any. He smiles, and although you can't see his eyes you can tell it doesn't reach all the way across.
"I thought..." he shakes his head, "doesn't matter. Can we go? I feel a migraine coming on."
When someone's cracked like a coconut, you'll find yourself wanting to listen to their inner noises more than the fear of those noises can persuade you not to.
You find yourself taking a longer way round, skirting the folk masses, just so that his mind (is it his mind?) can calm down enough for you to distinguish between the sounds. There's people talking through him. A child or several children. There's that familiar car horn cutting through their chatter, ending in the sound of glass breaking. This loops over the sounds of adults speaking more firmly but never clear enough to tell what they're saying. Sometimes, though, you do. A child will speak and you'll register it but it'll slip your mind, just like it would if you were dreaming and were trying to recall it in the groggy moments after. They never seem to say anything you're not expecting them to. You're never shocked to hear their voices either.
Is it a dream? Are you listening to his leaking subconsciousness? You haven't had much time to theorise. You've been too afraid to. Too afraid to look at him, acknowledge his abnormal existence. Oh, how the circumstances have changed. If a stranger walked up to you and demanded what you were to each other, you might call him a friend; in that loose, socially malleable way one is a friend if you happen to spend two consecutive days together.
Maybe it's true that you're no longer afraid of him because you've seen that he can't hurt you with it. He himself has no control over it. It's hurting him and he won't ask you to slow down, but it is hurting him. It must be. As soon as you're out of the crowd and the music is a distant memory and you've slowed down to a comfortable pace, the shadows subtract and the noises thin out. He's quiet, still wearing his sunglasses as a shield, but you feel it. Is it strange that you can feel his discomfort easing? That you're so attuned to him?
This is something you'll promptly ignore probing to instead take advantage of this moment that hasn't been afforded you before. You've never been alone like this, the two of you. Your throat is a chute, overflowing with questions that wash over the expanse of your tongue. The longer the silence between you stretches, the more invasive and inadequate they seem.
Why do you want to know what pills he was taking earlier? Probably some ibuprofen. Have you survived a near-death experience? Did your parents fight a lot when you were growing up? Do you like riding horses, or have any experience being around horses? You opt for silence.
You've never been a sociable person but next an introvert your lack of social skills are brought to light. Going to lunch with Foy was a child's game, you even fancied yourself quite the conversationalist, but next to her brother you're back to being a fourth-grader on foreign soil, trying to string together grammatically sound sentences. You watch him fiddle with the label on his beer bottle, tearing it into small strips. "Is it far away, the lake?" you surprise yourself by the question. It's not what you want to ask and you already know the answer. But you're glad you do when he looks your way. You're distorted in his sunglasses. His eyebrows hitch across his forehead like he's surprised you're acknowledging him. "Not far."
"You come here often?"
"Yeah, used to come here with the family when I was younger. Haven't been here in ages though."
"We used to live in Oxford. My father took us fishing in that lake. And I guess that answers my question, two birds one stone and that." He smiles. God, such a golden boy. You can't help it, he really is one. It's clear he's unaware of how the sun and the wind favour him, kissing his hair and skin ever so delicately.
"So what do you usually do, besides what we were just doing."
"More of that, usually."
You laugh. "You're not really selling this place."
"That," he says, "and getting elbowed until your sides bruise listening to music that will be so faint where you stand, you'll ask yourself why you ever bothered getting your wellies muddied."
"I'm getting the distinct feeling—"
"The booze is okay though, and so is the food."
"That's what you were doing with your parents, was it?"
He cackles, throwing his head back. "I won't lie, there was an attempt...once, maybe twice. But mostly we sat around doing pottery or watched a play or something."
"Let's do that then."
"You don't want to do that."
"I kinda do."
"I take it you can't stand Foy." There's a quality to his look that's different.
"Foy, Tilly—" you count them out on your hands, "—Malcolm, Matt. To be honest," you scrunch up your face in mock annoyance, "you as well."
His smile is non-existent. "Ah, explains why you wanted to escape."
"I didn't." You can't tell behind those sunglasses if what you think is bothering him, is bothering him, but if your guess is correct, you want him to know. "I like Foy," you say firmly. She's his sister, he has every right to be protective of her. "Honestly?" You look pointedly at him, asking if he can take your honesty. "You looked overwhelmed, and I didn't mind breaking off and going to a less crowded place."
He takes it no better than if you'd taken a taser to his stomach. The shadows drift over his face like a cloud moving over the sun, and he stands there, stunned. You hadn't meant to be so blunt, to embarrass him. You feel the loss of his gaze as he looks away.
"Thanks." It's a meek little thing that lands in the grass before his feet
"Don't. I have my own selfish reasons."
He looks up. "Yeah? What?"
"Watching you get painted like a clown."
"Uhm... In your dreams maybe."
"Cute that you think I dream of you. Didn't they tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"About Sunny Sunshine?"
He looks thoroughly confused. "Who?"
Smiling, you point at the opening of the tent to your right and let his brain put the pieces together: the children with their parents waiting for their turn, the face painter with the yellow top hat and jacket with the big sun painted on her face. He slowly starts shaking his head.
"Come on, we have to get you introduced."
"We really don't." He begins backing away.
"It'll be cute. I'll get one too, and don't worry, doesn't have to be a clown. A butterfly, maybe."
"No. Absolutely not. I'm not walking around with that on my face."
"That won't be a problem. Your body will do. Come on." You grab hold of his wrist just as he tries to make a run for it. You can't tell what's sweeter, finally touching him and nothing apocalyptic happening or feeling his resolve crumble.