“I already know that,” I said to Em, sliding the paper back to her.

“Oh, sorry.” She looked a little sheepish. “Did I tell you he lives near you?”

I half glanced over my shoulder at him; he was plain, kind of quiet, like Alana, but with sandy hair. His only redeeming quality was his dazzling hazel, almost green-grey eyes. “I met him once—on my first day,” I said.

“Well, what did he say to you? Was he nice? Did he—”

“Em?” I put my hand up between us; she had somehow managed to excite herself so much she’d almost drifted onto my lap. “Why don’t you just talk to him?”

She ducked her head and took a half glance back at him. “I can’t.”

“What if he doesn’t like me?”

In my mind, I flicked my hand out and whacked her across the back of the head; in the real world, I just rolled my eyes at her. Ever since she first took real notice of him at rehearsals yesterday, all she’d done was talk about what this person told her about him, or what that person said he did in Math class. But I had to agree with her when she said that ever since she first decided he was perfect, she’d seen the world move in slow motion. Now, that I understood.

“So, are you and David going out now?” she asked.

“No, dummy.” She slapped my arm. “I mean, has he asked you to be his girlfriend?”

Her expression said the words her lips held back. “Yes, Ara. Guys ask girls out.”

“Oh. Well, no. He didn’t. He um—he said he liked holding my hand.”

I rolled my eyes and sat facing the front again.

“Maybe he’s just being a gentleman—” She leaned a little closer, keeping her eyes on Dad as if we were paying attention to him. “I mean, that would be very like him, Ara. He might be waiting for you to make the first move?”

I sat up in my chair. “Yeah, he does have that freaky old-world charm thing. Maybe he’s ultra-traditional.”

“It would make sense.” She offered, rolling out a flat palm.

I chuckled once. “Maybe I should offer him my intentions in writing, then.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “Ara, you tell the worst jokes.”

“Yeah, I must get it from my dad.” I grinned as the whole class broke into laughter at one of his inadvertently humorous comments.

“No.” Emily sighed, leaning on her hand, dreamily gazing at Dad. “He’s funny. You must’ve inherited your terrible joke problem from your mom.”

My heart stopped for a beat. “Yeah. I guess I do.” And it was true. But not from the mom they all thought I grew up with. I got my terrible joke problem from the mother I just buried. It was kind of our little game—almost an art form; lame ‘Dad’ jokes for a girl without a dad around. And I didn’t realise, until now, that I was still playing it.

I saw myself then—the girl standing by a coffin, looking down, wondering how I would walk away—say goodbye to someone I’d loved my whole life. I left her there, walked on, but my heart would never let go, never believe she wouldn’t wake up—never play that game with me again.

I covered my quivering jaw, releasing a moist, jagged breath into my hands. I needed to run. I needed to leave the class before the grief broke through right here in front of everyone.

Dad looked up suddenly and started talking with a slight information-stutter as he frowned at me. “Sorry, class—” He sauntered casually over to his desk and lifted a piece of paper, “—just remembered I need to send a note up to the office.”

“Ooh, I’ll go Mr T,” one of the girls said, holding her hand high in the air.

“Actually—” He scanned the room. “Edmond!” The whole class turned to look up the back of the room, following Dad’s unusual tone. Edmond dropped his phone and sat up straight, pulling his headphones out of his ears. Dad handed me the note and whispered, “Go.”

I went. My feet carried me swiftly, leaving the curious stares of the entire class burning into my back, and the lecture on why we don’t play with phones in class absconded into the empty corridor until the door slammed shut behind me.

Holding my breath, I dropped the fake note to the floor and felt for the wall as the hot, salty liquid of my troubled past streamed down my cheeks. For every tear I swiped away, another took its place, and I fought to quiet my sobs, but the pain just went too deep.

“Stupid jokes.” I kicked the base of the wall. This was why I swore I’d never let my guard down, why I swore I wouldn’t try to make friends here. As soon as they found out, they’d all crowd around me in the lunchroom, using my pain to fill the boring hour. I’d seen it happen before when a girl lost her mum to cancer at my old school. I couldn’t let that happen to me.

Slowly, I rolled my face upward to look at the classroom door, kind of wondering why Dad hadn’t come out to see if I was okay—see if I needed a hug, because, for the first time since I lost her, that was all I really wanted. Just a hug. Just to feel like someone could hold me down—stop me from floating away.

I dropped my forehead against the wall and hugged myself, not really sure I could do this anymore.

“Ara?” Long, cool fingers slowly gripped my arms from behind. “What happened? What’s wrong?” His words were barely a whisper, but I recognised his voice right away, and he was the last person I wanted to see. He’d definitely ask questions—questions I didn’t want to answer.

“I’m—I’m okay, David. I just…” I wiped my face, keeping my head down. “I guess being new just got to me.”

“No, this is not nerves or fear, Ara. This is grief.” His fingers tightened on my arms, his gently melodic tone forcing a rise of heartache inside my chest. “Talk to me.”

“I can’t.” I sobbed, wrapping my fingers over my entire face.

“It’s okay.” He tried to turn my shaking body, but I held fast, afraid to let him see me. “It’s really okay.”

“No, it’s not. Why does everyone always say that?” I asked, barely able to understand myself. “I’m so sick of hearing that.”

“Ara. Please. Please. I’m worried about you.” His hand came forward, cupping my shoulder as he spun me gently into his chest and wrapped me up in his arms. “Please, don’t cry.”

“I’m trying not to,” I said, shielding my face in the darkness against his chest. And he smelled so good, so real and so warm. He smelled like something safe, like a person who could hold on to me if I fell. I wanted to hold on; I wanted to wrap my arms around his waist and just hold on. But my arms, tucked so tightly into my chest, just couldn’t break free. I just needed to be small, closed in.

“Okay.” He rubbed my back and took a step, keeping me close to his chest as we walked. “Come on.”

I hiccupped in an embarrassingly high-pitched tone. “Where’re we going?”

He looked down and smiled at me. “We’re going somewhere we can be alone—talk.”

And like that, in one sentence, David hit every chord I ever wanted to hear. My heart squeezed tighter, then twisted into a large, pulsing knot—a good knot.

As we hurried into the front parking lot, I glanced over my shoulder every few seconds—watching for teachers, while David stayed calm, walking with the grace of a king. We stopped by the passenger door of a shiny black car with a soft-top roof.

“No, I’m stealing it.” He jammed the key in the lock and twisted it, then laughed at me. “Yes, it’s my car, Ara.”

“Uh—” He looked at the car, then at me. “It’s a little old.”

“Kinda. It was my uncle’s.” He held the door open for me. “Hop in.”

As David shut the door, the exasperating heat closed me in right away, and the tan leather seat burned the backs of my thighs under my skirt. I lifted one leg, then the other, and wiped the sweat from under my knees, placing fabric between skin.

“You okay?” David asked, opening his door, releasing the tight pressure of exasperation for a moment.

I nodded, slinking down lower in my seat. “I’ve never ditched school before.”

“This isn’t ditching,” he said. “Your dad will understand.”

He smiled across at me and shook his head, reaching into his back pocket.

“Easing your conscience.” He pinned a number into his phone and pressed it to his ear, taking my hand. “Miss Apple?”

I heard her voice muffled on the other end.

“Yes, I have Ara Thompson with me; can you let her father know she’s fine, and I’m taking her for a walk to clear her head.”

I slowly inched up in the chair, inconspicuously wiping a few dots of moisture from my upper lip.

“Yes, I’ll bring her home later. Give him my number if he wishes to check on her. Okay. Bye.” He hung up the phone and dumped it in the centre console, then started the engine.

I sat back then and rubbed under my eyes where the tears had dried in the heat, making my skin stiff. Even my nose felt dry and swollen.

We sat at the exit sign for a second until the traffic passed, then David took off down the street, going slightly over the speed limit. “How long have you had your licence?”

“A while.” He looked at my forehead and frowned; I wiped the sweat away with the back of my hand. “Oh, sorry, Ara. I don’t really feel the heat as much as most people. Here.” He turned on the air-conditioner. The suffocation of the heat eased after the first blast of hot air passed and the chilly wind blew against my face. “Is that better?”

With my nose pressed to the vent, I nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”

“If you get hot or cold, Ara, you really need to tell me. It’s just not something I think about.”

“Why?” I sat back in my seat and angled the vent to blast along my hairline.

“I know. Sometimes I lose sleep over it.” He laughed.

“Mm, I don’t know how you live with yourself,” I joked.

“Takes practice.” And he meant that, I could tell. And I was sure it was aimed at me.

“Regret. It takes time to live with it.” He reached across and took my hand again. “You called your mom Vicki the other day.”

I felt numb then, not just from the crying but the stupidity. “Did I?”

“Yes. And if I am good at only one thing, Ara, it’s deduction; I think I’ve known for a while now that your mom died. I just don’t know why you pretend she hasn’t.”

I rolled my face slowly toward my chest. “Because I didn’t want people to ask how she died. Didn’t want them to feel sorry for me.”

“People only feel sorry for you when there’s good reason, Ara. Your mom’s gone. People just want to help.”

“I know.” But I didn’t want their help. Every ache was a step toward redemption.

I looked up at him quickly. “Did I say that out loud?”

“Uh—” He looked at the road again, his face grey. “Yes. Didn’t you mean to?”

I couldn’t believe my own carelessness. “No.”

“What did you mean by that—about redemption?”

“Just that…when you do something wrong, sometimes you can make up for it.”

I blinked a few times and the dried tears made my skin crack a little. “Suffering.”

The car slowed for a second, then, as David sat taller, his fingers tighter on the wheel, it went back up to speed.

I flipped the visor mirror down and gasped at the mess David had been looking at for the last five minutes. My life was over. I wiped the smudges of black mascara from under my eyes, using the remaining tears around my lashes to smooth it away without too much of a problem. But I couldn’t wipe away the blotchy patches of red under my skin and worse, my nose, whenever I cried, turned bright pink—forming a giant rouge smudge across my face. “I look like a clown,” my voice quivered.

“You look—” David turned my face with his fingertips, “—adorable.”

Right. Adorable. Was he serious? I folded my arms across my chest, looked out the window and focused on my breathing. The passing houses and tree-lined streets were all the same around here. Pretty, with that old-style, Halloween kind of feel. It felt like it should be autumn and everything sort of orange and brown, with the slight hint of cinnamon in the air. But the summer had this magic little place trapped in its grasp, making everything yellow and gold, and a little wilted.

The trees thickened as we turned onto a narrow road with dirt strips on both sides, and my squinting eyes relaxed as the sun’s glare disappeared over the canopy. “David, where’re we going?”