“Um, great. So, I was just…I'm a bit stressed, Dad—with homework. Can I…”
“Why don't you leave it for today?” he said, and I grinned. “Maybe just do a bit of reading, and I’ll talk to your teachers for you. Sound good?”
I breathed a sigh of relief, maybe a little forced. “Thanks, Dad. That’d really help.”
“Okay. That’s good then. Hey, since you’re finally using that phone I got you, why don't you call your pal in Australia? I know he’s—“
“Yeah, but he stopped now, right? You said he hadn't called for a week.”
He went quiet. “That’s not necessarily a good thing, honey.”
I sighed heavily, resting my head on my hand. It wouldn’t be easy to talk to my best friend again. I wasn't even sure I had the right to after evading his calls so often.
“Ara-Rose, he cares about you. He’s just worried—just wanted to make sure you’re doing okay.”
“Why not give him a call then? Maybe after, you can sit back and read a book for a while?”
“I just…what if he doesn’t want to speak to me?”
I jammed my fingers between my teeth again. “Okay. Maybe I’ll think about it.”
“That’s great. Now, go rest up and don't stress over homework, okay? I promised you we’d ease you back into this slowly, so that’s what we’ll do.”
“Bye.” I hung up and, before placing the handset down again, flipped it over and stared at the numbers. I’d dialled Mike’s number so many times I could do it with my toes if I wanted, but it took me a minute, as I stared at the phone, to remember the first digit. And in that moment, a pocket of fear crept in, asking me what I was going to talk to him about. I mean, what did I say? “Hi, Mike. I haven’t called to see if you’re coping in the last two months, but I just wanted to let you know that I'm not. That I feel tired and sad all the time. That I went to school today and fell in love with a boy at first sight, and I'm pretty sure I might be going insane, because that’s just not normal, but I thought I’d just tell you that because you have no reason to care how I feel anymore after I’ve ignored you the way I have.”
With a sigh, I looked at the phone again.
I pinned the number in, my hand shaking, and it only rang twice before the husky voice on the other end made my heart jump. “Hello?”
“Hey, kid. How you doin’?” His voice pitched high on the end.
“Um—” I scratched the wood grain on my desk. “I’m good.”
“How did you know I was starting school today?”
“I spoke to your dad on Saturday.”
“So…?” he said leadingly. “How was it?”
“Um, well, it was good, actually.”
“Really?” He exhaled. “That’s great. I’ve been worried ‘bout ya all night. I haven't even slept.”
“Oh crud, the time difference thing.” I slapped my forehead. “I'm sorry, Mike. Should I go?”
“No. No, of course not.” I heard a ruffling sound on his end and imagined him sitting up in bed, his black cotton sheets looking blue in the moonlight under him. “So, did you make any friends yet?”
“I did.” I grinned, then Mike got the run down on all the happenings of the day; Emily, Alana, how cool Ryan was—a tiny bit about David—and a massively overdramatised recap on music class with Mr Grant.
“No joke? What an arse.” Mike laughed. “I wish I’d been there. I would’ve played Chopsticks and deliberately done a bad job of it.”
“I know you would. I was thinking about that while I was playing.” I chuckled.
I nodded, even though he couldn’t see it. “I really missed you today.”
Mike went quiet. “I…I'm actually really glad to hear that.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I just. Ara, about that night…”
“Can we not talk about the past?” I said quickly. “Can we just talk about…normal stuff, please?
“Thanks. So, what’ve you been up to the last few months?”
He sighed heavily, probably running a hand through his sandy hair. “Well, you know how I applied to Tactical last year?”
“Yeah?” I said, getting excited at the excitement in his voice.
“I’ve got one more interview to go, and I’m pretty much in.”
“You’re kidding me? Mike, that’s so awesome. I can’t believe you’ve finally done it.”
“Yeah right. You’re, like, super fit and super smart. You were in when you were born and you know it.”
“Yeah. I know. Hey, listen, I was thinking…once I make it in, I’ve got a few weeks before training begins. Can I come see you?”
“Are you kidding?” I stood up, practically squealing. “Of course you can. I’d love that. There’s so much I wanna show you, and I really want to talk to you about this guy, and—” I paused.
“What guy?” Mike’s voice peaked. I pictured his face, the way the corners of his lips would turn up under his rough, sandy-brown stubble.
“I really need your advice, actually.” I slumped back down in my chair.
“Sure, I’m good for it. What’s the deal, kid?”
“The one who showed you around today?”
Does he not miss anything? I barely even mentioned David. “Yeah, except I left everything out. He didn’t just show me around, Mike, he, like, I don’t know, he stayed with me all day, and didn’t really make a secret of the fact that he likes me.” My brows rose. “He’s, um, well. I really like him.”
“After one day?” I looked out at the corner of the school’s front parking lot, just visible from my window. “Does that make me creepy?”
“How long did it take you to fall completely in love with Leopold?” he asked, referring to my favourite movie.
“Because Leopold’s not real. David is, and I’m not some character in a love story.”
“Ara?” Mike groaned. “You’ve always been like this.”
“You like a guy, flirt with him, befriend him, but whenever—” he cleared his throat, “—whenever they like you, show the tiniest bit of interest, you run the other way. I don't know, it’s like you’re afraid they’re gonna wake up one day and realise you’re not that special or something.”
I gasped silently, closing my eyes. “You know me better than I thought.”
“I know I do, Ara. I’m your best bud. Now stop worrying and just let this David guy like you—if that’s what he wants to do. I mean, you like him too, right?” He sounded so mature, so unlike my Mike—my fun-loving, carefree Mike.
“But what? You’re afraid that liking someone you just met means you’re abnormal?”
“Well, yeah. Kind of.” I shrugged, scraping at the wood grain again.
“It’s not creepy or weird if you both feel the same way. And, do you think he’s creepy for liking you?”
I might if he liked me the way I like him. “No.”
“So, then, you’re not creepy—you’re a teenager. You’re supposed to fall head over heels with every guy who has a cute smile.” He laughed.
“Mike, you make too much sense.”
“I know,” he said, still laughing lightly. “But you do the same to me when I’m having a girl crisis—so we’re even.”
“Yeah, how are things on that front, anyway?”
He groaned loudly. “Don’t even ask. I am never dating again, Ara. They’re all the same.”
“Yeah, I know.” The smile on his lips came through with his voice.
But the small moment of happiness fizzled out quickly when I looked at my stack of homework. I sighed and leaned on my hand. “I should go, Mike. I asked Dad to get me out of homework and now I feel kinda bad.”
“I told him I was too stressed, but I actually just couldn't be bothered doing it.”
Mike laughed. “Oh, good to see you’re still the same Ara.”
“Okay, kid. Well, keep ya chin up. I’ll come see you in a few weeks, okay?”
“Bye.” I hung up the phone, and the room felt suddenly empty, like I’d just caught the first vortex back to reality—one where I was alone. Always alone.
I flung my door open and the concern on his face dropped instantly.
“What were you doing, honey? I’ve been calling you for two minutes.”
“Sorry, Dad. I was reading the compulsory books for English class—I had my earphones in.”
“Um, about that, Dad,” I said as we walked down the stairs. “I think I’ll be okay. I can handle a little homework.”
He smiled widely and pulled my chair out at the dining table for me. “Good girl. I'm very glad to hear that.”
As I sat down, I glanced at Sam, who, for the first time since I moved here, didn't smile; he pushed his vegetables around his plate with his fork, hiding under his baseball cap. Poor Sam. I wondered how he felt suddenly inheriting a permanent sister after fourteen years being an only child. If it bothered him, he hadn’t acted out or anything. I was grateful for that. But something seemed to be bothering him tonight.
“Samuel,” Dad’s stern voice made us both look up as he sat down. “Cap, son.”
Sam sighed to himself, slipping his baseball cap off and dropping it to the floor, without protest.
“So, Ara met a boy today,” Vicki said, serving a pile of peas onto Dad’s plate.
“I did not interrogate him. Whatever gave you that impression?”
“I saw you talking to him—in class.”
“Oh.” Dad scratched his brow. “Yes, that. Well, I might’ve lightly threatened his safety. A little.”
Vicki sat back down beside Dad. “You didn’t? Greg, how’s the poor girl supposed to make a life for herself here if you scare off all the kids that look at her sideways?”
“That was more than a sideways glance, Vicki.” Dad chuckled, sprinkling salt all over his dinner. “I used to be a boy myself, remember.”
She shook her head and snatched the salt. He reached for it again, and without so much as looking at him, Vicki moved it away.
“It’s okay, Vi-er-Mom,” I said teasingly. “His grilling didn’t work, anyway. David still walked everywhere with me.”
Dad’s lips turned down with thought. “I don’t know about that. We teachers have never heard sultanas about him.”
“Sultanas?” My forehead twitched. “Dad, is that some kind of weird teacher-lingo?”
“Sultanas are bad gossip on the grapevine,” Sam informed.
“So, where do sour grapes come in?” I said.
Four long lines formed across the top of Dad’s brow. “You know what? We don’t have one for sour grapes. I’ll bring that one up in the lunchroom tomorrow.” He nodded, spooning casserole into his mouth.
“So, no sultanas about David, then? That’s good,” Vicki said, eyeing me. “Must be rare?”
“Oh, yeah, it is. We teachers scamper about the halls, unnoticed, so we get some good gossip, and believe me—” Dad winked at Sam, “—I hear it all.”
Sam shuffled in his seat. Dad looked away, chuckling to himself.
“Okay. What have you done, Samuel?” Vicki asked, sounding kind of bored.
“Nothing.” Sam looked her right in the eye.