“It’s more than okay,” I said, lifting my feet as he gently pushed the swing.
“Hey, uh—” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I left like that at school today.”
“Oh God, David, don’t you apologise. I was the one who—”
“Ara, you did nothing wrong.”
I planted my feet, stopping the motion of the swing, then laid my guitar on the grass. “What do you mean? Emily tells me I practically licked you.”
“Licked me?” David laughed, settling onto the ground right in front of my legs, resting his arm over his knee.
“Oh, that.” He dusted his hand off on his jeans, leaning back a bit. “Sorry, I never even noticed that. I mean, I knew you fazed out, but it was actually your strawberry shampoo that reminded me I had something to do.”
“So, what were you thinking then? In the hallway?” His eyes searched mine for a moment, an incredibly suggestive grin warming them.
I looked away, feeling almost naked. “Just that...” I like you! I like you and want you to like me so bad it kills me! It. Kills. Me! “Just that it’d been a long time since I was in anybody’s arms.”
I shrugged. “Guess I just don’t really like to be touched anymore.”
I rubbed my chin, kind of wiping off my scars.
“Don’t do that,” he said, rising onto his knees.
He pulled my hand down from my face. “Don’t rub at your skin.”
“I—” I studied the grass under my bare feet.
“Ara? Look at me,” he asked softly, tilting my chin to lift my gaze. “Why do you hide your face so often?”
His eyes lit up, shimmering like a green marble held up to the sun. “Hideous?”
“Okay, maybe not hideous. But—” I couldn’t bring myself to ask how he could possibly look at my scars.
I nodded, keeping my eyes on his.
He so slowly reached out and brushed his fingertips just over the fine hairs on my face. “These scars you despise so much, Ara, they’re not what you think they are.”
I held on as long as I could, but I just couldn’t let him touch them anymore; I gently pulled his hand away and turned my face.
He sat back down on the ground, his elbow on his knee, knuckles just beside his lips. “I know you think everyone can see them, but that’s not true. It’s only up close that I've ever noticed, and I have, not once, ever thought you were hideous, Ara. Not ever.”
I rubbed my jaw into my shoulder, reliving the memory of waking to tiny cuts and slivers of glass in my face. “I don’t see how you can say that.”
“That’s because you don’t know how beautiful you are.”
I smiled at my feet, afraid to look up, afraid to see sarcasm in his eyes. And as if it came out of nowhere, a hand slowly appeared, moving cautiously toward mine, but stopped just above my fingertips, hesitant, like he was asking me—making sure it was okay. I tensed from ankles to knees, holding my breath, feeling my heartbeat surround everything in my world. It all could've turned to ash under my feet—the ground, the swing, the day, the future, and I would’ve remained oblivious to it, because even the suggestion of touching him—of holding his hand—closed off everything else that could possibly matter.
I tried to say yes, but only a quivering breath came past my lips.
David’s cheeks lifted with a soft grin; he turned his hand, sliding his fingertips under mine, closing them against my palm, then pulled me down gently to the grass in front of him.
“Ara?” David paused, frowning at me. “You’re supposed to breathe.”
I took a deep breath and, though daylight remained, all around me night enclosed my world—tunnelling my vision to the only thing in the universe worth looking at. I smoothed my thumb over his, feeling myself lean closer, our eyes locked so intensely that if we were any nearer, the colours would’ve blended.
“Are you okay?” he asked quietly, holding my hand with a kind of gentility that made me feel precious.
But I wasn’t okay. Not anymore. I was lost, fallen completely into some feeling I wasn’t ready for. Somehow, our fingers fit so perfectly together, like they were created only for this purpose. I was the lock and he was the only key. How would I ever come back from this? “No. I’m not okay.”
“Let me tell you something.” David edged a little closer. “And I say this as your friend, Ara.”
He brushed my ponytail over my shoulder, the softness of his touch sending a shiver down my neck. “Your scars make no difference to the way I see you. I know you’re afraid that you aren’t good enough for me, but how could I ever look past those eyes long enough to see scars?”
I half smiled, rolling my face downward; he’d been allowed to look at them longer than anyone so far. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
His fingers tightened on mine. “Because I like you.”
Behind me, the swing stirred gently in the breeze, and the golden glow of sunset surrounded the sky in a blanket of soft pink and purple clouds, making his eyes dark and shadowed. “Why do you like me?”
I scoffed at that one; he smiled.
“You’re, believe it or not, actually quite witty and, from what I can tell after this short period of time, I have a lot more in common with you than any other girl I’ve ever spoken to.”
“Not hard since you never talk to girls.”
He shook his head, smiling as he ran his fingers down my ponytail. “I feel a connection to you, Ara—one I’ve not felt before.”
“I—” He kind of laughed, looking past me for a second. “I think we roll on the same wavelength, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “I think I know exactly what you mean.”
He looked up from my lips. “You wanna know something else, pretty girl?”
“Only if I’m going to like what you have to say.”
His serious eyes warmed, a wide smile showing his teeth again. “I think I like holding your hand.”
The rain passed left a chill that made my toes cold under the strappy shoes. I hugged my arms across my chest, making myself small as I passed a group of obviously drunk boys.
“Hey.” One of them broke from the cluster.
“Oh, hey.” I waved, glad it was only Mark from school.
“What you doin’ out this late?” he said, but kind of kept walking past me.
“You want a ride?” He motioned behind him to his group of mates.
“Okay.” He nodded and turned back, jumping into the huddle as I headed for the corner store, where the only pay phone still in existence resided. The flickering light beamed down on me inside the booth, making my skin almost blue. I picked up the receiver with two fingers and held it just beside my face, not touching my cheek, then dialled reverse charges; it picked up in two rings.
“Yeah, it’s me. Um—” My lip quivered. “Can you come get me?”
“I’m at a pay phone. Can you please just come get me?” I burst into tears.
“What happened? Why are you crying?” Her voice became clear with panic as she threw a dozen questions at me.
“Mike? What were you doing at Mike’s? I thought you were at Kate’s.”
“I was, Mum. Okay. I don’t wanna talk about it. Can you just come get me?”
“Ara-Rose. It’s the middle of the night. I just got Harry down again and he’s—”
“Mum!” I yelled down the line, holding the grotty phone in a tighter grip. “It’s three in the morning. I’m cold and tired and—”
“Ara, just...” She let out a breath. “Hang up, okay, I’ll call Mike. He can come—”
“Nothing,” I practically screamed, my tears coming out in streams. “Just come get me.”
“Harry’s sick, Ara.” She went quiet. “He shouldn’t go out at this time of night. You know I care about you and, quite frankly, I’m terrified of the fact that I don’t know where you are. I mean, I’m guessing you’re on a pay phone, aren’t you?”
“Honey, you’re seventeen now. You’re too old for this. Just stop being a baby and go back to Mike’s. I’ll come get you first thing in the morning.”
“No!” I held the phone right in front of my lips to make my voice as clear as the goddamn day. “I am never going back there, Mum. Never. If you don’t come get me, I’ll hitchhike home.”
“Fine. I’m hanging up,” I said. “I see a car.” I didn’t see a car. “I’m sticking my thumb out, Mum. I’m doing it.”
“All right. Okay. I’ll come get you. Just—just stay there, okay?”
“Ronnie’s?” she screeched. “Ara, that’s three blocks away. You can walk that.”
It clicked then. I knew it did. I knew she knew the only reason I’d be wearing heels when I was supposed to be at a sleepover would be if I wasn’t at a sleepover.
“Just stay there, Ara-Rose. And by God, child, you are in a world of trouble when we get home.” She hung up.
I held the phone for another few seconds, resting my head on the glass, feeling the swirl of alcohol mix in my system with fear, making me want to puke. But when I opened my eyes again, daylight flooded my world; it took a second for my eyes to adjust—to see the dresser mirror on the other side of the room, the yellow walls, the white door and the new morning greeting me. And I could still feel her; still feel her voice in my ears.
I smoothed the covers out on top of me and let the proverbial rock on my chest keep me in place, on my back, unable to breathe.
Downstairs, Dad’s burly laughter rose above the clatter of Vicki making breakfast, arguing about something with Sam.
But I was okay.
Slowly, the air came back into my lungs and, breath by breath, the rock lifted, leaving me picturing only one thing: David.
I jumped out of bed and headed straight for the shower, eager to start the brand new day.
Sam burst through the front door. “Ara, David’s waiting for you across the road.”
My spoon hit the side of my bowl, splashing milk onto the placemat, as I leaped from my chair to peer out the window. David’s head whipped up, his eyes meeting mine for a split second when I pulled the sheer curtain back. And I was out of there. I grabbed my bag, leaving my bowl on the table, and ran out the door. In the case of David versus Breakfast, the judge and jury were in; we all knew the verdict.
Outside, the morning sun cast a spotlight on his perfection. I wanted to stop walking and just stand still—gawking at him for a while. But he looked different somehow, than he did yesterday. His mysterious green eyes held a smile in the corners, but the depth of focus in them, when added with his thinly pressed lips, made him look almost uneasy.
He took my backpack and threw it over his shoulder, then started walking, without saying a word and without the usual smile.
“Mm?” he said, but his eyes didn’t answer, like they usually did.
“Uh, yeah.” He dropped his fingers from the bridge of his nose and looked up, remembering suddenly that I was alive. “Sorry. I have a lot on my mind.”
“Oh.” I stared forward, wishing I had pockets to shove my hands in so I wouldn’t chew my nails. “Anything I can help with?”
“Maybe I can at least listen? You know, lend an ear.”
“If discussing this problem would solve it, then I would. But it won’t, so there’s little point.”
So, he’d taken a leaf out of my book. Suddenly, Mike’s threat to either talk to someone or have him do it for me didn’t seem so big and scary. In some ways, after sitting with David in my backyard last night, letting the sun set around us, just two friends, holding hands, I’d almost considered telling him what brought me to live here. So many times I even opened my mouth, and while sleeping last night, had, I think, resolved to ‘let him in’. But his sudden distance, like someone had flicked the ‘reality’ switch, made me think all that magic I felt with him was an influx of hormones and, today, the world was back to its usual cold self.