vii. thin ice

In early August, my younger brother Sadwyn turns twenty-two, and my folks -- well, my Mum, really -- request my presence at a family barbecue to celebrate the occasion.

"Only if you want to," Mum stresses, which just makes me chuckle and roll my eyes. A.K.A., 'get your arse over here this evening, or we're writing you out of the will', which I translate for the boys after the phone call on the bright Saturday morning.

"Can we come, as well?" Teddy asks, then pauses and laughs, catching his own mistake.

"Only if you want to," I tease, putting the phone back in its charger and returning to my place on 'my' recliner. We've got a pattern, now -- Teddy has the left recliner, Llew takes the entirety of the love seat in the middle (because of course he does), and I take the remaining recliner. We're in that pattern this morning, Llew properly sprawled over the sofa, his auburn head pillowed by my ridiculous purple cushion against one arm, and long legs hanging off the other, occasionally poking Teddy with his toes. Not to annoy, I don't think, and Teddy doesn't seem to take it that way, but more to remind himself that Teddy is there. I suppose your eyes aren't quite enough when you're a ghost, and people can walk through you if you're not careful.

"Didn't you already text your little bro? Whathisname?" Llew asks, rolling his head back to look at me. I take sip of my morning coffee and nod.

"Sadwyn," I supply. "Yeah, I did, and wrote on his Facebook wall--"

"Facebook's the devil."

"--thanks, Evans, I'll keep that in mind -- but my folks are doing this weird 'pull all the family together as much as possible' thing, lately. I think..." I pause, then say, hesitantly, glancing quickly at Teddy, "I think they're becoming aware of their own mortality?"

He of the Bambi eyes nods. He's gotten better with recent mentions of death, as long as they're put delicately. I still haven't worked up the courage to ask him about his death. Nor Llew's. Maybe it doesn't matter.

"Gettin' him a present?" Llew asks me, poking Teddy with his pointed toes again.

"Not this week. Funds and all. Next week. Not sure, a book or something for his telescope or something like that, I think. He's an amateur astronomer," I add. I realise then that the boys know hardly anything about my family -- they know more about Alex than my brothers, I'm pretty sure.

Our relationship has been so, so strange. We just...started. Told each other our names, and that was that. No heavy questions asked, no complications made. It's not that I've not been curious about them, but it just hasn't seemed important to know about things like family and birthdays...and mental illness and dying. Things which you'd certainly think were important.

We fell into patterns quickly after coming together, establishing physical (if you could call them that) boundaries and feeling what was and wasn't the right thing to say or do with each other, but we know so little about each other. It's a curious thing.

"Do you guys have...did you have...any brothers and sisters?" I ask, stumble-tongued. Maybe the reason I never broached the subject before is because the wording is perpetually awkward.

Teddy shakes his head with a wry little smile. "Only child."

"Elder sister," Llew says. "Myf. Myfanwy. That's Welsh, so don't make any smart remarks. God, she was mad as a box of otters on Adderall. Was. Is. Dunno." He laughs, not entirely comfortably.

Yeah, the wording is definitely one of the reasons, in more than one way. I'm fairly sure I stop a wince at the word 'Adderall', even though that's one of the few I've never actually been prescribed.

"Got two," I add to the conversation. I know it's particularly bad form to make a conversation all about you, but I need to get us out of these strange, sad waters. "Two brothers, I mean, no sisters. Jimbo -- James -- is older, Sadwyn's younger. I'm the middle kid."

"How much older than you is James?" Teddy asks. "I got the feeling that there was quite a bit of an age gap there."

"Yeah, ten years. He's long since moved out, getting married in September, the works. Sadwyn's only three years younger than me, though. But..." I trail off, and frown. I don't know if Sadwyn would want me telling complete strangers to him this, but the proximity-thing means Llew and Teddy will find out this evening, like or not. "He's...Sad's got epilepsy. Pretty badly. He's still trying to manage it, and he needs a lot of help from Mum and Dad. He's not, like, you know, slow or anything like that." Getting a bit defensive, aren't we, Winter? "It's just that the fits are quite frequent, still, and his mates don't understand it entirely, so he can't move out into a share house, or--"

"Hey, hey," Llew says, and sits up on the sofa, putting his hand over my fist trembling on the arm of the recliner -- I hadn't even realised I'd been clenching it until then. The ice spreads through my hand and up my arm immediately, but it's not as unpleasant as usual. "It's cool. Neither of us are going to say anything nasty."

"I didn't think that," I mumble, and realise it's true. I still got defensive, anyway. How did that work?

"Ian Curtis had epilepsy," Teddy says. "And Joy Division's music is flawless."

I stare at Teddy, and Llew puts his hand to his forehead, exasperated.

"Hey, shit for brains, Ian Curtis killed himself."

Realisation and panic dawns on Teddy's face, and it's weirdly hilarious and ten different kinds of adorable.

"No -- I didn't mean -- I didn't mean that your brother would -- it's just that -- I mean that -- oh god, Winter, I'm so sorry, that, I didn't mean it that way, I--"

"Oh, shut it, you goober," I say, giggling hard. "I understood what you meant." A wave of affection rolls through me, and I get up and go over and muss up his hair, gently. His eyes widen, making the Bambi effect double, if not triple.

It's the first time I've reached out and touched one of them. They've touched me a few times, not often due to the ice-needle issue, but ghost or no, I don't think you can turn off the human instinct for touch. But I've not touched either of them.

Teddy is expectedly freezing cold beneath my fingers, even his hair, but...I have the feeling that his hair would be quite soft, if I could just feel past the ice. And as you'd have it, the ice isn't as sharp as it usually is, like I noted when Llew touched my hand. It's not what you'd call pleasant, but it isn't painful like the first time, not by a long shot.

Llew is giving us a stunned look, and shit is starting to get awkward, as I'm sure he'd phrase it. I run my fingers down Teddy's hair one more time (why? Why, Winter?) and retreat back to my recliner, picking up my coffee and taking a long swig from the mug, as if it is some kind of shield I could hide behind. (Considering it has 'tell someone who GIVES A SHIT!' written across it in jagged white letters on black, it wouldn't make too bad a shield, I don't think.)

"Well," Llew says, and the tone of his voice makes me blush and skol down more coffee. "We're going to meet the Brennans this evening, I take it?"

"Like I said, only if you really want to."

Llew gives me the one-fingered answer I probably deserve to that, and both Teddy and I grin.


"Yo, you fambly!" I call out as I walk through the door of the house I grew up in, Teddy and Llew trailing behind me, Llew looking brazenly curious (I suppose you can get away with being a nosy parker when you're a ghost), and Teddy as shy as if people could actually see him.

"'Lo, you!" James appears out of nowhere and sweeps me up in a bear hug. "How've you been, Snowbell?"

I can see Llew snickering at the 'Snowbell', but don't dare risk sending a glare at him. Anyway, Teddy's doing the glaring for me.

"Yeah, great!" I reply mendaciously. No reason to bring anyone down with my garbage.

"Heard you took off to Sydney all on your lonesome?"

I grin widely. "Yuzovka Hearts, Jimbo. Yuzovka Hearts, man! It's been three years since their last tour down here!"

James' grin is equal parts affectionate and exasperated. "You and that band, kid. I don't even."

"Neither do we," Llew remarks, and even Teddy has to giggle at that. I have had a certain band's music on repeat at home more often than not, admittdely...

"You stop picking on me," I say to James, and possibly to Llew as well. "Where is everyone? Is Holly here, too?" Holly being James' fiancee.

"Outside, shooting the breeze, and yes. Dad's started up the barbecue and will begin burning our dinner shortly. We've been waiting for you, you know."

"Yeah, well, talk to TransLink about that one. Public transport is an arse."

"Truer words were never spoken," James says, and we make our way through the house to the veranda out the back.

Little's changed since I moved out seven years ago, really, except that I no longer see my books all over the place. I had serious trouble keeping them all in my room, and I was always reading something, so it wasn't unusual to find a book randomly in the dining room or the kitchen or the lounge, or sometimes even in Sadwyn's room. The place still smells the same, a scent which will disappear from my nostrils quickly, as my olfactory senses parse it as 'the usual'. It's amazing how the place keeps on being 'the usual', even if I haven't lived there for any real length of time for more than half a decade.

"Hello, Snowbell!" Dad calls out as we step onto the veranda. "D'you bring the Herald?"

"Ha bloody ha," I reply. "Hi to you too, Dad."

Dad is not a tall man, particularly -- he's not quite six foot, but he gives off the impression of being much taller. I've never worked out how he does that. He looks distinguished, with his flashing blue eyes (which I have been eternally disappointed that I didn't inherit) and his full head of white hair -- which has been white as long as I can remember -- long limbs and musician's fingers. Mum has said more than once that he's a 'smooth operator', and that's probably the truth of it.

"How are you, Winter?" Holly asks from where she is sitting opposite Mum on the patio table. She's nice, bloody gorgeous (James is punching way above his weight, Sadwyn and I often snicker), but I'm still anxious around her. Not horribly so, not as if she's a stranger, but still enough to use any excuse to be left alone with her. It's nothing she does, really. But I don't think there's any situation in which the excuse "it's not you, it's me" actually flies.

"I'm well," I reply, sliding into a seat at the far end of the table and offering up what I hope is my most normal smile. "Hey, Mum."

"Hello, sweetheart."

Mum is shorter and rounder than Dad, with a far more good-natured face. She is who all three of us Brennan kids get our dark hair from, but she has hazel eyes. She's sweet and genuine, far too emotional for her own good, and can talk to anyone at all for a year and a day, a skill I envy deeply. She says she feels awkward in social situations, but she never appears to be. I sometimes wonder if she just said that to make me feel better about my own anxiety, really.

"Where's the birthday boy?" I ask. Sadwyn is nowhere to be seen, or at least nowhere I can see.

"Over the road, procuring some beer," James says, as he slides into the chair next to Holly. He catches my look, and shakes his head. "One drink won't hurt him. A binge will. Not a single drink. Hell, not even two. Don't worry so much, kid."

"Mm," I reply, non-committal, but I'm not thinking of Sadwyn's meds at the moment. I'm suddenly very aware of the little pink pills sitting in my back jeans pocket -- I know for a fact that they increase the effects of alcohol, for me. I had maybe half a pint of beer at the Yuzovka Hearts gig, and I felt it in me almost immediately. It took the daylights being scared out of me to shock me sober.

I wonder why I took them with me. I was going to be with my family, in the house I'd spent the majority of my life in. Habit? Anxiety that I'd be anxious?

This is getting bloody ridiculous.

My family know about the majority of the mental illness, but they don't know about the Xanax. I'd like to keep them from knowing for as long as is possible. The last thing I needed was Mum hovering over me, fretting, even with the best intentions. She and Dad had enough to worry about with Sadwyn. Epilepsy was real. My shit was just me being stupid.

Don't even start, I think to Alex's disembodied voice in my head, before it can speak up. I'm dealing with this on my bloody own. Shut up.

Llew and Teddy have sat down in the two chairs next to my mother, who has returned to chatting with Holly about wedding plans, a topic which I have been thoroughly bored with for the past six months.

"Don't let anyone sit through you," I say to them, and only realise I've done so the moment the words leave my mouth.

Oh, shit.

"Shh!" Llew hisses through his teeth, too little too late. Teddy is doing his best impression of Bambi caught in the headlights.

"Winter?" James asks. He, Mum, and Holly are giving me odd looks. (Dad, thankfully, appears to be having a one-sided argument with the gas canister for the barbecue at the moment.) I can't think of a good excuse. I can't think at all.

"Does anyone mind if I wander off down the back for a fag?" I ask, my words tumbling all over one another. My heart is thudding like a jackrabbit on cocaine.

Weirdly enough, these are the right words to derail the situation. Mum looks a bit contemptuous.

"Oh, Winter. Are you still doing that silly disgusting thing? It'll end up killing you, you know."

"I know, Mum. Bad habit."

"A very bad habit!"

"I know. I'm sorry, I'll work on it, I promise." I get up from the table and give an apologetic wave. It's kind of hilarious how James never gets told off like this when he lights up. "Back shortly."

I walk away from the veranda too quickly, and move down the back of the property, past a line of trees that Dad planted when I was about six to mark where the "backyard" ended and where the remainder of their two and a half acres of land began. The trees have grown tall over the years. I remember climbing the one in the exact middle and sitting in it for hours on end, reading.

I bet they all think I've gone mad. Holly will have something to say in particular, I bet. She has no idea about any of my stuff...except for what James has probably told her. Of course he's told her, she's his goddamn fiancee, why wouldn't he tell her? At least nobody knows about the latest addition to the meds. She probably already thinks I'm mad enough. I don't care. I hate her. God dammit, James. I hate it when you bring her to family gatherings. Yes, I know she's almost my sister-in-law. Fucking hell. I don't care.

I walk down to the very end of the property, jamming my hands in my jeans pockets and breathing hard. It's getting very close to completely dark, and the breeze is quite cool, but that's fine with me at the moment. It's then that I realise that I left my emergency cigarettes -- the only packet I have, hence emergency -- back at home, in my desk drawer, where they've been for quite a while. Contrary to what Mum thinks, I'm actually not a habitual smoker. Now and then I do find the ritual of breathing poisonous fumes into my lungs calming, though.

Funny what gets you through. I could do with one now.

"Shit, shit, shit," I hiss beneath my breath. "Shit and fuck and damn and shit again."


I look over my shoulder. Teddy is jogging towards me, Llew following. The light is dim and getting dimmer, but I can see the worry on their faces.

Winterflower? That's...that's so cute. That's cuter than Snowbell. That's really cute, Bambi. Really cute.

I want to burst into tears and I don't know why.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I say quietly, when they catch up to me. It's unlikely anyone would hear me from down here unless I yelled, and loudly, but I'm not taking any chances. Once bitten, et cetera. "I just, I forgot. It's habit, I forgot, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Why the hell are you apologising to us?" Llew asks incredulously. "We're worried about you."

"We should have stayed out of eyeshot," Teddy says. His hand ghosts (ha!) over my shoulder and down my arm, hovering at my elbow. "We're sorry."

"Just didn't think about it," Llew adds, with a shake of his head. "We're used to people seeing us. Well. Used to you being able to talk to us, I think. Dipshit move on our part."

"I'm sorry," I say, again.

"Stop apologising, you fuckin' weirdo!" Llew says, vehemently. "You didn't do anything wrong!"

"I need a pill," I whisper. I can't fight it. I'm shaking and my heart keeps pounding away like it's the end of the world. Get ahold of yourself, Winter Tora. I need a pill I need a pill I need a pill. Holly will be laughing at me. Jimbo will be laughing too. I need a pill. I can't -- I can't -- I can't--

Llew's look is dark. "A pill?"

"Xanax," says Teddy, as if he's discovered the answer to a problem that should have been obvious long ago. "'Them'. Of course. Idiot, Edward."

Llew looks at him. "What?"

"She takes Xanax. She's got anxiety, Llew."

"Well, duh, I know that."

"No, I mean, proper anxiety. She's not anxious right now, she has an anxiety disorder. It's...well, I don't want to...diagnose anyone, know what I mean." Teddy looks at me. I haven't seen his dark eyes this serious before. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Winter, okay?"

I can't even nod or shake my head, I'm trembling so hard.

Here it comes here it comes here it comes they're going know they know they'll hate me they know--

"I know that too, you idiot!" Llew rages. Wait, what? He knew? Before now? How? "We've been living together for the past month, and I didn't come down in the last damn shower!" Oh god, god. God, they'll think I'm broken, too. Llew will make fun of me. I can't handle this. I can't. "I just didn't know about the Xannies! I thought they were multivitamins or painkillers or something!"

"It didn't occur to you to ask?!"

"Of fuckin' course not!" Llew huffs. "It's not something you ask someone, in my opinion. Especially if they're essentially my landlord!"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Llew!"

"Bambi," I whimper, and for the second time that day, I reach out to touch Teddy, taking his hand in a vice-like grip. Ice shoots up my arm. I don't care. I can hardly feel it. Or I think I can't.

"Winterflower," he says, softly. "Breathe, okay? That's important. Just breathe."

"Do you have the pills with you?" Llew asks me, and his voice is also gentle.

"Back jeans pocket," I say, and burst into tears. Fucking damn it all to hell. I can't. Can't can't can't can't can't. Broken. Pointless.

Llew moves closer to me. "Okay, cariad, shh now. I promise I'm not being a pervert for once in my life, I'm just grabbin' peelz, okay? Can you dry swallow?"

I nod. I'm still crying. Broken fuck up doll.

"Right, I've got the tablet--"

"Llew, her hands are shaking like jelly. She'll drop it."

"Well, here's what we'll do. You just open your mouth, Winterblossom, and I'll put it on your tongue, okay? Then just swallow. That all right?"

I nod again. I want the ground to swallow me. Winterblossom...? Swallow me up. Llew. I.

Llew's fingers touch my lips, colder than the air around me, and then there's the sudden acidic tang of Xanax on my tongue. I swallow, hard, but it doesn't go down my throat.

"Here..." Teddy steps behind me, and tilts my head back, supported by his shoulder. Cold, even through my tour jersey. "Relax. Swallow. Relax." I feel a frozen fingertip slide down my throat. "'s's okay, I swear..."

One more swallow. The pill disappears. I drive my incisors into my lower lip, and squeeze my eyes closed. I'm still shaking.

"There. It's okay now, Winterflower. It's okay. It won't be long now. Okay? It's really really okay."

"Cwtch," I hear Llew mumble, and I feel his arms around my shoulders. He pulls me to his chest, and despite the chill, I cling back. Somewhere, beneath the layers of anxiety and trembling and ghost-chill, I can feel him. Or I think I can. Maybe it's the anxiety causing me to -- you got it -- hallucinate. Maybe I'm too panicked to make the vaguest sense of what my senses are telling me, or not telling me, or both. I don't care. At the moment, I just could not care less if I tried. I cling to Llew like he isn't a sarcastic bastard who annoys the living shit out of me most of the time.

I feel Teddy lay his head against my shoulder, his fingers stroking down my hair. I exhale slowly. Gradually the trembling stops.

I don't know whether it's been five hours or five minutes. My heartbeat is becoming regular again, slow as honey in winter.


"Guys?" I mumble against Llew's chest. "I'm...I'm frickin' freezing here."

There's a beat of silence, then they both laugh. Teddy steps back, Llew unwinds his arms from around me.

Something's changed.

"Are you feel okay?" Teddy asks, his eyes tentative.

"No. But I feel better than I did." I manage a wobbly smile. "Thank you...thank you. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Teddy says, and Llew nods in agreement.

"It's not your fault."

I would argue that point, but I choose not to. "You weren't supposed to know. About. About any of...I'm broken."

"No, you're not!" Teddy cries.

Llew rolls his eyes. "Winter, 'scuse my French, but what the fuck even."

"You weren't! It's not a real thing, it's just...just recently that's hard to...everything is..." I shake my head in frustration. "It's meant to go away. It's not real. It's just my brain being an ass. It's not real. None of it is."

"That was real, Winter. That was incredibly real. What the hell would have happened if we weren't here? Would you have just...I dunno, come down here and had a heart attack and died?"

"Nobody's ever died from anxiety," I scoff. "Nobody. No heart attacks, none of it. It's bullshit. I just need dunno. It'll pass. I'll be fine again, soon."

"When was the last time you were 'fine'?" Llew shoots back, and I bite my lip.

"Not now, Llew," Teddy says, but Llew isn't having any of it.

"Yes, now! Because when, otherwise? Do you really think we're too hopeless to be able to cope with you taking anti-anxiety pills, Winter?"

"It's not just anxiety!" I snarl back, feeling tears gathering again. "It's more than that!"

"So what?! Teddy had depression for years--"

"It's not only depression, either. It's fucking schizoprenia, Llew!"

The stunned silence I was expecting after blurting the word out doesn't come, which stuns me. Llew merely snorts and looks viciously offended.

"Again, so fuckin' what? Did you honestly think that would make us hate you? Or think you're mad, or something?"

Well...yes, actually. I'm still astonished.

"Jesus. You did, too. You honestly thought that?" Llew barks out a short humourless laugh and literally throws his hands in the air. "I mean, Christ, we're dead! We've been through the worst. We won't judge you!"

"I don't even know how or why or when you died!" I shoot back, desperate to find my footing somewhere in this conversation.

Llew looks taken aback. "Well...I guess we just...I mean, what is there to discuss with regards to that?"

"Guys, it's really not...the time..." Teddy murmurs. Both Llew and I ignore him.

"What is there to discuss with me being a mental medicated fuck up?" I snap.

"Plenty! We're living with you, we need to--"

"And I'm living with you! I need to know things, too!"

The both of us fall silent, staring hard at each other. Teddy steps between us, and says, "No, really, not now. James is coming."

Terror seizes me for a moment. I wonder if he's heard me. No, no, no, do not freak out now, not now that they've just got you calmed down...

...they calmed me down. They didn't judge me, just like Llew said. They...God, they sounded anything but judgmental when I was sobbing and shaking too hard to take my own pills and admitting I was literally crazy.

"Hey, kid," James calls as he walks up to my side. He's lighting a cigarette; obviously he has been exiled from the veranda while he indulges in disgusting habits. Teddy and Llew back away. My brother shows no signs of seeing me argue with what would have looked like thin air, to him. "Thought you'd got eaten by particularly pissed-off possums, or something. Sadwyn's back with the booze."

"I forgot my cigarettes," I say. My head's whirling a little. James starts to laugh.

"So you decided to hide down here?"

"I didn't hide," I say, and reach out for his packet of Reds. "Gimme."

"Say please."

"Gimme please." I've already liberated a cig from the packet and have absconded with his lighter. I flick the flame into being and let it kiss the tip of the cigarette.

"Winter," James says, suddenly, and I look up. The glow of the lighter's flame plays on his face, and he's looking at me with a slight frown.

Oh, no. Serious Big Brother Face is on. Do I look like I was just saved from an anxiety attack by two ghosts?

"What's the matter, Jimbo?" I finish lighting my cigarette and tuck his lighter back into the pocket of his black polo shirt.

" sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?"

James shakes his head, and takes a long drag, still looking at me with concern in his eyes. "Dunno. Just a feeling."

For a moment I debate telling him about the Xanax prescription on top of everything else he watched me grow up with.

He's getting married in a few months. Don't you think he has enough to worry about without you and your idiocy on top of it all? Besides, what the hell would Holly say? She'll have to know, as well. They're a unit, after all.

Yeah, maybe not.

I give him a look indicating that I think he's the one who needs to be asked if they're okay. "Everything is fine, you weirdo. I promise." I have found, over the past three months, that I have become a brilliant liar. I'm not sure if it's a skill that I feel proud of.

"All right, but..." he sighs and shakes his head. "If there's anything you need to talk about at all --"

"--there isn't--"

"--I know that, but I'm saying that you know you can talk to me any time, right?"

My heart pinches. I almost wish I could be truthful.

"Yeah, I know."

I drop my cigarette, grind it into the dirt beneath my heel, and head back towards the house.

"Hurry up, Jimbo. Dad'll light the whole house on fire if you don't help him with the barbie, I'm pretty sure."

go to chapter: i. wintering | ii. cast away your troubles | iii. hallucinoghosts | iv. planespotting | v. a short guide to the afterlife | vi. rules of engagement | vii. thin ice
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