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The Littlest Birds

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You won’t have any friends and I’ll live in a room
with flowers on the walls and golden doorknobs

 

He hasn’t seen Ryan in over a year.

The walls are the kind of yellow that people paint in babies’ bedrooms, the sunlight dappled on the floorboards, and Spencer’s been here before but he still gets a shock when the locks slide home with a crash on the other side of the door, trapping him inside.

Spencer draws a breath and takes one step into the room. ‘Hello, Ryan.’

Ryan is standing on the shady side of the window, staring out at the sky. He stands still for a moment before turning to look at Spencer, eyes cool. Then he turns back. ‘You’re that doctor, aren’t you.’

It’s not a question. Spencer guesses Ryan’s seen more doctors than he can keep track of in recent years, countless men and women with white coats and wary mouths.

He clears his throat. ‘I – no. It’s me. Spencer.’

‘Spencer.’ Ryan leans forwards and breathes against the glass, fogging up a strip right across the centre, then raises his hand and writes Spencer's name in swirling letters with one long finger. He steps back and quirks his head at the window. ‘Spencer, Spencer – oh. Spencer! What are you doing here?’ Ryan turns around to smile at Spencer, taking four quick steps into the room to wrap his arms around him. The letters fade from the glass.

Spencer grins into Ryan’s neck. ‘Seeing you,’ he says as Ryan releases him. ‘Thought you’d appreciate seeing someone new. Or old. I don’t want you to get bored, or – lonely.’

Ryan’s lips curve. ‘Still don’t like it here?’

Spencer looks away. He clenches his fingers and flexes them out again behind his back. ‘No. It’s not right, here.’

Ryan hmmms. ‘And yet, here we both are.’ He offers a smile to Spencer, head quirked, and for a moment Spencer’s looking at the Ryan he used to –

 

'- stay for dinner? Your mom told me she made lasagne.' Ryan's standing by the window, hair falling across his face, two fingers resting lightly on the sill.

Spencer rolls his eyes. 'Yeah,' he says, 'if you promise not to – '

 

- Ryan tilts his head the other way. 'Yes?'

Spencer blinks and shakes his head. 'Um. I mean - ' He stops. 'Nothing,' he says lamely, and scuffs at the rug. 'I forget.'

'Oh?' Ryan raises an eyebrow. He turns back to face the window, the smile falling off his face, and runs his hand all over his shaven skull. 'Pity. Oh well.'

Talking to Ryan gets harder every time Spencer sees him. He always forgets just how bad it is, until they’re there in the room together and Spencer’s struggling for something to say that isn’t I miss you. Spencer doesn’t think Ryan would even know what those words mean, any more. Something that would make much more sense to him is who are you now, but Spencer doesn’t want to ask that question.

Spencer coughs, disrupting the direction of his thoughts. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place. It’s very ...’

‘Yellow?’

‘Yeah. That. Good word.’

‘I thought so.’ Ryan walks across the room to the bed and flops down onto his stomach, the sunshine from the window sliding down his face. Spencer watches as Ryan props his head up on one hand, tracing lazy shapes above him with two fingers, and realises after a moment that he’s writing yellow in the air. Spencer keeps his eyes on him as he writes, utterly absorbed in the task.

The sunlight cools on Spencer’s arm and he glances outside to catch the sun going behind the clouds.

The word yellow is written twice across the glass, right where Spencer’s name was ten minutes prior, in condensation that Spencer has just watched disappear.

Spencer blinks. He looks at Ryan.

Ryan has his hand up still, looping letters into the air. Spencer twists back to the window, and watches a w appear on the end of a third yellow.

‘There,’ says Ryan. He presses his finger into the air carefully, as if he’s pressing an elevator button. A period appears after the w. ‘Yellow.’

Spencer shuts his eyes very tightly. When he opens them again, the glass is clear and gleaming. ‘How did you do that?’

Spencer watches Ryan’s reflection roll onto his back, head hanging off the edge of the bed. He reaches down to the ground, scrawling curly words on the floorboards that Spencer can’t make out, but the glass stays clear. ‘Ryan?’

‘I don’t sleep much anymore,’ says Ryan. ‘And I don’t like the dark.’

‘I don’t – ’

Ryan smiles without looking at him. ‘You don’t come here very often,’ he says. Spencer shuts his mouth. ‘Got to fill my time somehow.’

 

*

 

When Spencer was five, one of his friends whispered in his ear that his older sister’s best friend’s cousin said Santa wasn’t real.

Five year old Spencer didn’t even consider that it might not be true. He spent three days pestering his parents at every opportunity until they admitted that there wasn’t any gold at the end of the rainbow, so there wasn’t any point trying to get there, and that carrots wouldn’t make him see in the dark, and that the tooth fairy didn’t exist either. (Spencer looked sadly at his newly-acquired dollar before dropping it back into his mom’s purse.)

After the three days he met Ryan. Spencer spent every Christmas Eve for the next four years on Santa-watch, shivering with a walkie-talkie at the other end of the street to Ryan until one or other of their parents hauled them inside in the early hours of the morning. Four years of believing for Ryan, and now Spencer wonders if it was really the other way around.

Ryan is re-telling a story about the first show they ever played together to a crowd other than their parents. Spencer knows the story and the way Ryan tells it by heart, so he lies back on the bed with his eyes closed and lets the cadence of Ryan’s voice fill his head.

He opens his eyes when Ryan stops talking. ‘What? Did you forget the rest?’

‘Haven’t you been drumming?’

Spencer frowns. He props himself up on his elbows to look at Ryan beside him. ‘What?’

‘Your hands.’ Ryan angles his head at them. ‘No calluses.’

Ryan is the easiest person Spencer knows to hide secrets from, too caught up in his own world to notice them. The difficulty only comes when Spencer forgets to hide things. He shrugs and flops back down on his back. ‘Stopped wanting to, after everything.’ He gestures between them vaguely and closes his eyes again.

‘Oh.’

‘You were up to the girl who –’

‘- whose hair caught fire, yeah. Open your eyes.’

Spencer looks up, and realises he doesn’t know the story as well as he thought. One thing he doesn’t know is the way a spider tells it. He pulls himself up to lean against the bedrail and stares, transfixed, at the spider walking upside-down across the ceiling, leaving a web of flames in its wake. Immediately above the window, the web becomes a series of cascading whirls and leaps that Spencer realises show the nine people plus Brendon who threw their drinks at the girl. He swallows, a little unnerved, as part of the story snags into a wisp of cobweb that floats down to catch on his fingers.

‘Anyway,’ says Ryan brightly. ‘Bad night for her, good night for us.’

‘Worse night for Brent.’

‘Mmmm. Remember when we told Jon about it? He wouldn’t stop laughing. I thought Brent was going to hit him.’ Ryan looks at Spencer. ‘Jon was here last week, you know. I liked seeing him, it was good.’

‘Was it?’

‘He said you haven’t seen each other since before they put me here.’

Spencer looks away. ‘I guess.’

Ryan lifts his hands and changes the tap, tap of his fingers to mimic the movement of a pianist, walking up and down the keys as if he’s playing to the ceiling. ‘Why?’

‘Been busy,’ Spencer replies. Listening to the opening strains of Für Elise lilt through the room in perfect time with Ryan’s fingers, Spencer can’t remember a single reason why.

Ryan raises his eyebrows and keeps playing. He doesn’t look at Spencer. ‘That’s a shame,’ he says, and doesn’t sound sorry at all.

 

*

 

‘How long?’ asks Spencer.

‘A little while,’ says Ryan. He finishes the movement and lets his hands drop to his side as the chord falls away in the distance. He glances away, then back at Spencer, and a smile breaks across his face. ‘It’s so much fun, Spence, it’s awesome. I can – ’ He catches the words and pushes himself off the mattress. He hops up on the bedrail next to Spencer, close enough that Spencer can feel the excitement shiver up and down Ryan’s skin. ‘I can do so much now,’ he says. ‘Watch.’

Reaching under the bed, Ryan draws out a shoebox filled with what on examination turn out to be paper cranes. Spencer coughs and Ryan rolls his eyes. ‘I’m a walking cliché,’ he says, ‘whatever, I know. But look.’ He picks up one of the cranes between his fingers, and without pause tosses it out into the room. In the instant before it hits the ground, the wings extend and the tiny bird swoops into the sunlight again. It glides up to the windowsill, then curves away to hover just above their heads.

‘The doctors won’t give me any pens,’ says Ryan, ‘they don’t like what I write. I don’t care.’ Spencer catches his breath when two more paper birds tumble through the air to join the one already floating by the ceiling. They dart and dive together, taking an obvious, shining pleasure in each other’s company, before soaring away to cluster in a corner of the windowsill. ‘What do you think?’

Ryan is watching Spencer with bright eyes, tapping his fingers on his knee in a nervous refrain. Spencer has no idea what to think, if this is real or imagined, but he can’t help it: it’s magic. ‘I think it’s fucking amazing, man.’

Ryan’s delight is almost palpable. ‘Then,’ he says, beaming at Spencer and shuffling closer on the bedrail to pick up one of Spencer’s hands tight in his own, ‘what about this?’ He lifts his free hand to eye level and snaps his fingers.

Spencer holds his breath, but nothing happens.

‘No,’ says Ryan quietly before Spencer can ask. ‘Listen.’ His fingers are crushing Spencer’s into a fist and he’s wearing a determined expression. Spencer can’t hear anything except Ryan breathing next to him.

‘I can’t –’

Ryan shuffles closer still. He catches Spencer’s eye then flicks a look at the clock above the door frame. It’s stopped, the second hand caught on twenty-seven seconds past. Spencer watches it for a moment before turning back to Ryan, eyebrows raised.

Ryan’s gaze slides to the window.

Spencer follows his eyes. The paper cranes are hanging still and silent in the air, the barest inch above the windowsill, and the leaves on the tree outside are contorted in place. Spencer feels a bizarrely urgent desire to know how fast his heart is beating, how many breaths he’s taking, and nearly laughs.

‘Don’t try and count,’ says Ryan, as if he can hear what Spencer’s thinking. ‘Are you listening? Can you hear that?’

‘There’s nothing left to hear. Nothing at all ...’

‘Correct,’ says Ryan, smiling.

 

*

 

Some number of heartbeats later, Ryan says, ‘I don’t think I’m very good at being insane. I don’t do things the way they expect me to.’ He sounds a little gloomy about it. ‘Don’t let go, by the way,’ he adds, holding their linked hands up between them. ‘This is why you’re not stopped, because you’re holding on to me.’

Spencer splutters. ‘And you were planning on telling me this when, exactly? Before or after I – fell out of time?’

‘Oh, it’s not permanent. I can un-stop us,’ Ryan says, looking surprised. ‘Or you can, if you want. You’ve just got to count us in. Count down from five.’

‘Five –’

‘Not yet!’ Ryan slaps his free hand over Spencer’s mouth, alarm spilling over his face. ‘Not just from five. Five seconds.’

Spencer waits.

Ryan takes his hand away. ‘Five exact seconds.’

Spencer blinks and looks at the clock, the third hand still stuck on twenty-seven seconds past. ‘Oh,’ he says faintly.

‘Yeah, “oh”. The fate of the universe as we know it depends on you, Spence. Try not to screw it up.’

Spencer stares at him. He shakes his head.

Ryan make a face. ‘Never mind,’ he says. ‘I was only messing.’

‘You – ’

‘Sorry. It gets dull here.’ Ryan looks contrite. Then he brightens. ‘And sometimes, I can do this!’

He snaps his fingers twice more. Spencer looks up at the clock automatically, and for a moment it seems like nothing is going to happen. Then the second hand starts to move again, soft ticks that sound just like normal, except for the way they’re moving backwards. Spencer turns to the window to the see the paper cranes soar back above their heads, just like before, only backwards, and silent.

A door slams in the distance. The cranes crumple into themselves and drop to the ground, and the clock starts ticking forwards again.

Spencer takes a breath. He plants his feet firm on the floor and thinks, very quietly, that it’s time to leave, and stays.

Ryan doesn’t even look at the broken bodies. He pulls his fingers out of Spencer’s and slips off the bedrail, stands tall and stares at the window again. The glass darkens under his gaze. Spencer isn’t at an angle to see clearly, but he’s fairly sure that the person smiling out of the glass isn’t the same as the person smiling into it.

A moment later, a bird on the outside crashes into the window and falls down the glass. They both jolt in surprise, horror curling in Spencer’s stomach.

‘Oops,’ says Ryan softly.

‘Did you do that?’

Ryan doesn’t look around. He stays facing the window, the glass still dark – on their side, at least – and Spencer watches him for several long moments.

‘Who is that?’

Ryan tilts his head to the side without turning. ‘“It was the sound of his voice I heard, not the words, which I lost.’”

Spencer doesn’t care that the answer doesn’t make sense, because the flowers are growing in the paintwork as Ryan continues to murmur. He stares entranced as daisies blossom and unfurl into lilies, orchids, honeysuckle in the coving. It’s wonderfully, painfully lovely, and Spencer feels his breath catch in his throat, because Ryan isn’t even trying – doesn’t even seem to notice they’re there – and still the flowers are stretching across the walls to reach him.

It takes him a moment to realise, but when Ryan pauses for breath, Spencer realises that they’re not alone in the room. He shakes his head sharp from one side to the other, because that person shouldn’t be here any more than Spencer or Ryan, but at least Spencer knows the reason for the two of them.

Brendon trails his fingers along a vine of ivy, silent and careful as he walks towards Ryan at the window. He plucks a rose out of the wall, heedless of the thorns that spring up from the stem.

Spencer’s mouth drops open. Brendon notices and throws a brief, amused look over his shoulder before stepping up to Ryan, who still has his back to the room.

Spencer watches in the window as Ryan stops talking. Brendon steps closer, twining his body around Ryan’s, and slides the rose into Ryan’s buttonhole. His free hand clasps Ryan’s as Ryan tries to take the flower from him. Brendon presses his mouth to Ryan’s cheek as they stare at the reflection together, Ryan smiling at the glass. Ryan lets his head fall back into the curve of Brendon’s neck and Brendon nuzzles into him, whispering into his skin. The flowers are climbing each other to reach the ceiling.

Spencer shivers. He hasn’t seen Brendon in months, years even, and he doesn’t remember why that is, either. ‘What are you doing in here?’

Brendon pauses. He slips his fingers down into Ryan’s and pulls him around to face Spencer; the same huge, stupid smile painted across Ryan’s face as he used to wear back when they were starting out. That was when Brendon didn’t know how not to adore him, how not to show it; when Ryan couldn’t think of anything else. ‘Same thing as you are,’ Brendon says.

Ryan coughs and Brendon smirks. ‘Nearly the same thing as you. More kissing, maybe. But keeping this one entertained.’ He jerks his head at Ryan and Ryan’s eyes get brighter still.

‘I didn’t realise you were – how are you?’

‘Same old,’ says Brendon. ‘You?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Been up to much?’

‘This and that.’

Brendon nods. ‘I’ve missed you,’ he says with genuine feeling. ‘It’s been too long, Spencer Smith.’

Spencer opens his mouth to reply, but Ryan tugs on Brendon’s hand and Brendon’s attention is lost. ‘You’re not being very entertaining,’ says Ryan in an aggrieved voice. Then he looks at Spencer and grins. ‘Stop distracting him.’

Brendon rolls his eyes. He looks back at Spencer and winks, almost too fast for Spencer to catch.

‘Oh,’ says Ryan in surprise. The cranes are gliding in circles around him, wings unbroken, dipping under his elbow then up and around to cluster on his palm. And –

‘I did try to make them real,’ says Ryan, smiling between Brendon and the very, very real birds on his hand. ‘I couldn’t get it to work. They kept dying.’ He frowns. ‘Is it dying if they weren’t really alive?’

Spencer has a brief image of Ryan lying motionless on the bed surrounded by fallen cranes, littered through the room until someone comes in to clear them away. He shivers and makes himself focus on the birds that are walking up Ryan’s arm.

Brendon holds out his hand and one of the birds hops on board.

Spencer steps closer and peers down at miniature cranes that he almost, almost believes could have flown in through the window while he was distracted. The bird on Brendon’s hand is busy investigating his fingers, jumping from knuckle to knuckle as if Brendon were flipping a coin along them.

Spencer blinks.

Brendon tosses the coin and it flashes in the light. He slaps his hand down as it lands on the back of his hand. ‘Heads or tails?’

‘Heads,’ says Spencer, but doesn’t hear himself say it.

Brendon nods. ‘Good answer,’ he says without looking down, and lifts his hand away. The crane is back, launching itself off Brendon’s hand and flying across the room to join the others at the window. They clamour in unison until one of the birds notices the inch tilted open by the ceiling, whereupon they soar up the glass and out into the sunshine.

‘Want to go with them?’

‘What?’

‘Not through the window,’ says Brendon, and Spencer realises he’s thrown a hand out to it as if to magic it closed. He swallows, trying not to think of what it would mean if Brendon and Ryan decided to take their chances on five storeys to the ground. Then he remembers that they’d both need to be considerably smaller if they were going to try and fit through the window, and also flight-enabled. Spencer drops his hand, flushing.

Brendon’s eyes crinkle. He feels for Ryan’s hand and lifts it to press a kiss to the back of his wrist. He keeps his eyes on Spencer. ‘Ryan?’

Ryan’s staring after the birds, but he turns back to Brendon and smiles warmly. ‘Okay.’

Brendon throws a look at the door over Spencer’s shoulder. ‘I wish it would stop doing that.’

‘Doing what?’ asks Spencer.

Brendon lets go of Ryan’s hand and walks past Spencer to the door. ‘Closing,’ he says. He reaches out to pull the handle down and the door clicks ajar. ‘There.’

 

*

 

Of everything Spencer’s seen the two of them do, this feels like the strangest. He looks from the back of Brendon’s head to the door handle and back again. ‘How did you do that?’ he asks, frowning. The door was definitely locked after he walked in.

‘Do you want to come too, Spence?’ asks Ryan. He pushes himself away from the bed, the vines turning into hands in the paintwork and grasping after him along the wall. He ignores them and looks at Spencer. ‘You could, if you wanted. I’d like that, I mean.’

Spencer looks between the two of them. Ryan is wearing a hopeful look, Brendon looks a bit amused. ‘But,’ says Spencer.

He can’t think what to say next. He shakes his head and walks up to Brendon, and holds his breath while Brendon pulls the door the rest of the way open with his fingertips. He jerks his head out into the hallway as an invitation to Spencer to look outside.

It looks exactly the same as it did when Spencer arrives. There’s no one there, but the floorboards are still splintering and the woodchip wallpaper is clean whitewash. Spencer peers out further.

‘You can go out there,’ says Brendon after a second. Spencer jumps. ‘You won’t get eaten, or anything.’

‘Sure about that?’ asks Spencer, but puts one foot outside the room before Brendon can answer. He takes another step, and again until he’s standing alone in the middle of the hallway. He turns and looks down to the end of the hall. A long stretch of closed doors look back at him, all except the room opposite Ryan’s. The door is propped open, the room empty and dark. URIE, BRENDON. is written neatly across the whiteboard.

‘But I thought the doors were locked,’ Spencer says without turning around.

‘I can’t walk through walls,’ Brendon tells him. Spencer can hear the smile in his voice. ‘How do you think I got in here?’

Spencer turns back. Ryan is supporting himself against the door frame just inside his room with Brendon leaning against his other side. Their hands are clasped against Ryan’s stomach, fingers running over each other. ‘Right,’ says Spencer after a moment. Then he frowns. ‘There’s no sign,’ he says. He nods at the whiteboard on Ryan’s door. ‘It doesn’t have your name on there.’

Neither of them answers. Spencer raises his eyebrows.

Brendon looks uncomfortable. He raises his and Ryan’s linked hands, twisting his arm to show his blackened shirt cuffs. The ink from the board has smudged onto his wrist.

‘I didn’t like it,’ says Ryan, and Spencer draws a breath.

‘Okay,’ he says.

‘Are you coming back in?’ asks Brendon. ‘Or do we go out there with you now?’

Spencer pauses. Ryan and Brendon are watching him with twin warm expressions, but there’s something sharp in their eyes that doesn’t match the curve of their lips.

He glances at the open door across the hall then back at the two of them. ‘Why do you stay here?’

The knuckles of both their hands are white. Spencer counts three, four, five and a half breaths in his head before Brendon replies, casually, ‘Old habits die hard.’

Spencer frowns at him. ‘No, I mean it. Do you need me to ask you?’

Neither replies.

Spencer shakes his head slowly. ‘I – no. I think I’ll come back in.’

Ryan and Brendon exchange a look, too quick for Spencer to see what their faces say. Ryan inclines his head, then shrugs a little irritably and snaps his fingers.

Spencer blinks. He’s back in the room, the door shut, and when he reaches out to touch the handle, he pauses with his fingers a hair away before letting them drop. He feels unaccountably regretful.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ says Brendon. Spencer twists around; Brendon is watching him with an understanding look on his face. ‘It’s okay, we don’t mind really.’

Spencer opens his mouth, then shuts it abruptly. He stares between them, horror crawling down his throat and along his arms to his fingertips. They’re not surprised and they’re not angry. They don’t care.

‘Calm down,’ says Ryan. ‘We’re insane, remember? Nothing you didn’t know about already.’

‘Of course I know. I knew before you did,’ says Spencer. Disquiet turns the words sharp.

Ryan doesn’t answer. He looks with bright eyes at Brendon by the window, and for one long moment, something else is taking up too much space in Spencer’s chest to let him breathe. He rocks on his feet, pulse too loud in his ears. When he looks back at Brendon he can see exactly what it is about him that Ryan has always gotten caught on.

‘And,’ says Spencer, dragging his gaze away from Brendon, ‘I knew about that, too.’

‘You did. You knew first of anyone. But what you didn’t know ...’ Ryan curls his fingers into fists then flings them open into the room. From his hands spring hundreds of tiny stars, catching to the dust in the air and snagging there. Standing right in the centre of it, Brendon looks like he’s glowing, willing the stars closer until they cling to the hair on his arms and the tips of his eyelashes. Spencer catches his breath.

Ryan hops up onto the bedrail. ‘There,’ he says, and blows Brendon a kiss.

 

*

 

The moment is gorgeous and fleeting, and it breaks as soon as Spencer clears his throat. ‘Show-off,’ he says, rolling his eyes and smiling, and Ryan and Brendon turn together to beam at him. The stars blink out with a whisper.

Ryan looks delighted with himself. ‘Neat trick, isn’t it?’

Spencer opens his mouth to agree, but: ‘Your hair,’ he says instead.

‘What about it?’

‘When did they cut it?’

Ryan and Brendon glance at each other. ‘They didn’t,’ says Ryan.

‘Yes, they – ’ Spencer cuts himself off. He looks at Brendon. ‘Tell him,’ he says, gesturing at Ryan’s head. Spencer doesn’t need to look to know that Ryan hasn’t had messy curls for a long time. ‘They shaved it all off,’ he says impatiently. ‘Tell him, Brendon.’

Brendon looks at Ryan again then back. ‘But they didn’t.’

Spencer huffs. ‘You’re a shitty liar,’ he says. He keeps his eyes on Brendon. ‘Do you think I can’t tell when –’

Ryan takes three steps towards Spencer and picks up his hand. ‘Here,’ he says, and places Spencer’s hand on top of his head. His hair is long and soft.

Spencer yanks his hand away. He stares at Ryan.

Ryan stares back, a stray lock of hair slipping out from behind his ear and obstructing Spencer’s view of his face.

‘Spencer?’

‘Don’t,’ says Spencer. He doesn’t look at Brendon.

‘But –’

‘Don’t,’ says Spencer again. He peers down at his hands, palms open, fingers loose. ‘He doesn’t have short hair. He hasn’t had short hair for years. Why did I think that he did?’ He looks at Brendon. ‘Unless ... what did you do to make me think it?’

Neither Brendon nor Ryan answers. Spencer frowns at them, fixing his eyes on Ryan’s face then Brendon’s and back again. ‘I won’t be angry,’ he says. ‘You’ve been messing with my head all afternoon, this is no different. I just want to know.’

‘But we didn’t,’ says Ryan. ‘My hair is long.’

Spencer doesn’t say anything.

‘Are you okay?’ Brendon takes a step towards Spencer, one hand outstretched.

Spencer shakes his head slowly. ‘I think I’ve been here too long,’ he says, not sure if it’s for Ryan’s benefit or Brendon’s or his own. ‘You’re confusing me, and – and I’m not sick. ’

There’s a pause. Spencer lifts his head and looks straight ahead at Brendon and Ryan. ‘I’m free to go.’

Ryan looks at him steadily, fingers twining into Brendon’s. Spencer feels one moment of the same all-consuming panic he felt when Crystal ran out onto the street on her twelfth birthday, his entire body twisting into knots while their neighbour spun the wheel frantically, and then Ryan opens his mouth to speak and the feeling recedes into relief. He shakes his head, trying to clear the blur of it.

‘Yeah, you are,’ says Ryan. ‘You can leave whenever.’ He nods at the door and Spencer hears the bolts on the other side slide back. ‘Right now, if you want. Only ...’ He pulls his hand out of Brendon’s and walks across the room to Spencer. ‘Take this.’ He tugs the rose out of his buttonhole, careful not to let it snag on the cotton, and slips it into the pocket of Spencer’s pants. ‘Don’t lose it.’

‘Do I want to leave?’ Spencer is having trouble making the connections work in his head. He drops his hand to his pocket and smoothes his fingers over the rose. ‘I thought we were talking. I thought it was fine.’

‘You tell us,’ says Brendon quietly.

Spencer looks from the two of them to the door. ‘Free to go,’ he murmurs, or maybe he only thinks it.

The door opens and the same guard who brought him to the room sticks her head through. She looks at Spencer without a word.

‘Bye, Spence,’ says Ryan.

Spencer nods, thoughts clogging up in his head until he can’t separate them out. He picks the thought that feels clearest and forces himself to turn it into words. ‘I’ll come back soon.’

Ryan smiles at him. ‘You won’t,’ he says as the guard leads Spencer out the door. ‘You won’t remember. But thank you for saying so.’

In the moment before the door swings shut, Spencer looks back. Ryan is at the window with his head dropped back on Brendon’s shoulder, Brendon leaning in to press a kiss to his neck, and the flowers are twisting across the walls again. The roses are bleeding as they climb each other. Neither of them notices him leave.

When Spencer turns around, he recoils. The door to the room opposite Ryan’s is gaping wide open, the bed stripped and the windows bare. No one’s been in there for a very long time. ‘Where did he go?’

The guard doesn’t reply.

Spencer swallows. ‘Okay,’ he says. His head is clearer now that he’s out of Ryan’s room, and making sense of what just happened isn’t so difficult. He trails down the corridor behind the guard, trying not to think too hard about Ryan, about where Brendon might or might not be now. He wonders, uncomfortably, how often Jon has been to visit.

Then he stops. He stares at the door closest to him, a long, complicated Spanish name printed in blue marker on the whiteboard.

‘I forgot to check,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t a name.’

Spencer turns and walks slowly back up the hallway to the empty room across from Ryan’s. He takes a step closer but doesn’t go in, looking around it for any clue that Brendon might actually still live there after all.

A moment and no clues later, he turns around to check Ryan’s door.

SMITH, SPENCER. says the sign.

Spencer blinks and looks again.


SMITH, SPENCER.

‘I don’t understand,’ says Spencer to the door. ‘That’s my name.’

 

*