Wilom trudged down the slope towards his friends and the campfire, which was burning brighter now against the night. Alph was feeding it leaves and blades of grass to make it hiss. Tags was the first to look up from the group. Wilom sat down, unsteady but not from the beer.
Gloves nodded, and Tags and Alph got up and moved over to Wilom, to pat him on the back and give him a beer.
“Did they kick you out again?” Tags asked.
Wilom took the beer, which Alph had already cracked open. At thin, filmy steam formed at the neck of the bottle; he could see it in the campfire light. He didn’t drink any of it.
“No,” he said. He raised it halfway to his lips and put it down again. He wasn’t drunk, but his light head and queasy stomach made him feel like he was.
“What, you didn’t even see them?” Alph asked.
Gloves gave him a warning look, but Alph didn’t see it.
Tags interrupted whatever Alph was about to say next. “Drink your beer, Wilom. You complain enough when it’s fresh. I don’t want to listen to you if it goes flat.”
Wilom made a face and took a deep breath before taking a gulp of the terrible, thin, bitter liquid. His mouth was near numb.
“After our pep talk?” Alph asked, grinning and leaning back. “Great waste of energy you are. Maybe we should make him go back – what do you say, Tags?”
“Not likely. It’s your fault I didn’t see them,” Wilom said, the warm spread of the beer making it easier – all too easy – to keep the quaver out of his voice. “You spilled your drink and made me smell like beer.”
Alph laughed, oblivious to the looks both Tags and Gloves were shooting him now. “Hey, nobody forced you to come see us first.”
Wilom’s stomach dropped, then churned until he had to rest the beer bottle on the ground because even holding it made him feel like he was going to puke. “I hang out with you, and you want to accuse me of good judgement?”
That finally shut Alph up. The other two looked at Wilom, so he put more beer in his mouth to stop words coming out. But the terrible thing about beer was that you had to swallow, and after downing about half the bottle in just a few swallows, he said “Please! You all know my parents. They’re just going to send me away again. Especially if I turn up on their doorstep unannounced, half-drunk, grass-stained, smelling of beer and … and whatever else I am right now.”
He lifted the bottle, but it was empty. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I mean, what am I going to do, just go back to waiting for the next lecture? If I go home now, they’ll be insufferable. Pass me another.”
“Maybe you should give that one a minute,” Tags suggested quietly.
“Are you kidding?” Wilom asked, and cackled loudly. “You’re the one always convincing me to drink it!”
Gloves indicated the empty bottles on the grass. “No beer left.”
“Thank goodness. Got any whiskey?”
Tags picked up the bottle and passed it over. “Have the rest,” he said, then gave him an insincere grin. “You should have hurried back. You could have gotten really messed up.”
Wilom didn’t answer that. His head was spinning, but he had realised with an empty feeling that this – all of it, everything – had been a terrible, terrible mistake. He drained the last dregs of the whiskey bottle in two, three, four swallows. It burned away every other taste in his mouth and nearly came back up, but he managed to force it to stay down. His throat burned and his eyes watered.
“Who needs to get drunk,” he croaked, “When you make bad decisions just as well sober?”
He stood up, and walked in a little circle. He felt dizzy, but he was steady on his feet. He didn’t feel too bad, actually.
“Hey, sit down,” Gloves said, getting up and reaching for Wilom’s arm. “Where are you going?”
“Back,” Wilom said, pulling his arm free.
Gloves grabbed it again. “Not now, you aren’t. Come on, Wilom, it’s a whole day’s travel, and that’s if you to catch the train. There won’t be another train until dawn.”
“What am I going to do, then?” Wilom asked. He gestured towards the town, the little village over the hill, away from the river. “Would any of your parents be happy to have me for a visitor?” he gestured to the front of his stained shirt. “How much trouble will they make? My parents don’t need that. So I’m not going to them, either.”
“Your parents would let you sleep at their house,” Gloves said. “Come on, Wilom, you can’t travel like this.”
“I’m fine. I’m not that drunk.”
“You will be in a minute, when the whiskey makes its way to your head. Just sit down.”
Wilom knew Gloves was right. He sat down again and ruffled his hair with one hand. “Don’t be so bloody sure about my parents and that room,” he muttered, then conceded the point. “I know. They would let me stay. But I’m not going to them, just the same.”
“You have to sleep somewhere,” Gloves told him, sitting back down beside the campfire, a respectful distance away from Wilom. Tags and Alph glanced at each other, then back at Wilom, from the other side of the campfire.
“Right here’s good,” Wilom said. “Isn’t the first time.”
Tags sat down beside him and put an arm around his shoulders. “Then we’re staying here, too. Gloves, what do you say?”
Gloves nodded, then chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it! We don’t get to see you very often, Wilom. What do you say we make a night of it? You sober up for a few hours, we’ll keep you entertained and awake. Then we’ll walk you to the train and wait for it with you. You can be back to your aunt and uncle by tomorrow evening.”
Wilom nodded, and sat down, and gave the alcohol a moment to go to his head.
“Tell a story, Alph,” he said.
Wilom shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Choose one.”
Alph looked over at Tags, who gave him a wide-eyed ‘just say something!’ stare. Wilom made a frustrated noise in his throat. He wanted to be distracted, not reminded that he was making them uneasy.
Apparently they’d heard the noise. Both Alph and Tags looked helplessly at Gloves, who frowned at them, exasperated.
“Stop tiptoeing,” Wilom growled. “I’m upset, not dying.”
“Sorry,” Tags said.
Alph opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Can’t think of a story,” he mumbled.
Tags rolled his eyes. “You’re not much good, are you?” he muttered.
Wilom sighed, and started to chuckle. “Do I really look that bad?”
Alph’s face broke into a relieved grin, but Gloves remained solemn. Tags shrugged and waved a hand at him. “You’ve never been so enthusiastic about drinking before,” he said.
“It’s amazing what you can miss, once you don’t have it anymore,” Wilom said, then sighed. “You can all stop glowering at me now. Can we just have fun for a while? Please?”
Tags nudged Alph, who opened his mouth to speak, but Wilom, feeling truly lightheaded now, interrupted him. “You know,” he said, running a hand through his hair again, “I don’t know what all of this is supposed to achieve. I keep trying to think about it, but I just can’t see it. None of us are stupid, we just … I don’t know, something went wrong along the way and now here we are.”
“I think we already know what went wrong,” Tags said, shaking a beer bottle at him.
“Yes!” Wilom said, waving a hand. “That’s just it!” he sighed. “Well, doesn’t matter. Soon … you know what, let’s just … leave.”
The other three looked at each other.
“Leave?” Alph asked.
“Leave,” Wilom said. “We’re all old enough that we could get work. We’d barely even need to go far, just beyond the nearest few villages, and there you have it! Nobody would know anything about us except that we’re young adults who moved together and we’re willing to work. They’d respect us for that.”
Alph was watching him with eyes wide. Tags nodded. Gloves shook his head. “Wilom,” he said, “We won’t be able to do whatever we like just because nobody knows us. We’d still have to go through all the motions to fit in. That won’t change, no matter where we go.”
Wilom sighed, and leaned backwards until he was lying down, looking up at the stars. “I know. Maybe it’d be better because it’d be our choice, then. Can’t you let a man dream for a minute? Dreams are important.”
He lifted his head to look at them. “I mean it,” he said. “Especially for people like us. Isn’t that the reason we come and hang out here? So we can dream for a little while, without anyone telling us that our dreams are stupid or impossible or …”
Tags laughed and shook his head. “You’re such a sap, Wilom.”
“Maybe,” Wilom said, and laid his head back down, looking up at the clouds covering the stars. “Maybe I have to be something.”
There was silence for a while, then Alph said quietly, “I’ve thought of a story to tell,” he said.
“Go on,” Wilom said, a little indistinctly. “I think that’s probably for the best.”
Once Gloves had deemed Wilom sober enough to travel, they all walked together to the train station. Wilom left Gloves to restrain the two younger, far more drunk boys while he went to beg a ride back to his aunt’s house from those loading the train. He did a passable impression of a repentant runaway, and they said he could sit in the back with the hay bales, as he was unlikely to be able to steal and run away with an entire hay bale on his own.
He walked back over to Gloves and the other two.
“Well done!” Tags said, very carefully lining up a friendly punch to the arm. Wilom had to laugh.
“It wasn’t that hard.”
“Gloves would be proud of you!” Tags continued. “Aren’t you, Gloves? You’re proud of Wilom, right?”
Gloves raised an eyebrow at Wilom. Wilom raised his hands. “I’m willing to take that one as unstated if you are.”
“Kid! Get on the train!” the foreman shouted, and Wilom raised his hand to acknowledge that he’d heard.
“See you …” he trailed off. When would he see them again?
“See you,” Gloves said firmly.
Tags and Alph were persuaded to let him go with only a minimum of ‘just one moments’ and Wilom got onto the train, settled in among the hay bales and wrapped himself in his jacket, for the ride back …
Home, he supposed.