The last time he’d seen Mr. Elson, Antoine had been hiding upstairs in his room with Chris, trying to stay the hell out of the way of Chris’ feuding parents. Chris’ older sister, Amber, had been old enough to have her learner’s permit by then, so she’d gotten good at hightailing it out of there as soon as voices started to rise. But Chris and Antoine had been twelve at the time, so the best they’d gotten in terms of escape was how Antoine’s house was all the way across the street. Antoine had gone down the hall to the bathroom, and as he’d passed the window that looked out over the front of the house, he’d seen Mr. Elson with a heavy duffel thrown over his shoulder, stomping down the front walk to the pickup truck out front. That walk had marked — for Antoine too — the end of a lot of things.
“All right,” said Malcolm, drawing his knees up to his chest, “who’s first?”
The bottle of brandy set in the midst of them had been pilfered from the dean’s private stash, but since he wasn’t strictly supposed to have it there in the first place, Reginald had argued, there’d be little chance of his making a commotion upon finding it gone. Of course, he’d made this argument only after showing up in the dormitory’s small third-story common room with the purloined spirits, at which point old adages about begging forgiveness and asking permission suddenly seemed quite relevant. He was the most rakish of the lot, and indeed of the whole college; he was here on scholarship, on account of his brilliance at engineering, which covered steep tuition the other young men’s parents coughed up every semester. The other lads never let him forget it, but he in turn never let them forget how his name looked listed above theirs when exam results were posted. He was there because his parents couldn’t afford the train ride home from more than once a year.
Gautam tossed another log on the fire, though it didn’t stop his shivering. “I don’t understand why we are doing this again.” He was there because by the time he’d traveled all the way home to Madras, he would have had only enough time to remark on how he didn’t celebrate Christmas anyway before turning on his heel and starting the journey right back to his volumes of poetry.
“It’s tradition, yeah?” Izzy was another non-celebrant, though Hebraic where Gautam was Hindu. He was also an American, though, and thus had similar reasons for remaining over the winter holidays, his nose in his books of anatomy. “Read about it. Dickens and the Ghosts of Christmas What-Have-You. Not such a thing back home, so far as I can tell, but hey, when in Rome, right?”
Malcolm was a pedant by nature, but nevertheless refrained from pointing out that they weren’t in Rome, but in Sheffield. He himself had no family to return to. “It’s a tradition,” he confirmed, reaching for the brandy and taking a swift swig. It burned inside him, sending warmth spreading out to the farthest reaches of his extremities, even though he knew it made his cheeks flush and all the freckles dotting his fair skin that much more visible. “It’s just what you do on Christmas Eve.”
Fard walked in the house, hung up his cloak and scarf by the door, and flopped face-down on the couch with such dramatic force that he felt a cord or two pop under his weight. Daanil didn’t even look up from his paper. “Went well, hm.” It was only a question by the most technical of definitions.
“I hate everything,” said Fard, though the sentiment was muffled through couch cushions that smelled like they’d had all manner of horrors spilled on them, which they had. They tasted even worse. He sat up. “I hate damned everything,” he said again, just in case it hadn’t come across the first time.
“Is that so,” said Daanil. Once upon a time Fard had mistaken Daanil’s unflappable tone for serenity, before he’d learned to recognize sarcasm for what it really was.
Fard blew a raspberry at the ceiling, then stopped when he saw the little drops of spittle fall back and dot his glasses; he tugged them off and wiped them with the tail of his shirt, shutting his eyes against the blurry world for the duration of the cleaning. “If I hear ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ one more time, I may scream and set the place on fire with my mind.”
Peters was five months in the fallows when he met a child.
“You’ve been made.”