She focused intently on him for a moment, then laid her napkin slowly beside her plate. “You might as well tell me, Sam. I will find out—one way or the other.”

“Spill it. Now.” She poked the table with her finger.

“Sam!” Vicki reached across and took the salt off Dad again, her eyes never leaving Sam’s face. “Either you tell me, or I come into the school for an appointment with the principal.”

Sam stewed in his own nerves, looking at Dad, who laughed into his plate. “I got caught sneaking into the girls’ locker room,” he muttered to his chest.

Unable to hold back any longer, Dad burst into a loud, burly laugh, covering his mouth to keep his dinner in. I looked at Vicki, unsure if I should laugh or not, but a smile crept across my lips.

“Greg, I can’t believe you weren’t going to tell me?”

“I just—” Dad caught his breath, still laughing; the infectious sound spread over the whole table. “I couldn’t.”

I laughed then, and Vicki started, too. “What on earth were you going in there for?”

“It wasn’t like you think.” Sam’s cheeks went bright red.

“Oh, sure. No. A fourteen-year-old boy goes into the girls’ locker room to buy a sandwich,” Dad joked.

Sam’s teeth clenched. I felt a little sorry for him. He obviously didn’t want to talk about it. They should be able to see that. And they were probably just making light of the situation, but I felt a sudden urge to protect—something I’d never felt for Sam before. “So, Dad?” I said. “You know my friend from Australia—Mike? He said he might come over in a few weeks. Can he stay here?”

“Here? You want a boy to stay here—under the same roof as you?” Vicki jumped in.

“A man? Oh, well, that makes it okay, then,” Vicki said, poorly attempting sarcasm. “How old is Mike now, anyway?”

“He’s twenty,” I said, and looked at Sam, who mouthed thank you before returning to his casserole art.

“Twenty? Ara, you’re not even eighteen yet. It’s against the law.”

“Vicki?” I screeched. “Mike and I have never been like that with each other. God, we used to take baths together.”

“Not to mention, Mom,” Sam said, “legal age of consent is sixteen. I checked.”

“Now, why on earth would a boy your age be looking up that kind of information?” she asked, horrified.

“Look—” Vicki closed her eyes for a second. “I’m sorry, Ara-Rose. I’m just not used to having a daughter. I—” she exhaled, “—I just don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“Well, I appreciate that, Mom,” I said with a mouthful of carrot. “But you don’t have to worry about Mike. There’s, like, this invisible barrier around him that repulses me from loving him that way.”

She nodded. “Well, all right. But when does he want to come?”

“As soon as he gets his acceptance into Tactical—in a few weeks,” I beamed.

“Yeah—that’s not what they call it over there, though.”

“Um, no.” I frowned at him. “But, anyway, he’s got one interview left then he gets a few weeks off before training begins.”

“Well, that’s great, Ara.” Dad reached across and patted my hand, as if this was my victory. “It’s what he always wanted, isn’t it?”

I nodded, swallowing my mouthful. “Yep, he’s doing well for himself.”

“Shame you don’t like him then,” Vicki added.

“Nah, he lives in Australia, anyway.” I shrugged. “Could be a bit tricky.”

“At least you couldn’t get pregnant,” Dad said with a completely straight face.

I stopped chewing, and Sam coughed a carrot out onto his plate, but Dad just sat there, eating and sipping his wine as if nothing had been said.

Bright yellow sunlight beamed off my mirror and into my eyes, blinding me. I rolled over and faced the wall, snuggling back into the warmth, seeking a few more minutes in the bliss of this cloud-soft bed and the lingering remnants of last night’s dreams. In my own mind, while I slept, I came to know David so much better than I did yesterday. Perhaps maybe even well enough to invite him over after school today. Except, that would mean introducing him to Vicki—and cleaning my room. Hm, perhaps not.

Down the hall, Sam’s stereo suddenly blasted out into the morning. I rolled over and checked my bedside clock. “Sam! It’s six in the morning. Turn it down.”

His rock scream, followed by a thud that could only be a stage dive into his pile of laundry, suggested he didn't hear me.

“Dad?” I tried, but on listening closer, heard the screaming shower pipes through the wall.

Great. I burrowed under my covers for a second longer, trying to find that dream again, but it was gone, as was any point of lying here trying to retrieve it.

I threw my covers back, leaped out of bed—of my own free will—then dug around in my pillows and blankets for my iPod.

It was time for a little battle of the bands.

But my iPod was gone from the base of my bed, where it usually landed after a harrowing night of tossing and turning.

Outside, on my windowsill, a tiny bird with silky blue feathers appeared, chirping and fussing about in the condensation puddle.

“You took it, didn’t you?” I glared accusingly at him.

He stopped chirping and stared at me, then flew away. Guilty. I knew it. Well, I thought he was, until I lifted my pillow and found it right where I left it when I went to sleep. That was a first. And with eyes narrowed into vengeful slits, I scrolled through my playlists to find the most soulful compilation of what Sam called ‘woe is me’ songs, then slipped my iPod into its dock and held the volume button until the tip of my finger turned white and my soft, elegant tunes drowned out Sam’s music.

“Ara.” Dad banged on my door. “Too loud. Sam, you too.”

“I'm finishing it. Turn it down or I’ll confiscate your dock.”

I turned it down, even though I knew he wouldn’t actually follow through on his threat. I’d tested that so many times now I knew it was an empty one. Fact was, he didn't have the heart to take away the one thing that brought happiness to a grieving girl. He knew that without my music I had nothing to live for. That’s why he bought me the dock in the first place. The one I moved here with had the wrong pins for the wall socket, and I was so tired and so upset from the long flight that day, I tried to force the plug into the wall anyway, repeatedly, with my foot. Dad came in and pulled me away before I could get myself electrocuted, but I’d never let him see me cry that way before. As soon as I calmed enough to fall asleep, he went straight down to the store and got me a brand new dock. I'm not sure I even thanked him.

I swiped my thumb over a small layer of dust on the speaker and smiled, then turned it up just a few more decibels, whacking the snooze button as the alarm sounded the hour of wake. I wanted it to be nine o’clock, though, so I could be in English class with David.

When the pipes beyond the wall stopped squealing, I stripped off, left my clothes on my floor and wandered through my walk-in wardrobe to the bathroom I shared with Sam. The little bugger had left the second door open, leaving my girl parts exposed to any who walked down the hall. I quickly ran and locked it into place.

“Go away. I got here first.” I turned on the faucet and stepped into the shower, closing the glass door.

“Why?” I ran my fingers through my hair, wetting it. “You never brush your hair.”

“Well, you can wait. I'm already in the shower.”

He groaned, but obviously walked away.

On the glass, some remnant of a steam drawing Sam had done showed itself. I swiped a hand through it, leaving my palm against the cool for a moment, watching the condensation drip down from under it in three long lines. I felt grounded, steady, calm, for the first time in so long. Maybe because this was the first morning I’d woken without crying since I got here. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. And I knew it was because of school—because I met David and Emily and Ryan and Alana yesterday.

I pulled my hand down from the glass, watching the lone print disappear behind the steam again. I wasn't really alone anymore, and when I thought about getting out of the shower, getting dressed and going to school, I actually felt a bubble of excitement.

In my wardrobe, I threw on my light denim shorts and a pink tank top, then wandered out to my room. The rug, weaved entirely out of dirty laundry, stared back at me; its evil laughter rising over my music, making demands for the release of my shoes.

“Where are they?” I asked myself, lifting a sweater and some jeans then tossing them beside the empty laundry basket.

“You nearly ready for school, Ara?” Vicki asked, opening my door without knocking.

“Yeah. I just can't find my shoes.”

“It’s not my fault.” I stood up, dusting my hands off. “My wardrobe got gastro and threw up all over my room.”

“Why don't you go down and have breakfast. I’ll find them for you—maybe even tidy up a little.”

I smiled at her, about to accept, when I spotted one shoe under my bed. “Ooh, there it is.”

She walked in and started picking up clothes as I sat on my bed and slipped my shoe on. “Here.”

“Oh, thanks. Where was it?” I asked, taking the shoe from her.

“Near your dresser. How it got so far away from the other one, I don't know.”

I shrugged and, seeing my favourite sweater in the pile of clothes over Vicki’s arm, stood up and tugged it out. “I never wash this.”

“I just…it was Mike’s.” I hugged it to my chest.

“Very well.” She took it from me and laid it over my chair. “Now, go down and eat, please. You’ll be late for school.”

After scoffing down a bowl of oatmeal, I practically ran to the front door.

“A little eager today, Ara?” Dad said, dropping a quick kiss to my cheek as I passed him.

All I could do was grin.

“Dad? Why don’t you try walking for once?”

“I have to go ‘round the front. Easier to drive.”

“Wow, that’s so lazy. Walking’s better for you.”

“I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

“Oh, really? Like what? Work on that heart attack you’re trying to have?” I nodded toward his travel mug, which we both knew was full of coffee with way too much cream and sugar.

He saluted me with the mug, taking another sip as he walked away. “Have fun at school, honey.”

“Bye,” I said, closing the front door behind me, but my conceited smirk went flat when I heard a low growl coming from the end of the porch. Skittles, with his fluffy grey tail thrashing about, sat curled up like a porcupine, hissing and snarling at something; I followed his evil-kitty stare to a boy standing across the road. Just standing there—a guitar case by his feet, his eyes on his phone, one hand in his pocket, wearing a black shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. My heart dropped into my feet. David.

“Psst. Shut up, Skitz.” I stomped on the floorboards.

The cat startled to silence, but his tail kept thrashing.

I wondered if David was maybe waiting for me—if he even knew I lived here. Then again, everyone knew which house was Mr Thompson’s, so it was a safe bet I lived here too.

As I leaped off the porch steps and onto the grass, the frogs in my belly jumped up to my chest, making my heart pound. I didn't know what to say to him—or if he’d even remember me. But that was silly. Why wouldn't he remember me?

All around me, the summer sun warmed the ground, making the grass look almost yellow. I closed my eyes for a second and took a deep breath, tasting the flavour of fresh dew blowing in on the breeze. When I opened them, David looked up, meeting my smile with a grin. And I practically floated across the road then. He looked really sexy in that shirt; it wasn’t black, like I first thought, but dark grey, and way too much for my hormones to handle. I almost didn’t care if I freaked him out with my ogling. It was his own fault for looking so sexy.

“Hello, Ara.” He took my backpack and tossed it over his free shoulder. “You look pretty.”

He laughed. “Okay, now you just look pink.”

Both hands slowly rose to cover my cheeks. “Well, don't say nice things to me then.”