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He didn’t understand men like Thom, hadn’t for years. Why settle for teaching with his degrees and his languages and his brains? You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but of the three of them, he was undeniably the smartest. Smarter than pretty much everyone you met, and he, Marty, met a lot of smart people. Hired a lot of them too. After Lizzie was born, he’d offered to make a place for Thom at corporate headquarters — a favor, yes, but not an unsound one, and certainly not as misguided as Thom’s marriage. His friend might lack initiative (he knew for a fact that it was Kate who’d proposed), with “risk averse” threatening to become his epitaph, but you couldn’t buy loyalty like Thom’s no matter how competitive the salary. And Marty’s salaries were always competitive. Throughout his childhood his own mum had been a cleaner — a smart cleaner. “You buy cheap, you get cheap.” Despite more recent acquisitions, she still wore the Chanel suit, black cashmere, she’d saved up for years to buy. (He escorted her once or twice a year just to hear, “May I suggest that Madame consider antique rose? A perfect color for such a lovely, ageless complexion.”) Thom appreciated the offer, or so he’d said. He was still teaching.
Julian was another sort altogether. For all his family money, his reserve, his dainty little finger poems, he was a good man to have on your side in a tight spot. If he’d taken Danny to the zoo instead of Marion, those bastards wouldn’t have gotten near the boy. To do stuff like that to a child, then to torch his small, broken body … Mum was right, what a sick place the world had become. The excuses they came up with! She knew plenty about a hard life, she did, doing it all on her own, but you wouldn’t have heard her whinging like some when, dead tired, she’d come home from work, pry off her tight shoes, and roll up her sleeves to dampen the ironing and get their tea. Not that she was cold — or hid her tears. Nothing wrong with a good cry, she’d tell him. Go on, don’t keep it bottled up, I don’t want to hear that unmanly nonsense. Unmanly is when a man runs off on his responsibilities. Marty had met Julian’s mother a couple of times. She’d been dry-eyed at the funeral.
Since then Julian wouldn’t talk about Danny. That wasn’t how you were supposed to handle grief, was it? And those new poems — no, definitely not dainty. “Phantom Limb” was more like a hideous stump, still raw and weeping. An amputation without anesthetic. He’d been such a beautiful little boy, an angel child really. Those dark curls. You couldn’t help wondering whether he’d have been better off as a misshapen troll with scurf, nose encrusted with snot, slack-jawed, always drooling.
The zipper parted with a truculent kvetch and Marty yanked off his parka in order to dig out their pee bottle from his pack. Despite its size, it was the one item whose necessity they all agreed upon. Over the years they’d developed a certain routine, not rules exactly, but close enough to tempt the odd harmless prank from him. Keep them on their toes: works well in management, too. Whoever imperilled the capacity of the bottle got to empty it outside — Thom, usually, with his weak bladder.
“Hurry up, lad, we haven’t got all day.”
Damn it, my trousers are going to stink.
Not exactly the most sensible thing to worry about when your friends have disappeared, the vestry fire has been lit, and your cock is flapping about in full view of a ghost.
Father Anselm hanged himself when Marty was fifteen. His mother told him about it at tea, serving the news like an extra dollop of whipped cream in his hot chocolate. There were toasted bacon, rocket, and cheese sandwiches stuffed with the thick, free-range rashers they couldn’t afford. The kitchen table was laid with an embroidered cloth and their good china, and she’d even baked a chocolate fudge cake, usually reserved for birthdays. She must have gotten up early just to ice it.
“We’ll go to the funeral mass,” she said.
“Do I have to?”
“We’ll buy you a proper suit to wear instead of your uniform.” She studied him over the rim of her teacup. “The Bishop will preach about forgiveness.”
He tore off a savage piece of bacon with his fingers but she didn’t reprimand him.
“You’ll stand there all solemn and dignified, with just the right measure of sorrow for a priest who has fallen.”
“The others won’t be going.”
“No. Which is why you will.”
“Where do people go when they die?” Thom asked his nanny after learning about Grandpa.
That afternoon she took him past the bamboo thicket to a dip in the land, the red obdurate land of her ancestors, where a shallow pool formed when it rained. He knelt in the rough grasses, her hand on his shoulder. The birds were often talkative; Thom preferred their company, and their conversations, to the contempt of his brothers and the banality of school. Now, in the slurry of heat after a thunderstorm, the birds were telling each other where to find the juiciest worms. He could smell Gia’s strong work smell, but he was used to it, even liked it (though he knew better than to say so to his mother).
“There,” Gia said, “look carefully and you’ll see them.”
He stared into a face that should have been familiar, then nudged the watery skin with a fingertip. The ripples made it easier to tell her he didn’t even see himself. She slapped away a mosquito from her graceful neck, leaving a trace of blood. He thought of the vampire stories Oliver, his oldest brother, whispered at bedtime — stories Thom didn’t quite believe. “Believe them,” Oliver would say. “It’s the stuff you can’t see that matters most.”
Years later, Thom asked Oliver why his mother hadn’t divorced his dad. “She’s good at not seeing the things she doesn’t want to,” Oliver answered. “A lot like you.”
It was Marty who had asked the helicopter pilot about sightings. “No chance, mate.” Known locally as the grey ghost, a snow leopard is rarely seen by humans. Solitary and elusive, beautiful and mysterious, it hunts at dawn or dusk, when its coloration makes it difficult even for native herders to spot it. Marty had read the legends. Though he no longer attended Mass and laughed sheepishly if he caught himself muttering what might have been the start of a prayer, he still attended in a way that saw color in a shadow. Like many highly successful men, he delighted in a wildcard. Wasn’t he one himself? If there weren’t shapeshifters, there ought to be.
No one complained about Thom’s soup, though it was far too salty. They had one dense loaf between them, the last bread they’d taste till their return, and Marty cut it into thick, chewy slices for dunking. It was admittedly a luxury, but Thom was a terrific baker, and his sourdough rye had taken him years to perfect. Each ate in near silence, the sound of the snowstorm benign in the warmth of the cabin’s interior. No matter how tired, they always spent the first evening in the wild querying the terrain, re-evaluating their plans, arguing cheerfully about their food rations; talking the way old friends will talk — the shorthand, the reminiscences. Even Julian would slip into interrupting the others. Unless it had been a particularly trying haul, no one let himself become irritable. Their resentments would grow along with their beards, itchy, a little grizzled; familiar.